The role of sound in cinema – 01 When did the film begin to play?

When did the film begin to play?

When the first films started being shown at the end of the 19th century, they were immediately defined as the “art of wonder” , because of their expressive power which is a composition of fictional elements put together to make new and unsual perceptions to be elaborated. These were fictional more than other forms of art at the time due to the lack of a stage performance, if not for the pit-music, which is the music performed by musicians in the room while the film is being projected. The fey elements were then a combination of settings and characters which evolved in time in a way which is unrealistic. Consequently, it is important to keep in mind that what we perceive is very different from what the film conveys because in the film viewing process we elaborate what we see and hear to make it have a meaning.

However, we are here to talk about the film’s sounds and I agree that we should go against what used to be a strong belief that the first films were silent. In fact, going back to what I was saying before about perception and conveyance it is probably more accurate to say that films used to be “deaf”, as Michel Chion would say. It is certainly true that the film making process in its orgins had to take into account the impossibility of playing with sound, but that doesn’t mean that the image on its own could suggest a sonic elaboration in people’s minds. Images, above all if moving, can suggest us a well- known acoustic feature or sounding object. For example, when we see a person walking in a street we immediately try to imagine what his walk would sound like, using the information given by what we can see. Think of the famous walking style of the main character in The Kid ( Chaplin, 1921) which looks unusual and thereby has a feeling of potentially sounding in a very specific way too. Therefore, not hearing a walk or any other potentially sounding phenomenon does not mean that we can’t imagine what it would sound like. Furthermore, we actually tend to do so because it’s an important task in our everyday life, as sounds are often masked by other sounds or they are inaudible due to distance or volume issues.

Another important matter to put forward is how sounds were initially used in film and which expressive aspects of this media were used the most. Pit music, performed by musicians who usually played their own repertoire, was often used to accompany the visual medium, but this does not mean there was no relation to it whatsoever. On the contrary, film art was initially inspired by musical performances because films were meant to be emotional, but also organized according to formal rules, which should have conditioned the emotional flow. In fact, many of the first editing techniques were a means to suggest a rhythm and film makers were fascinated by the idea of the leitmotiv and so tried to imitate this technique using symbolic and recurring images. A final confirm of the interest film makers had in music and sound making was the frequent portraying of musicians and industrial machinery, the first used as cliché of sentimental conveyance and the second as a cliché of power and complexity.

In conclusion, the history of sound in film did not begin, as one might think, with the introduction of syncing , but with the invention of cinema itself . An obvious critique to this theory is that then people would have not felt the coming of sound necessary. This is partially true, as we all know that many film makers had difficulties accpeting the idea of syncing sound to image. However, narrating without sound endedup becoming a difficult practice. The most significant problem was the lack of spoken words to give information and context which required the use of inter-titles, used as an informative tool to make the film author communicate to the audience what was going on between the film characters. The verbosity of these intertitles, due to the desire to make the film plots more intriguing, required a new communicational strategy which was seen as possible when sound could finally be synced. This event first happened in
1927 with The Jazz Singer ( Crosland , 1927) which was the first example of commercial audiovisual synchronization and which was very well received by the audience of the film. That said, the ideals to be followed on how these sounds had to be used were very different depending on the film maker and his audiovisual style and aesthetics.

To read the following post on film Sound History go to


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