The role of sound in cinema – 02 A brief look at its brief history

How sound was used in the different decades of the 20th century. A brief look at its brief history.

There are a few recurring similarities in some films in each decade, but, one must remember that each author has his own “sound style” , since every director has a different sensitivity and interest in exploiting this creative medium. The problem is even more complicated if we consider that, usually, the authors that stand out are those who choose not to comply to the mannerisms of their period. I think looking into these film-makers is equally interesting, because it shows what issues were being explored and how much they felt influenced and conditioned by the aesthetics of their time.
Another problematic issue is that to determine similarities and differences in style requires the establishment of an analysis paradigm. Many paradigms have been suggested in time this has led to the birth of different schools of criticism which are either academic or related to the popular taste of that time in a specific contry. Each of these has its concerns and its biases. The issue is that often films were made taking account of what their surrounding critique was, because, films have always been meant to please audiences and their interests, be they large or niche. So, as I will describe each period I will take into account also the paradigms which were taken into account at the time thanks, above all,  to the studies made by Michel Chion. I hope this way to give an idea of how a few aspects of sound use changed in the years and why.

From 1927 to the early 40s ” naturalism ” prevailed. Sound-wise the idea was that the soundtrack had to provide a reinforcement to every object in the scene, especially the actors, by giving them a voice whenever possible. This obsessiveness was probably dictated
by a desire of extreme realism , which was due to the popularity of such a genre also in theaters and
by the desire of taking advantage of what the syncing technology could let filmmakers do. However this is not always true as true. A few important experimental authors at that time were Jean Vigo and Fritz Lang. In his Atlante ( Vigo, 1934) he attempted a new different strategy by characterizing each character not voice-wise but in peculiar ways, putting forward what would usually be background noises as if they were the main sounds of that character. Instead, In Das Testament des Doctor Mabuse ( Lang, 1931) , sounds were matched to scene changes and edits and camera movements. The idea was that the film making process could convey tension by matching audio-visual elements and their meaning together.
Besides these experimental attempts, shooting and post-production had overcome the limits of technology. Therefore, other possibilities became less problematic towards the late 30s. The sound background could finally be portrayed more clearly and films could finally include soundscapes of everyday life. This often meant having a constant noise which was not viewed negatively , but rather as something useful to perceive context. Moreover, noise at the time was associated to energy and rhythm, which is something filmmakers were often aware of. The power of sound and of the media was in fact a recurring theme in many films. This feeling of power was even more conveyed when the sounds were schizo-phonic which means the characters heard sounds coming from speakers which projected recorded sounds and voice. At the time recordings were still associated to a magical and divine power which gave it great importance. For example, in The Great Dictator ( Chaplin, 1940) we see how people cheer for the two protagonists speaking at the radio, even though they say completely different things, just because they are speaking on the radio.

The 40s are known as the years of ” classicism ” .Films at that time had to be considerably formal and Americans, above all, were obsessed by dialogue. For this reason we can talk about “verbo-centrism “. However, another feature of this period was the use of music. Since there was a desire to be always realistic also music was diegetic and so there were numerous scenes in which musicians were shown while playing. This way, the audience should have perceived something very close to what the film characters perceived. In fact, the goal was to never make the audience conscious of the fact that they were watching something fictional. This meant that sound could never stop and for this reason the soundtrack was designed as a continuum, even though it was supposed to be always diegetic. In addition, the design had to comply to strict rules , as the dialogue, voice-overs, music and occasional background noises had to flow one to the other, never leaving the viewer in silence. The viewer could not be aware of the fictional nature of the film to make sure it would  be considered as engaging. A popular example is Casablanca ( Curtiz , 1942) , in which you hardly ever hear silence and the soundtracks goes back and forth from dialogue to music to background noises.

This formalism was seen as constraining as the years went by and so what is called ” modernism ” became more popular in the 50s and 60s. Verbo – centrism was slowly abandoned and several authors experimented with new ways to organize music, speech and sounds. Regarding musical experimentation, a few interesting examples are John Fusco and Nino Rota. The first composed numerous soundtracks which were heavily influenced by the sounds of electroacoustic music in films like Lady without Camellias ( Antonioni, 1953) or The Cry ( Antonioni, 1957). Nino Rota, instead composed numerous soundtracks with orchestral instrumentation , but designing it so that you could not tell exactly when the music was diegetic or not like in many scenes in The road ( Fellini, 1954). Regarding sound experimentation use, I think Alfred Hitchcock is an important innovator, because he explored many strategies to alter the perception of tension and time by using concrete sounds as an actual character in the film like in Rear Window ( Hitchcock, 1954) and The Birds ( Hitchcock,1961). Anyway, such experimentalism was due to the belief that techniques had rhetorical potential and that an usual use of sounds and images together could convey an usual effect and so feelings but also ideas. Films could so be narrated not only by the use of dialogue in the film, but also by suggesting specific concepts and ideas through technical choices associated to the narrative. Think for example about “A bout de souffle ( Godard, 1960), in which the editing is used in a very sharp way, so the flow skips moments of what you would expect to see. This way the film suggests a memory or something fey rather than something realistic. This use of unusual techniques was probably due to the desire to deal with complex issues rather than complex plots which implied less need for information and more interest in ideas. Another recurring theme in those years was the perception of time which was often conveyed with specific technicalities or strategies. For example in La Dolce Vita ( Fellini, 1960) , there are several scenes which are unreasonably long. The idea of persistance and continuity is accentuated by the use of repetitive music and recurring sounds throughout the film.

The 70s and the 80s see a change in the trend of film-viewing, because, although the most acclaimed directors continue to do research in the field of technical expressiveness, the most innovative films are probably those in which new ways to play with our senses are explored. There are many difficulties for many critiques in accepting this idea because sensorial films are usually very undemanding both in plot and in ideals. However, these new sensorial film makers believed that the film should be a tool to create virtual worlds, made ​​unique by the unusual audiovisual perception, which had little to do with the everyday world or with past cinema. For this reason, during these years a lot of science fiction titles became extremely interesting to watch. For example in Star Wars. A new hope ( Lucas, 1977) they used a number of audiovisual special effects that were used to create a world never seen before and with a unique aesthetic. This became possible thanks to significant technological innovations in the filming and post-production stages that allowed to create something very imaginative. Sound-wise the greatest innovation was spatialization which became an established standard in 1982 with Dolby. In fact, it was possible to alter with detailed control the perception of space, which also made it possible to explore the boundaries of diegesis and the relation between what can be seen and what can be heard. For example, in the initial dream scene in Apocalypse Now ( Coppola , 1979), it is not clear what is truly felt by the character and what is meant for the viewer because the ambiguous position of sounds makes it difficult to understand this with certainty. Another important innovation brought by technology was the possibility to create detailed soundscapes, which allowed the suggestion of virtual worlds with a unique sound identity. For example in Blade Runner (Scott , 1982) , they wanted to create a futuristic world with few realistic concrete sounds and synthetic music as to suggest that future worlds will sound very different and somehow less worldly and human. Following this idea of uniqueness and non-realism, more and more films made use of post-produced sound rather than on set sound thanks to the mastery of foley artists.
Following the same idea, another interesting aspect is the fact that also actors started faking their own voices more and more changing their voices according to their film character to better convey the identity of their character.

Coming to the 90s and the start of the 21st century, it is still too difficult to talk about this period in an objective manner , as it is still too close to us. Nonetheless, an increasing distance between those who search for “rhetoric meaning” and those who seek ” sensorial innovation ” has been noticed. The first , in fact, have been trying to use technologies the least possible, as they are convinced that the sensorial approach just conveys excessive sensations with little meaning. Think for example about the Dogme 95 whose directors tried to explore film making with the least postproduction possible. The sensorial directors instead continued to use the upcoming tecnological innovations to make their films aesthetically unique . However, some authors have began to search for a synthesis between the two schools of thought. Take for example The Matrix (Watchosky, 1999) in which complex issues are dealt with alongside action scenes both told also thanks to very innovative technologies. Another example is Trois couleurs: Blue (Kieslowsky, 1993) which is one of the rare examples of French films at the time to make use of technologies such as surround sound and sound manipulation to highlight the contrast between very rich scenes and intimate scenes.

To read the previous post on Film Sound History go to

To read the following post on Film Sound Aesthetics go to


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