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Cinema is classically described as a visual medium. But turn off the audio as you watch a movie, and you will grasp the centrality of sound—speech, sound effects (all nonvocal noises), and music—to the telling of stories on film. It is the interaction of sound with image that gives films much of their depth and solidity, emotion and meaning. Yet sound tends to be unnoticed, "invisible," when it stays within the norms and conventions of Hollywood filmmaking. The paradox of film sound is that it takes great artifice to produce the sounds that apparently emanate from sources onscreen, seeming so natural that we take them for granted.

"Illusionism" describes the dominant aesthetic of mainstream film: technique is hidden, made invisible, so as to give the impression that we are looking into a real world and do not have to be conscious of camera operators, flubbed lines, editors—all the work that constitutes the production of this illusion. To be sure, sound is not the only arena of classical filmmaking technique that subordinates its presence so as not to distract us from immersion in the narrative. There is a vital difference between sound and image in regard to transparency, however, because filmgoers are more conscious as viewers than as listeners. Whereas we notice most everything in the frame, we rarely notice most sounds (in life or in film). As a result, film sounds can be manipulated to depart from realistic standards to a much greater extent than images.


Before anyone had made a single film, Thomas Edison (1847–1931) decreed in 1888 that the phonograph and the motion picture would come together. Early attempts, such as Cameraphone (c. 1908–1909) and Britain's Cinephone (c. 1910–1913), recorded voice in playback to the image. Edison's own Kinetophone in 1913 applied mechanical amplification to a recording horn to place it out of camera range. This enabled sound (recorded on a phonograph) and picture to be recorded at the same time, but sync was dependent upon the operator's ability to advance or retard the picture, and the sound was described as "screeching."

As phonograph-based systems came and went, the possibility that sound waves might be photographed alongside the images, always in "sync," gained strength in the laboratory. Sound would have to be converted to electricity and electricity converted to light, modulated as it struck the photosensitive emulsion. The prior discovery that the electrical resistance of selenium varied in proportion to light shone on it suggested that audio information on film could be recovered with a light beam and photoelectric cell. Eugène Lauste (1856–1935) in 1910 combined sound and picture on the same strip of film but lacked the resources to commercialize his inventions.

The person most responsible for sound-on-film was the independent inventor Theodore Case (1889–1944). Joined by Earl Sponable (1895–1977) in 1916, he worked with combinations of rare earths and inert gases to produce a glow tube called the Aeo Light. Light impulses were concentrated through a slit onto film and registered as lines of black or gray. Case's system was exploited by audio pioneer Lee de Forest under the name Phonofilm in 1923. Phonofilm shorts, produced mainly in 1923 and 1924, included big-name vaudeville acts and Max Fleischer's (1883–1972) musical cartoons. Phonofilm, which solved problems of sync and employed electronic amplification, seemed to have everything going for it. Against it were lack of interest from the industry, visual dullness, less than perfect reproduction, and de Forest's legal and financial difficulties.

Western Electric, a subsidiary of AT&T, acquired rights in 1912 to de Forest's "Audion," a three-element vacuum tube in which a smaller current regulated a larger current, the basis of electronic amplification. A vacuum tube of its own design went into the amplifiers that made possible coast-to-coast telephone transmission in 1915. As part of a general expansion of non-telephone uses of audio in 1916, Western Electric began work on a condenser microphone with a vacuum tube preamplifier, a crucial advance in sound collection, then limited to acoustic horns or the carbon button telephone mouthpiece. In 1919 a project was initiated for a new type of phonograph turntable and tone arm with implications for sound pictures. The disc had to have a playing time equal to the then-standard 1,000-foot film reel. Silent film nominally operated at sixteen frames per second, but cameras were hand cranked at rates up to twenty-one frames per second and were sped up in projection. Western Electric used tachometers to determine that the average actual projection speed was ninety feet per minute, or twenty-four frames per second. A 1,000-foot reel lasted eleven minutes. A sixteen-inch disc, rotating at 33 1/3 rpm, matched it. Sync was perfected in test films made during 1923. A sound film was produced in 1924. The multiple defects of previous systems demonstrated that in order to solve any of the problems, it was necessary to solve all of them. As the largest corporation in the world, AT&T had there sources to develop a complete package: condenser microphone; microphone mixer; disc recorder; amplifiers for recording and playback; turntable synchronized to the projector by reliable electronic and mechanical connections; and a horn-type speaker.

Western Electric offered its sound-on-disc system to an indifferent film industry. Warner Bros., then a second-tier company that looked to expand, needed a competitive edge. One way to gain bookings would be to provide small-city theaters with the kind of symphonic score available at deluxe movie palaces, where the feature was preceded by songs, organ solos, even ballet. If Warner's could provide these "canned," it might even gain access to the theaters of its competitors, who were burdened by the overhead of live performance. Agreement was reached in June 1925 to develop what Warner's named Vitaphone. Its intent was not to produce talking features. What it had in mind was best exemplified by the Vitaphone premiere program of 6 August 1926. A spoken introduction by movie "czar" Will H. Hays was followed by an overture and six shorts, three with Metropolitan Opera stars. The feature picture, Don Juan (1926), was accompanied by a recorded score punctuated by rudimentary sound effects.

Case and Sponable severed ties with de Forest and made improvements intended to render Phonofilm obsolete. The sound attachment, formerly above the projector, was moved below with sound pickup twenty frames ahead of the corresponding picture, the subsequent worldwide standard. Fox Film, another second-tier company that looked to move into the top rank, formed the Fox-Case Corporation in July 1926. Western Electric's "sound speed" of ninety feet per minute was adopted for its first commercial entertainment short, starring singer Raquel Meller (1888–1962) and produced in November 1926. Public showings of Movietone, as the Fox-Case system came to be called, began in 1927.

Western Electric offered Warner Bros. the choice between sound-on-disc and a developmental sound-on-film system that the former rated as comparable (but which Case judged inferior to Movietone). The appeal of sound-on-disc was familiar technology. The discs were pressed by Victor, the leading record label. Movietone required precise exposure, processing, and printing. Vitaphone's turntable ran at constant speed while the Case reproducer had "wow" and "flutter." Sound-on-film had better frequency response but also more noise due to grain in the emulsion. Records could arrive at the theater cracked or broken, they wore out after twenty playings, and the operator might put on the wrong disc. If the film broke, damaged frames had to be replaced by black leader to restore sync. Sound-on-film was easily spliced, but words were lost and a jump in the image was followed by a delayed thump from the track. Western Electric manufactured equipment for both systems and all its sound-on-film installations could also play disc.

Throughout 1927, audiences were exposed to musical and comedy shorts and symphonic scores for the occasional feature. In May they were thrilled by the sound of the engine of the Spirit of St. Louis as Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974) took off for Paris, then by the voice of Lindbergh himself upon his return, a foretaste of the regular issuance of Movietone newsreels beginning in October. Then came The Jazz Singer on 6 October 1927 at Warner's Theatre in New York. It was not the first sound film. It was not even Al Jolson's first appearance for Vitaphone; he uttered his newly prophetic catch phrase, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!" in the 1926 short, A Plantation Act. But it was the first feature with synchronized song and speech. For most of its eighty-eight minutes, it was a silent film with a "canned" orchestral score formed of the usual classical excerpts. In the role of a Jew torn between show business and the religious vocation of his father, a famous cantor, Jolson delivered dynamic performances of five popular songs in four sequences that totaled about thirteen minutes and, by contrast, "Kol Nidre," a prayer. The greatest impact came as Jolson, after singing a "straight" version of "Blue Skies" to his mother, engaged in partly scripted, partly improvised patter, followed by a "jazzy" version. A single word—"stop"—uttered by the actor who played his father marked the first time speech affected a film's story line.

Singin' in the Rain (1952) portrays the coming of sound with the force of cliché. The head of Monumental Pictures, fresh from The Jazz Singer, strides onto a set, halts production, and announces to the bewildered cast and crew that the company will henceforth make only talking pictures. In reality, Paramount head Adolph Zukor (1873–1976) predicted that it would take five years for sound to prove itself. The major companies adopted a public stance of "wait-and-see" and a private one of resistance. The "Big Five," dominated by Paramount and Loew's/MGM, had agreed to hold off until they could unite on one system. Vitaphone, an early contender, faded when Western Electric announced an improved light valve. Whereas Movietone used variable light through a fixed slit, the light valve used constant light through a variable slit, formed by vibrating wire "strings." Both produced a "variable density" track. The other candidate, RCA's Photophone, used a rotating mirror to modulate the light beam. This produced a sawtooth or "variable area" track, part of which was cut off on Western Electric equipment until they were made compatible.

Warners had no plans for another talking feature and kept to its original idea of short subjects and "canned" music even as attendance at The Jazz Singer swelled. In February 1928 Warners started work on a short that was allowed to grow into the first "all-talking" picture: Lights of New York, released in July. With The Jazz Singer held over for an unprecedented eighth or ninth week in cities around the nation in March 1928, the other companies settled on Western Electric's system. Loew's/MGM, Paramount, United Artists, and First National all signed on 15 May, followed by Universal and Columbia a month later. The disc system was already seen as awkward for production, though it survived as a release format for disc-only theaters into the 1930s. RCA had to go into the movie business itself as RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum)

Although it was claimed then that audiences preferred a good silent film to mediocre "talkers," Lights of New York (made for $23,000 and barely an hour long) took in $1 million. Jolson's second feature, The Singing Fool, released in September 1928, had more sound than his first (about 75 of 105 minutes), played in more theaters, and made more money: an amazing $5 million against The Jazz Singer's $2 million. These and other successes lifted Warner Bros. into first place in the industry.

For the moviegoer, change unfolded in stages. All but a few 1928 releases were still mute. In the second half of the year, many were "synchronized" with music tracks and sound effects. Sound sequences were added to some films already in production or even completed. The first half of 1929 was the heyday of the "part-talking" picture, with synchronous sound in perhaps 40 percent of the running time. Fox's decision to eliminate silent films seemed bold in March 1929. In May, Paramount's Zukor declared the silent film dead. By mid-1929, the "all-talking" picture had taken hold. Out of 582 films released in 1929, some 335 were "all-talking." About half of those were also released in silent versions.

Most countries had not yet made even one sound feature. Western Electric and RCA established themselves in Britain at the outset. They were met in Europe by Tobis-Klangfilm, a combine that, like RCA/RKO, was set up to produce films and supply equipment. Tobis held patents issued from 1919 to 1923 on the German Tri-Ergon sound-on-film system for which prior invention was claimed. An agreement of June 1930 smoothed the way for US films in Europe but squabbles over patents and royalties went on for years.


Early sound film production encountered many challenges. Camera noise required each camera and operator to be placed in a soundproof booth or "sweat box." The dependence of sound-on-disc upon a level surface, temperature control, and a dust-free environment for the wax record gave sound-on-film an edge. Fox took Movietone outdoors for its first all-talking picture, In Old Arizona (1928). In 1930 the camera booth gave way to the "blimp," a wooden enclosure for the camera body, or to the "barney," a padded quilt. In 1928 microphones were concealed on the set in lamps, vases, flowerpots, candlestick telephones, or overhead light fixtures, another cause of camera stasis. But by 1929 microphones were suspended from booms, sometimes hitting actors in the head. Omni-directional microphones had to be kept close to the actors in order not to pick up unwanted sounds. Directors asked for microphones that could be aimed at the person actually speaking. Bidirectional microphones, and some that claimed to be unidirectional, appeared in the 1930s, with true unidirectional microphones offered in 1941.

When critics complain about the lack of camera mobility in early sound films, they are not talking just about literal movement (most shots in silent films were made from a tripod) but about the lost facility with which the scenes had been structured through camera angles with time compressed or expanded by editing. Sound pulled movies away from cinematic time and toward real time. Most scenes were shot with multiple cameras and a single audio recording. Warner's On Trial (1928) was derided for the long shot of the courtroom.

It was possible to edit sound-on-disc by means of interlocked turntables that could be cued to specific grooves, but that process was meant to assemble several scenes onto one disc, not shots within scenes. Sound-on-film had an obvious advantage in that it could be spliced. By 1932 most scenes were made with a single camera. The "master scene" would be filmed all the way through as in a play. The close-ups, reactions, and over-the-shoulder shots would then be filmed separately and miked accordingly. All studios (including Warner, which dropped sound-on-disc in March 1930) recorded a separate strip of film in a "sound camera." To cut sound apart from the picture, yet in sync with it, Moviola added a sound reader to its editing consoles in 1928. In the 1930s they could run two and three sound tracks.

"Rerecording," the combination of production and post-synchronized sound, steadily improved. King Kong (1933), with complex sound effects and speech at the same time, and a score that "catches" individual lines of dialogue, would have been impossible even eighteen months earlier. Rerecording put an end to the production of "foreign" versions as the dialogue could be dubbed with sound effects and music retained.

In 1947 a new recording medium became available: sprocketed film coated with magnetic iron oxide. It was estimated that by 1951, 75 percent of recording, editing, and mixing in Hollywood was done on magnetic track. Lightweight recorders such as the Nagra that used 1/4-inch magnetic tape with a "sync pulse" from the camera appeared in the 1950s and gained wide use in the 1960s. On the postproduction side, the early dubbing machinery used the old film transports retrofitted with magnetic heads. Because a gap or click could be heard where the recording stopped and resumed, films were still mixed the old way, that is, in 1,000-foot reels. A mistake lost all the work to that point. Advances in electronics in about 1969 enabled "backup," or "rock 'n' roll," where the new recording could be superimposed on the end of the old.

The wide-screen upheaval of the 1950s brought magnetic stereo into theaters. Cinema-Scope offered left, center, and right channels behind the screen and a "surround" channel in the auditorium from four stripes of magnetic oxide on the 35mm print. Todd-AO's six-track 70mm format (five speakers behind the screen plus surround) set the standard for deluxe presentations. In 1976, noise reduction technology made it possible to derive four-channel stereo from a pair of mono-compatible optical tracks, popularly known as "Dolby." The 1990s saw three types of digital sound: Dolby Digital and SDDS on the film itself and the disc-based DTS system.


Sound's constructed nature and the wide variety of relationships it can have to the image give sound great expressive potential—even within an illusionistic aesthetic. Characteristics of film sound that allow it to be manipulated include selectivity, nonspecificity, and ambiguity.

  • Selectivity. We expect images to behave realistically; even if the characters are space aliens, we expect them to follow the laws of physics. However, in order for us not to notice sound, it has to be used in ways that are quite unrealistic. In the real world we are assaulted by sounds from all around us, but the brain tends to filter out those that are unimportant to us at a given moment. The microphone is not as selective; the filmmakers have to eliminate that cacophony for us. By convention, the film soundtrack is constructed so as not to draw attention to itself unless it is part of the plot. Thus, if a character looks directly at a ticking clock, we may hear the ticking. But a few seconds after the character looks away, the ticking will be gradually dropped out. Another convention of sound editing is that the dialogue is emphasized over the other sound tracks (that is, the effects and the music). Dialogue is usually kept intelligible even in situations where we would normally strain to hear someone speaking. In a party scene, the lead couple may be introduced via a long shot amidst crowd and hubbub, but once the camera moves in closer, the sounds of the other participants will normally be minimized or cut out altogether. What we hear mimics the psychological attention of the couple rather than the physical reality of the scene.
  • Nonspecificity. Yet another difference between image and sound is that noises, like music, can be abstract, or at least nonspecific; we can usually recognize an image, but we cannot always tell what is causing a given sound. Thus, crackling cellophane can be used to simulate either fire or rain. In the 1990s it became common to add animal roars beneath the sounds of inanimate objects such as trucks, fires, or haunted houses to make them feel more ominous. The audience, unaware of the unrealistic sounds, nevertheless feels threatened as if by a living beast.

b. Paris, France, 11 November 1898, d. 15 March 1981

René Clair epitomized the ambiguous relationship many filmmakers had with sound in the transition-to-sound period between 1928 and 1933. Whereas others like Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Vigo, and Rouben Mamoulian pushed the boundaries of the new technology, experimenting in a variety of styles, Clair initially stood among those who believed that sound would constrain the possibilities of film as a visual medium. He was hesitant to embrace sound because it increased production costs and because the industrialized cinematic practices that it introduced would jeopardize directorial control. In addition, he feared that making the camera subservient to the recording equipment would sacrifice the cinematic primacy of the image. For Clair, sound had to complement the image, not regulate it.

Clair's first sound film, Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930), features music as a characterization and atmospheric device, minimal use of dialogue, and an almost complete absence of natural sounds. Interested in the nonsynchronous relationship between sound and image, Clair avoids using sound to express information already given by the image. As an alternative, he explored their disjunction for comedic purposes. In the film's climatic fight scene, when a streetlight is broken and the screen goes dark, Clair does not resort to the musical score. Instead, he uses vocal and bodily sounds as a way to express the eruption of physical violence into the story. In À Nous la liberté (Freedom for Us, 1931) Clair, while still experimenting with asynchronous sound and image, employed the musical score to mark the narrative incursion of fantasy into the story and as an ironic commentary on the action.

His first English-language film, The Ghost Goes West (1935), marks a significant shift in Clair's approach to film sound. Writing the screenplay with American playwright Robert E. Sherwood, he became fully aware of the cinematic possibilities of speech. In fact, the film is closer to American dialogue-based humor than any of his previous endeavors. I Married a Witch (1942) fully immersed Clair in the screwball comedy genre, leaving behind the visually poetic style of his French period.

Clair returned to France in 1945 to make his most significant work, Les Belles de Nuit (Beauties of the Night, 1952), a return to his previous sound-image experiments. The film's protagonist, Claude, can only distinguish between dream and reality by trying to make a noise. The conspicuously noiseless worlds of his dreams metaphorically point to the inexhaustible possibilities of film as a visual medium that sound technology had partially restricted.


Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930), À Nous la liberté (Freedom for Us, 1931), The Ghost Goes West (1935), Les Belles de Nuit (Beauties of the Night, 1952)


Clair, René. Cinema Yesterday and Today. Edited by R. C. Dale. New York: Dover, 1972. Translation by Stanley Applebaum of Le Cinéma d'hier, cinéma d'aujourd'hui (1970).

Dale, R. C. The Films of René Clair. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1986.

Gorbman, Claudia. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

McGerr, Celia. René Clair. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Vicente Rodriguez-Ortega

  • Ambiguity. Lack of specificity can mean that a sound can suggest more than one interpretation at once; it can be deliberately ambiguous. In Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), a clicking sound in a park at night can be interpreted as a snapped twig, a clicked camera shutter, or a gun being cocked. Each possibility suggests a different reality and interpretation. In this case, we are meant to notice the sound, but its multiplicity of interpretations extends the film's metaphysical theme about the unknowability of reality. The opening of Apocalypse Now (1979) brilliantly exploits the similarity of sounds by shifting subtly between ceiling fan and helicopter "whups" and traffic noises and bird calls to indicate that while the protagonist is cooped up in a Saigon hotel, his mind is still in the jungle.

Like music, sound effects (and to a lesser extent, dialogue) speak to the emotions. Take the "simple" sound of footsteps as a character is seen walking onscreen. Choices in reverberation, pacing, timbre, volume, and mixing (of sounds with each other) may not only determine our sense of the physical contours of the space in which the character is walking, but suggest any number of feelings—loneliness, authority, joy, paranoia—in combination with the images. These choices—rarely noticed by the audience—are characteristics mainly imparted to the sounds not during production, but once the shooting stops.

Separation defines sound practices in many senses. For one thing, sound and image are recorded onto separate mediums. For another, the personnel involved in different units may never meet. The production mixer (set recordist) rarely interacts with the editing (postproduction) staff. And on a major production, dialogue, sound effects, and music are handled by discrete departments, which may remain independent of one another.

Normally, little sound other than dialogue is captured during filming. Yet even here, microphone type and placement can affect the tonal quality of a voice. Production dialogue is best taken with a microphone suspended on a boom above the actors just outside of the camera's frame line. This placement preserves the integrity of the original performance and maintains aural perspective in rough correspondence to the camera angle. When booms are not feasible, the actors can be fitted with radio mikes, small lavalieres connected to radio frequency transmitters concealed in clothing. These microphones sacrifice perspective and vocal quality for invisibility. Locations are scouted for visual impact; unless production assistants can reroute traffic and shut down air-conditioning systems, the audio environment may prove unconquerable. Under budget and schedule pressures, audio aesthetics are often sacrificed and some production sound is kept only as a "guide track" on the assumption that it can be "fixed in the mix."

Production mixers normally ask that all action cease for a few moments on each location so that they may record ambient sound or room tone, the continuous background sound (such as water lapping) in that space. Editors will later have to reinsert ambience under dialogue and effects created during postproduction for continuity with production sound. The sound crew may also take some "wild" sound (such as foghorns), not synchronized to any shot, for possible use as authentic sound effects.

Sound recording mediums have evolved rapidly in the digital age. Analog recording on 1/4-inch tape was supplanted in part by digital audiotape (DAT), which in turn was replaced by sound recorders with removable hard discs that can be directly transferred into computer work stations for editing. Methods of maintaining and establishing sync (precisely matching sound and image) have also evolved. To enable the editor to match voice and lip movement, the take was traditionally "slated" (numbered on a small blackboard held in front of the camera) and announced vocally by an assistant director, who then struck the hinged clapper stick for a sync point. Although slating is still done, now a time code is used to sync camera and recorder electronically.

Actors and directors almost always prefer to record dialogue directly on the set. During production the dialogue is synced up overnight with the image so that the filmmakers can select the best takes by evaluating vocal performance as well as visual variations. Later, specialized dialogue editors will make minute adjustments to salvage as much of the dialogue as possible. They eliminate extraneous noises and may combine parts of words from different takes or even scenes to replace a single flawed word.

Although intelligibility is the usual priority for dialogue, it can be manipulated, perhaps by increasing reverberation or volume, to characterize someone as menacing. But the main choices involve how dialogue is edited in relation to picture. To show "talking heads" can be redundant and boring. The picture editor's choice of when to shift between speaker and listener not only alters emotional identification but allows us to learn information simultaneously from one character's facial expression and the other's vocal inflection.

Any dialogue that cannot be polished or could not be captured at all during production is recorded during postproduction in a process called looping, or ADR (automated dialogue replacement). The actor repeatedly watches the scene that needs dialogue, while listening to a guide track on headphones, and then reperforms each line to match the wording and lip movements. Computers can imperceptibly stretch or shorten words to adjust a phrase that is not quite in sync.

While some sound effects are recorded during production, most are added or created later. "Spotting" sessions are held to determine what kinds of sounds are needed and where scoring will be heard. Some sounds that must be in sync are performed by a foley artist. Foleying is the looping of sound effects in a specialized studio outfitted with various walking surfaces and props. Sometimes called foley walkers because so much of their work consists of adding footsteps, foley artists create sounds by moving their bodies or props as they watch the image. Often their props do not match the original objects. A feather duster may simulate not only a flock of birds, but also leaves blowing along the street. A kiss is still just a kiss in filmmaking, but its sound may be recorded by a foley artist making dispassionate love to his or her own wrist. Because sounds like clothing rustle and footsteps are rarely noticed by the audience, they can later be subtly adjusted to help characterize the people who appear to make them. The villain's sword can be given a more ominous swishing sound than the hero's.

Sound effects that need not be recorded in sync can come from CD libraries or be freshly generated. Often recording the original source is not as convincing as inventing one. The editors of Ben-Hur (1959) found that recording real whips for the chariot race sounded less realistic than steaks slapped on a thigh. There is particular freedom to create sound effects when there is no authentic source for the image, as in monster and science fiction films. Creators of sounds often start by recording something real and then processing (altering) it. Two simple processing tricks that date from the earliest days of sound effects are reversing the original sound or changing its pitch. It is also common practice to create one new sound by "stacking" effects—layering several sources and processing them together. For instance, the voice of the Star Wars (1977) droid, R2-D2, is a combination of electronically generated sound plus water pipes, whistles, and human vocalizations. With digital technologies, a sound editor can feed into a computer a brief sample of a sound, which can then be expanded and radically modified.

Music is not usually written until postproduction. The director, composer, and music editor have had a spotting session, running through the rough cut of the film and agreeing on where, and what kind of, music is needed. Then, the music editor prepares a detailed list of "cues" that are timed to the split second, sets up the recording session if there is an orchestra, and makes any needed adjustments when the score is mixed with other tracks.

The final combining of tracks is called "rerecording" on screen credits, but "the mix" or "the dub" by practitioners. (Many sound terms are regional. Practices also vary by region or project: from one to three rerecording mixers may preside at the console.) Basically, the mix combines the dialogue (and narration if there is any), the effects, and the music. A final mix may combine hundreds of separate tracks. For manageability, groups of tracks are "'premixed" so that like sounds have been grouped and adjusted in preliminary relation to each other. Since dialogue takes precedence, it is mixed first. Music and effects, when added, must compete with neither each other nor the dialogue. Sounds from disparate sources must be adjusted with tools like equalizers and filters (which manipulate specific frequencies) to match and flow seamlessly. Since the ratio of direct to reflected sound indicates along with volume how far we are from a sound's source, reverberation is an essential tool for placing a sound in a space. The rerecording mixer will also distribute sounds to specific outputs, deciding, for instance, which sounds go to the surround sound speakers and which shift from one speaker to another. The rerecording mixer is both a master technician who fine-tunes the adjustments to volume, duration, and tone quality begun in the premix and an artist who makes thousands of aesthetic choices as well. The best rerecording mixers must not only balance the various tracks but also subtly layer and orchestrate them, choosing which sounds to emphasize at a given time to create a texture and pacing that have an emotional effect on the audience and support the narrative.

Most likely the work of various sound departments has been overseen by a supervising sound editor. Optimally (though rarely) sound is conceived—like production design—during preproduction, so the film's sound is not an afterthought but an organic, integral part of the film's conception. Films that exploit the fullest expressive potential of sound may have been planned with a sound designer, a credit originated to suggest the conceptual importance of Walter Murch's contribution to Apocalpyse Now. The term is now used to designate either someone with an overview of the sound, whose job can overlap that of a supervising sound editor, or someone who designs a specific type of sound, such as dinosaur steps.


It was by no means a foregone conclusion that sound would be used unobtrusively. When it became obvious that talkies were the sound wave of the future, filmmakers and theorists alike worried that their art form would lose its expressive potential. They worried films would become "canned theater," in the words of the French director René Clair (1898–1981), that the camera's enslavement to the microphone would necessarily stifle the eloquent camera movement, lighting, and montage that many considered the unique language of "pure" cinema.

Dialogue came under the most direct attack. In Germany, Rudolf Arnheim (b. 1904), who valued film for those formal properties that differentiated the image from mere naturalistic reproduction, maintained that dialogue "paralyzed" visual action and reduced the gap between film and reality. The German theorist Siegfried Kracauer (1889–1966), whose contrasting aesthetic favored the "redemption of physical reality," suggested that dialogue could be used cinematically by deemphasizing its meaning and treating voices as pre-linguistic sound. The Hungarian theorist Bela Bálázs (1884–1949) lamented the way spoken language eliminated the universality of the silent screen. However, he suggested ways in which sounds could "educate our ear," for example, by providing the aural equivalents of photographed close-ups or by exploiting the dramatic value of silence, which can be "heard" only in the context of sound.

Much debate has focused on exploring ways in which sound might be associated with the image. One of the earliest formulations came from the Soviet filmmakers S. M. Eisenstein (1898–1948), V. I. Pudovkin (1893–1953), and G. V. Alexandrov (1903–1984), who issued a joint Statement on Sound in August 1928. Warning against the development of "talking films," which would lead to "highly cultured dramas" and "the 'illusion' of talking people, of audible objects," the statement called for a "contrapuntal" use of sound that treated it as an element of montage. Pudovkin later came out in favor of an approach to disparate sound and image that he labeled "asynchronism," a distinction that paralleled that between Eisenstein's "dialectical" and Pudovkin's "associational" approaches to silent montage.

Just as initial debate about the function of sound accompanied the coming of talkies, a second surge of theoretical writing accompanied the "second revolution of sound" in films of the 1970s and early 1980s, an extraordinarily creative period for sound in narrative films. It has been argued that the ideological implications of Hollywood practice extended also to the techniques of sound editing and mixing, which traditionally efface evidence of their construction. Psychoanalytic and feminist critiques have often focused on the gendered voice: the female voice is characterized either as the voice of the mother or as a means whereby a female character tries to express her subjectivity while patriarchal codes of the image and soundtrack try to "contain" it. Rick Altman in the United States and Michel Chion in France have done the most sustained and nuanced analyses of sound aesthetics, challenging long-held assumptions about the relations between image and sound. For instance, Chion's writings on "audio-vision" explore the ways that sound and image transform each other. And both writers have extensively investigated audience position with respect to sound, demonstrating, for example, that aural and visual point of view do not follow the same conventions. Other scholars, including Alan Williams, have focused on ways in which even direct recordings are not mere reproductions but representations mediated through choices such as microphone placement and recording equipment.


While the first few years of synchronized sound generated many painfully static films that were effectively filmed stage plays, the challenge and limitations of the new technology stimulated some directors to use sound in ways that remain benchmarks of creativity. In Great Britain, Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) experimented with varieties of subjective sound in Blackmail (1929), Murder! (1930), and Secret Agent (1936). In Germany, Fritz Lang (1890–1976) showed in M—Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M, 1931) how sound could be used as a leitmotif by associating the murderer with whistling. Many of the early sound filmmakers made a virtue of technical limitations by adopting an asynchronous approach. In their highly stylized earliest sound films, directors like Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947), René Clair, and Lang dared to accompany silently shot images with sounds other than dialogue. Thus, counter to the sync talkie craze (films proudly advertised as "100 percent talking!"), these films experimented with a variety of sound-image aesthetics. About half of King Vidor's Hallelujah (1929) was shot silent and on location, with its African American cast accompanied by spirituals or naturalistic sounds (such as bird screeches and labored breathing to evoke realism and menace during a chase through a swamp). Rouben Mamoulian (1897–1987), whom Hollywood brought from Broadway because he was supposed to be an expert in dialogue (like George Cukor [1899–1983], whose earliest title in Hollywood was "dialogue director"), was consistently innovative with sound. Mamoulian's Applause (1929) is a compendium of experiments that create the sense of a three-dimensional space, including the first use of two-channel recording by microphones set in separate locations, tracking shots with synchronized sound (created by wheeling the massive soundproof booths in which cameras were placed), and a densely layered sound track. If Mamoulian creates a spatial continuity in Applause, Russian director Dziga Vertov (1896–1954) does everything he can to break the pretence of real space in his documentary Entuziazm (Enthusiasm, 1930), which demonstrates a wide assortment of ways to associate sound and image that are anti-illusionistic.

It was nonfeature films that most creatively explored the potential of sound in its first decade. Animated shorts, not so bound to a realist aesthetic, gave rise to inspired meetings of sound and image. For instance, Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies find unlikely visual sources for familiar sounds, such as the skeleton played as a xylophone in the cartoon The Skeleton Dance (1929). In the 1930s, producer-director Alberto Calvacânti (1897–1982) shepherded into being a series of creative nonfiction films made by Great Britain's GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit. These experimental documentaries often make rhythmical use of sound, as in Night Mail (1936), a "film-poem" that edits images of a mail train to natural sounds, to the verse of W. H. Auden, and to the music of Benjamin Britten (1913–1976). Avant-garde films have always been a rich arena for experimentation with unconventional relations between sound and image. A notable example is the short film Unsere Afrikareise (Our Trip to Africa, 1966) by Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka (b. 1934).

One might think that narrative filmmakers would have used sound more adventurously once the full capability of sound editing was realized (about 1935). However, sound was for the most part used unimaginatively. Two glorious exceptions were Jean Renoir (1894–1979) and Orson Welles (1915–1985), two masters of sound as well as mise-en-scène. Renoir's films in the early 1930s include virtuosic uses of offscreen and naturalistic sound. The films he photographed in deep focus, such as La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939), create aural as well as visual depth. Citizen Kane (1941) extended Welles's experiments with sound in his earlier radio dramas, including echoes that complement the deep focus photography, rapid shifts in tonal quality, overlapping dialogue (which, as in other newspaper films, imparts a sense of simultaneous activity and quick pacing), and aural bridges that compress time and suggest causal connections by linking words or sounds over different years and locations, as well as a brilliant score by composer Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975). In later Welles films, such as Touch of Evil (1958), sound is often spatially mismatched with its apparent source, creating a sense of dislocation and disorientation that help define a nightmarish world.

b. Kansas City, Missouri, 20 February 1925

Robert Altman started as a writer and director for the Calvin Company, where he made over sixty short industrial films. His first feature, The Delinquents (1957), soon caught Alfred Hitchcock's attention and Altman went to direct several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He continued to work on TV throughout the 1960s, directing episodes of numerous series. Altman pushed the boundaries of film sound in the 1970s to create polyphonic narratives where cause-and-effect logic is often subordinated to spontaneity and improvisation.

In M*A*S*H (1970) the recurrent use of a diegetic loudspeaker along with the combination of radio microphones and live mixing of overlapping dialogues adds a realism to the film's satire. After failing to deploy multitrack technology in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Altman, in collaboration with sound designer Jim Webb and rerecording mixer Richard Portman, successfully utilized multitrack recording in California Split (1974) and Nashville (1975), accomplishing two major feats: complete freedom of the camera and the construction of complex soundscapes while recording them in real time. Ultimately, California Split was dubbed into three-track stereo but released in mono since most American movie theaters did not have the technology to reproduce it accurately. In Nashville he pushed the limits of multitrack recording by adding sixteen tracks for music recording in addition to the eight tracks devoted to dialogue. His 1978 effort, A Wedding, required an even larger setup: sixteen radio microphones, two eight tracks, and two entire sound crews.

If Nashville centers on the American popular music tradition, in The Long Goodbye (1973) Altman feeds off a wider range of music registers as a way to anchor his adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel within the 1970s sociocultural milieu. The eponymous theme song plays from a variety of diegetic sources and is performed in a range of genres, functioning as a primary characterization and atmospheric tool. In Kansas City (1996), the simple story line is a mere alibi for a series of jazz performances by contemporary musicians. Altman's Popeye (1980) stands as one of the few experiments with the short-lived "Parasound" system. Ultimately, Parasound was completely overshadowed by Dolby due to the former's lack of adaptability to existing 35mm projection equipment.

From the early 1980s into the twenty-first century, Altman has continued to use overlapping dialogue in films such as The Player (1992) and Gosford Park (2001), creating sound "symphonies" that challenge the spectator to remain active throughout the viewing process. Similar to deep focus photography, which frees the eye to scan a multilayered and multifocal frame, his soundscapes let the listener construct multiple narrative pathways through the material. In this respect, Altman's sound is polyphonic, realistic, and in stark opposition with the more conventional approach to the sound medium that matches every visual cue with a dubbed sound effect.


M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), Nashville (1975), A Wedding (1978), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), Kansas City (1996), Gosford Park (2001)


Brophy, Philip. 100 Modern Soundtracks. London: British Film Institute, 2004.

LoBrutto, Vincent. Sound-on-Film: Interviews with Creators of Film Sound. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994.

Self, Robert T. Robert Altman's Subliminal Reality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Press, 2002.

Sterritt, David, ed. Robert Altman: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Vicente Rodriguez-Ortega

For economic reasons, Italy's neorealists in the 1940s had no choice but to shoot silently and add sound later, a tradition that remains today except for some international productions. Usually, the result is thinner sound mixes and less adherence to the precise sync than Hollywood produces. Italian audiences have become acculturated to sparse sound tracks and speech that does not match lips. Moreover, minimalist approaches to sound, if

thought out, can be a virtue, as in the brilliantly stylized sound of Sergio Leone's C'era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), which has aural close-ups as striking as its extreme visual close-ups. The French director Jacques Tati (1909–1982), also using only post-synced sound, makes us hear afresh the sounds of the modern world. Playtime (1967), like Tati's other films, has almost no dialogue; instead it foregrounds sound effects, often focusing on synthetic materials like plastic, glass, and fake leather in a comedy about modern architecture and interior design.

At the other extreme from the dubbing tradition are those directors who prefer to use only production sound. Jean-Luc Godard's (b. 1930) early films, and those of Lars von Trier (b. 1956) and his Dogma 95 circle usually avoided postproduction refinement of the sound tracks. The Dogma 95 filmmakers required in their 1995 "Vow of Chastity" that "sound must never be produced apart from the image, or vice versa." Godard's films wage frontal attacks on the conventions of mainstream sound (and picture) editing, including the usual hierarchy of dialogue over effects or music. In a typical Godardian caféscene, pinball machines and traffic noise intermittently dominate conversation. Whereas Godard's Brechtian aesthetic is antiillusionistic, however, the Dogma filmmakers insisted that their approach was in the service of purity and realism.

In general, cinemas in non-English-speaking cultures are less concerned with transparency. Directors whose films consistently reveal the expressive potential of sound include Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998, Japan), Robert Bresson (1901–1999, France), Alain Resnais (b. 1922, France), Leonardo Favio (b. 1938, Argentina), and Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–1986, Russia).

Perhaps the most distinctive contemporary US sound stylist has been Robert Altman (b. 1938), who, with Richard Portman, developed a system to keep every actor's dialogue on a separate channel so that he could interweave and overlap simultaneous conversations among his large ensemble casts in films such as Nashville (1975). Like Altman's, Francis Ford Coppola's exceptional soundtracks cannot be separated from the work of a longtime collaborator, in his case Walter Murch (b. 1943), the doyen of film sound designers. The Godfather films, The Conversation (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979) are exemplars of organic sound design. Indeed, the most memorable soundtracks in the United States are often the product of collaborations between sound designers and directors who are open to sonic experimentation. Notable collaborators include Gary Rydstrom (b. 1959), who designed sound for Steven Spielberg's films Jurassic Park (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001); Ben Burtt (b. 1948) and George Lucas (the Star Wars series); Randy Thom and Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away [2000] and The Polar Express [2004]), Alan Splet (1939–1995) and (early) David Lynch; and on the East Coast, Skip Lievsay, who has worked frequently with the Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Jonathan Demme.

Films most likely to use sound creatively within the classical transparent mode are science fiction films or those with a major psychological component such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and surreal films, such as those of David Lynch, whose sound is consistently distinctive without being obtrusive. Lynch is fond of sound motifs such as the industrial noises (without any apparent source) that are heard at a very low level under the villain's scenes in Blue Velvet (1986). Subjective or dreamlike scenes are allowed great latitude within Hollywood practice because the distorted sound is attributed to a character's perception or a phantasmic environment.

Conventional US soundtracks are characterized by density. The growing sophistication of multitrack and digital techniques has had both a stimulating and a stifling effect; although sound departments of the last few decades have had access to ever more advanced technologies, this capability does not necessarily mean that the sound is used more wisely or creatively. Digital technologies, along with the audience's experiences with popular music, have tempted many recent filmmakers to overwhelm the audience with density, loudness, and wall-to-wall sound effects. In a sense, sound films in the last quarter century have come full circle from the early talking period. Rather than 100 percent talkies, some action films have effectively become 100 percent car crashes and fuel explosions, the embodiments of the "audible objects" predicted by Eisenstein and his colleagues. But even big action pictures such as the Matrix and Terminator series can have elegant and inventive tracks when their sound is judiciously created, selected, and modulated.

SEE ALSO Music;Production Process;RKO Radio Pictures;Silent Cinema;Technology;Warner Bros.


Alton, Stanley R. Audio in Media. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, 2001.

Altman, Rick. Silent Film Sound. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

——. Sound Theory/Sound Practice. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Arnheim, Rudolf. "A New Laocoön: Artistic Composites and the Talking Film." In Film As Art, 199-230. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Carlsson, Sven E., ed. (accessed 30 December 2005).

Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Edited and translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Crafton, Donald. The Talkies: American Cinema's Transition to Sound, 1926–1931. New York: Scribners, 1997.

Eisenstein, Sergei, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigori V. Alexandrov. "Statement on the Sound Film." In Film Form, by Sergei Eisenstein, edited and translated by Jay Leyda, 257–260. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949.

Fielding, Raymond, comp. A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television: An Anthology from the Pages of the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Fischer, Lucy. "Applause: The Visual and Acoustic Landscape." In Sound and the Cinema, edited by Evan William Cameron, 182–201. Pleasantville, NY: Redgrave, 1980.

Gomery, Douglas. "The Coming of the Talkies: Invention, Innovation, and Diffusion." In The American Film Industry: An Historical Anthology, edited by Tino Balio, 193–211. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

Lastra, James. Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

LoBrutto, Vincent. Sound-on-Film: Interviews with Creators of Film Sound. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994.

Weis, Elisabeth, and John Belton, eds. Film Sound: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Williams, Alan. "Is Sound Recording Like a Language?" Yale French Studies, no. 60 (1980): 51–66.

Stephen Handzo

Elisabeth Weis


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sound1 / sound/ • n. vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person's or animal's ear: light travels faster than sound. ∎  a group of vibrations of this kind; a thing that can be heard: she heard the sound of voices in the hall don't make a sound. ∎  the area or distance within which something can be heard: we were always within sound of the train whistles. ∎ short for speech sound. ∎  the ideas or impressions conveyed by words: you've had a hard day, by the sound of it. ∎  (also musical sound) sound produced by continuous and regular vibrations, as opposed to noise. ∎  music, speech, and sound effects when recorded, used to accompany a film or video production, or broadcast: [as adj.] a sound studio. ∎  broadcasting by radio as distinct from television. ∎  the distinctive quality of the music of a particular composer or performer or of the sound produced by a particular musical instrument: the sound of the Beatles. ∎  (sounds) inf. music, esp. popular music: sounds of the sixties.• v. [intr.] emit sound: a loud buzzer sounded. ∎  [tr.] cause (something) to emit sound: she sounded the horn. ∎  [tr.] give an audible signal to warn of or indicate (something): a different bell begins to sound midnight. ∎  [tr.] say (something); utter: he sounded a warning that a coup was imminent. ∎  convey a specified impression when heard: he sounded worried. ∎  (of something or someone that has been described to one) convey a specified impression: it sounds as though you really do believe that | the house sounds lovely. ∎  [tr.] test (the lungs or another body cavity) by noting the sound they produce: the doctor sounded her chest.PHRASAL VERBS: sound off express one's opinions in a loud or forceful manner.DERIVATIVES: sound·less adj.sound·less·ly adv.sound·less·ness n.sound2 • adj. 1. in good condition; not damaged, injured, or diseased: they returned safe and sound he was not of sound mind. ∎  based on reason, sense, or judgment: sound advice for healthy living the scientific content is sound. ∎  competent, reliable, or holding acceptable views: he's a bit stuffy, but he's very sound on his law. ∎  financially secure: she could get her business on a sound footing for the first time.2. (of sleep) deep and undisturbed. ∎  (of a person) tending to sleep deeply: I am a sound sleeper.3. severe: such people should be given a sound thrashing.• adv. soundly: he was sound asleep.PHRASES: (as) sound as a bell in perfect condition.DERIVATIVES: sound·ly adv.sound·ness n.sound3 • v. 1. [tr.] ascertain (the depth of water), typically by means of a line or pole or using sound echoes. ∎  Med. examine (a person's bladder or other internal cavity) with a long surgical probe.2. [tr.] question (someone), typically in a cautious or discreet way, as to their opinions or feelings on a subject: we'll sound out our representatives first. ∎  inquire into (someone's opinions of feelings) in this way: officials arrived to sound out public opinion at meetings in factories.3. [intr.] (esp. of a whale) dive down steeply to a great depth.• n. a long surgical probe, typically with a curved, blunt end.DERIVATIVES: sound·er n.sound4 • n. a narrow stretch of water forming an inlet or connecting two wider areas of water such as two seas or a sea and a lake.


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Sound is produced by the vibration of some sort of material. In a piano, a hammer strikes a steel string, causing the string to vibrate. A guitar string is plucked and vibrates. A violin string vibrates when it is bowed. In a saxophone, the reed vibrates. In an organ pipe, the column of air vibrates. When a person speaks or sings, two strips of muscular tissue in the throat vibrate. All of the vibrating objects produce sound waves.

Characteristics of Waves

All waves, including sound waves, share certain characteristics: they travel through material at a certain speed, they have frequency, and they have wavelength. The frequency of a wave is the number of waves that pass a point in one second. The wavelength of a wave is the distance between any two corresponding points on the wave. For all waves, there is a simple mathematical relationship between these three quantities called the wave equation. If the frequency is denoted by the symbol f, and the wavelength is denoted by the symbol λ, and the symbol v denotes the velocity, then the wave equation is v = fλ . In a given medium, a sound wave with a shorter wavelength will have a higher frequency.

Waves also have amplitude. Amplitude is the "height" of the wave, or how "big" the wave is. The amplitude of a sound wave determines how loud is the sound.

Longitudinal Waves. Sound waves are longitudinal waves. That means that the part of the medium vibrating moves back and forth instead of up and down or from side to side. Regions where the particles of the medium are pushed together are called compressions. Places where the particles are pulled apart are called rarefactions. A sound wave consists of a series of compressions and rarefactions moving through the medium.

As with all types of waves, the medium is left in the same place after the wave passes. A person listening to a radio across the room receives sound waves that are moving through the air, but the air is not moving across the room.

Speed of Sound Waves. Sound travels through solids, liquids, and gases at different speeds. The speed depends on the springiness of the medium. Steel, for example, is much springier than air, so sound travels through steel about fifteen times faster than it travels through air.

At 0° C, sound travels through dry air at about 331 meters per second. The speed of sound increases with temperature and humidity. The speed of sound in air is related to many important thermodynamic properties of air. Since the speed of sound in air measures how fast a wave of pressure will move through air, anything that depends on air pressure will be expected to behave differently near the speed of sound. This characteristic caused designers of high-speed aircraft many problems. Before the design problems were overcome, several test pilots lost their lives while trying to "break the sound barrier."

The speed of sound changes with temperature. The speed increases by0.6 meters per second (m/s) for each Celsius degree rise in temperature (T u). This information can be used to construct a formula for the speed (v ) of sound at any temperature:

v = (331 + 0.60T )m/s

At average room temperature of 20° C, the speed of sound is close to 343 meters per second.

Frequency and Pitch. Sounds can have different frequencies. The frequency of the sound is the number of times the object vibrates per second. Frequency is measured in vibrations per second, or hertz (Hz). One Hz is one vibration per second. We perceive different frequencies of sound as different pitches; as a consequence, the higher the frequency, the higher the pitch. The normal human ear can detect sounds with frequencies between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz. As humans age, the upper limit usually drops. Dogs can hear much higher frequencies, up to 50,000 Hz. Bats can detect frequencies up to 100,000 Hz.

Intensity and Perception of Sound

Sound waves, like all waves, transport energy from one place to another. The rate at which energy is delivered is called power and is measured in watts. Sound intensity is measured in watts per square meter (W/m2).

The human ear can detect sound intensity levels as low as 10-12 W/m2and as high as 1.0 W/m2. This is an incredible range. Because of the wide range of sound intensity that humans can hear, humans perceive loudness instead of intensity. A sound with ten times the intensity in watts per square meter is perceived as only about twice as loud.

Since humans do not directly perceive sound intensity, a logarithmic scale for loudness was developed. The unit of loudness is the decibel, named after Alexander Graham Bell. The threshold of hearing0 dBrepresents a sound intensity of 10-12 W/m2. Each tenfold increase in intensity corresponds to 10 dB on the loudness scale. Thus 10 dB is ten times the sound intensity of 0 dB. A sound of 20 dB is ten times the intensity of a 10 dB sound and one hundred times the intensity of a 0 dB sound. The list below shows the loudness of some common sounds.

Source Loudness (dB)
Jet engine140
Threshold of pain120
Rock concert115
Source Loudness (dB)
Subway train100
Busy street70
Normal speech60
Quiet breathing10
Threshold of hearing0

Even short exposure to sounds above 120 dB will cause permanent damage to hearing. Longer exposure to sounds just below 120 dB will also cause permanent damage.

see also Logarithms; Powers and Exponents.

Elliot Richmond


Epstein, Lewis Carroll. Thinking Physics. San Francisco: Insight Press, 1990.

Giancoli, Douglas C. Physics, 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Haber-Schaim, Uri, John A. Dodge, and James A. Walter. PSSC Physics, 7th ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1990.

Hewitt, Paul G. Conceptual Physics. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1992.


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"Sound" according to Aristotle's De Anima (418a12) and George Berkeley's First Dialogue, is the special, or proper, object of hearing. G. J. Warnock, in his Berkeley, interprets this as meaning that sound is the "tautological accusative" of hearing: Sounds can only be heard and must be heard if anything is heard.

Hearing receives attention in philosophy mainly for its differences from seeing. Two respects in which listening and hearing differ from looking and seeing are (1) that there is nothing analogous, in seeing, to hearing the sound of something, and (2) that, in telling where something is, there is nothing analogous, in listening, to our having to look in the right direction.

Warnock's explanation of the first of these differences is that we establish the presence and existence of an object by sight and touch, and then proceed to distinguish the object thus established from its smell and taste and the noises it makes. He mentions, as reasons for not ascribing such primacy to hearing, that inanimate objects often do not make any noises, that animate ones make them only intermittently, and that it is often difficult to tell where a sound is coming from. There would be a further reason if, as P. F. Strawson maintains (in Individuals, p. 65), a universe in which experience was exclusively auditory would have no place at all for spatial concepts. This reason would be decisive if in a nonspatial world there could be no concept of an object (Individuals, Ch. 2). Strawson asserts that we can discover some spatial features of things by listening (for instance, sounds seem to come from the left or right), but denies that such expressions as "to the left of" have any intrinsically auditory significance. In accordance with this, G. N. A. Vesey labels knowing where a sound comes from by listening "borrowed-meaning" knowledge. Berkeley makes use of the fact that we talk of hearing sounds caused by things, together with the principle that "the senses perceive nothing which they do not perceive immediately: for they make no inferences," to gain acceptance of the view that we cannot properly be said to hear the causes of sounds.

We can see directly (otherwise than by reflection) only what is on the same side of our heads as our eyes. Knowing in what position we have had to put our headsin what direction we have had to lookto see an object, we know in what direction the object is. Hearing is not limited in this fashion, and so we identify the position of a merely seen object and a merely heard object very differently. Furthermore, if Strawson and Vesey are right about spatial expressions not having an intrinsically auditory significance, we cannot hear that one object is to the left of another as we can see that one object is to the left of another. It might be concluded that knowledge that the source of a sound is to one's left, gained by listening, must be mediated knowledgethat is, must have involved the making of an inference. To be valid, this conclusion would require the further premise that acquiring a perceptual capacity is invariably a matter of learning to interpret one thing as a sign of another. An alternative hypothesis would be that the only interpretation involved is at the physiological level; that is, that differences in the stimuli to the two ears which, in a person whose experience was exclusively auditory, would have no counterpart in experience, would, in a person who knew what it was to see and feel things as being on his left or right, subserve his hearing things as being on his left or right.

B. O'Shaughnessy ("The Location of Sound") asserts that hearing where a sound comes from is noninferential and immediate. He contends that the seeming mysteriousness of the fact that listening can tell us where a sound is coming from is the result of our thinking of what is heard as a complex of two elements, "the sound itself" and "its coming from the left" (defining "the sound itself" as what is auditoryevidence of a "metaphysical theory of the sensory substratum"), and then having to think of its coming from the left either as "part and parcel of the sound" or as something we experience "other than and additional to the sound itself" but somehow related to it. That the sound is coming from the left, O'Shaughnessy holds, is neither part of the sound, nor something else we experience; nor is it something "we simply know." The mistake lies in our thinking of what is heard as a complex, and O'Shaughnessy sees this as a result of our having "the idea that a thought or meaning is a complexity."

Sound is a Lockean secondary quality. Hylas, in Berkeley's First Dialogue, accordingly distinguishes between sound as it is perceived by us ("a particular kind of sensation") and sound as it is in itself ("merely a vibrative or undulatory motion in the air"). Consideration of this philosophical position would not seem to raise issues peculiar to sound.


Grice, H. P. "Some Remarks about the Senses." In Analytic Philosophy. 1st series. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962.

Jonas, Hans. "The Nobility of Sight: A Study in the Phenomenology of the Senses." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 14 (4) (June 1954): 507519.

Malpas, R. M. P. "The Location of Sound." In Analytic Philosophy, edited by R. J. Butler, 131144, 2nd series. Oxford, 1965.

O'Shaughnessy, B. "An Impossible Auditory Experience." PAS 57 (19561957): 5382.

O'Shaughnessy, B. "The Location of Sound." Mind 66 (264) (October 1957): 471490.

Pasnau, Robert. "What Is Sound?" Philosophical Quarterly 49 (1999): 309324.

Strawson, P. F. Individuals. London: Methuen, 1959. Ch. 2.

Swartz, R., ed. Perceiving, Sensing, and Knowing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

Urmson, J. O. "The Objects of the Five Senses." Proceedings of the British Academy 54 (1968): 117131.

Vesey, G. N. A. "Knowledge without Observation." Philosophical Review 72 (2) (April 1963): 198212.

Warnock, G. J. Berkeley, 3336. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1953.

G. N. A. Vesey (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)


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380. Sound

See also 198. HEARING ; 236. LANGUAGE ; 284. MUSIC ; 330. PRONUNCIATION ; 378. SONGS and SINGING ; 382. SPEECH ; 394. THUNDER .

1. Physics. the study of sound and sound waves.
2. the qualities or characteristics of a space, as an auditorium, that deter-mine the audibility and fidelity of sounds in it. acoustician, n. acoustic, adj.
Obsolete, the study of the reflection of sounds. anacamptic, adj.
likeness or approximate similarity in sound.
Rare. a rumbling sound.
Rare. a buzzing or humming sound.
1. a harshness of sound.
2. discordant noise. cacophonic, cacophonous, adj.
a crackling sound.
Rare. the science of sounds refracted through various media.
the fixing of the position of an object by transmitting a signal and measuring the time required for it to bounce back, typically done by radar or sonar and by bats.
the measurement of the duration of and intervals between sounds. echometer, n.
1. an agreeableness in sounds; a pleasantness to the ear; harmoniousness.
2. Phonetics. a harmoniousness in speech sounds, especially in word choices emphasizing various patterns of consonants or vowels. euphonic, euphonical, euphonious, adj.
an instrument for measuring the relationships between sounds.
the state or quality of sounding identical, whether spelled identically or not, as bear and bare.
the state or condition of a letter, word, or symbol having the same sound as another but a different meaning, regardless of sameness or difference in spelling, as choirlquire. homophonic, homophonous, adj.
kaleidophon, kaleidophone
an instrument for the visual representation of sound waves.
dullness or uniformity, similar to that experienced from a repeated sound. monotonous, adj.
the state or condition of a word formed to imitate the sound of its intended meaning, as rustle. onomatopoeic, onomatopoetic, onoma-topoietic, onomatopoeial, adj.
oxyphonia, oxyphony
an unusually sharp quality or pitch of sound or voice.
1. the study of speech sounds, from either or both the phonetic and phonemic viewpoints.
2. the phonetic and phonemic systems of a language. See also 247. LINGUISTICS . phonologist, n. phonological, adj.
an abnormal love of noise.
an abnormal f ear of noise.
the condition or quality of producing a deep or loud sound. plangent, adj.
the study of the relationship between sounds and their perception by the listener, especially with regard to how the perception depends on the physical characteristics of the sound rather than on the mind of the listener. psychoacoustician, n. psychoacoustic, adj.
the state or quality of sounding hoarse or harsh. raucous, adj.
sibilancy, sibilance
the state or quality of a hissing sound. sibilant, adj.
1. the producing of a shrill, grating noise by chafing a serrated part of the body against a hard part.
2. the noise so produced. stridulator, n. stridulant, stridulatory, adj.
1. the act or process of whispering.
2. a whispering sound or soft rustling. Also susurrus. susurrant, susurrous, adj.
repetition of the same sound. tautophonic, tautophonical, adj.
the science or study of ultrasonic vibrations, those belonging to a frequency above the audio range. ultrasonic, adj.
1. the act of wailing or hooting.
2. the sound thus produced. ululant, adj.


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sound Physiological sensation perceived by the brain via the ear, caused by an oscillating source, and transmitted through a material medium as a sound wave. The velocity at which a sound wave travels through a medium depends on the elasticity of the medium and its density. If the medium is a gas, the sound wave is longitudinal and its velocity depends on the gas temperature. The speed of sound in dry air at standard temperature and pressure (STP) is 331mps (750mph) and depends on the height above sea level. Pure sounds are characterized by pitch (highness or lowness), timbre (additional notes with frequencies like the basic note), and intensity (the rate of flow of sound energy).


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1. In technical terms, vibrations that travel through the air at some 1,087 feet (331 metres) per second at sea level and are heard through their stimulation of organs in the ear.

2. A particular effect of such vibrations; the sound of bells; a speech sound.

3. In PHONETICS, the audible result of an utterance: the b-sound in ‘big’. Although the nouns sound and noise can often be used interchangeably (What was that sound/noise?), sound usually relates to regular and harmonious vibrations, noise to irregular and discordant vibrations. See SPEECH, TONE, VOICE.


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sound4 †penetrate XIV; intr. and trans. ascertain the depth of water XV; measure or examine as by sounding XVI. — (O)F. sonder use the sounding-lead :- Rom. *subundāre, f. L. SUB- + unda wave.
So sound sb. †act of sounding XVI; (surg.) instrument for probing XVIII.


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sound3 that which is or may be heard. XIII. ME. sun, so(u)n — AN. s(o)un, (O)F. son :- L. sonus.
So sound vb. cause to make a sound XIII; emit a sound XIV. ME. sune, so(u)ne — AN. suner, OF. soner (mod. sonner) :- L. sonāre. The form with -d appears XV, and is established XVI.


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sound1 †swimming; †sea, water OE.; swimming-bladder of fish XIV; (from Scand.) narrow channel of water XV. OE. sund = ON. sund swimming, strait :- Gmc. *sundam, f. *sum- *swem- SWIM