The Role of Sound in Cinema – 03 How sound was discovered in time

How sound was discovered in time. How sound aesthetics and critique changed from the 30s to nowadays influencing film-making

Ever since sound started being synchronized , intellectuals like Eisenstein and Pudovkin wondered if the sonification modes used at the time, actually corresponded to real aesthetic- expressive needs. In the beginning, synchronization was seen as the only way to achieve realism and therefore engagement. Instead, the Russians, who were well aware of the power of the image in conveying also sound elaboration, suggested a new aesthetic of ” asynchronism ” as an alternative to follow instead of realistic syncing. They believed that sound should actually avoid being redundant as synchronic cinema was used to. They believed that audiovisual art should be designed as a counterpoint in which sound had the purpose to enrich the picture in meaning rather than just being repetitive.

A different perspective was instead carried out by Cavalcanti at the end of the 30s as he thought only the silent image was implicitly expressive , whereas sounds were seen as a game audiences would have become bored of soon after if used in the way it was being used. In fact,  the issue of cinematic Verbocentrism was seen as problematic , because also actors had started becoming less and less expressive and less theatrical because it seemed that the only thing that mattered was that speech was clear and natural enough to be understood and engaging. Naturalist directors, in fact, preferred to enrich the expressiveness of speech with mic techniques which turned out to be ineffective cliches. However, he pointed out how film-makers had at least took advantage of the sound potential as it allowed cinema to evolve into different genres according to its use ranging from drama , to comedy , musicals etc . Cavalcanti was actually against the policy the russians were carrying on, because he believed that sound had a greater potential than that and he believed that eventually sound would have become even more important than the image, because sounds naturally evoke more effectively emotional responses , while visual stimuli are usually descriptive and informative in real life. Nonetheless, he agreed that to reach this aim film makers should have started to use sound in a more ambiguous manor which is the way in which sound actually achieves its expressiveness.

Things changed considerably in the 40s and people like Bazin actually hailed the aesthetics of his time, because he believed that the potential of the audiovisual film laid in its ability to transform reality in a realistic context and that silent films were too artistic and abstract. Therefore, sound was seen as a tool to achieve realism and engagement.

However, things changed once again as modernist thinkers pushed towards a return to a more abstract aesthetic , like that of the times of silent era. That said, they believed sound could let the viewers immerse themselves in an empathetic way with the film plot in a way the image alone couldn’t. In fact, Kracauer and Epstein suggested the idea of focusing more on the use of prosody in speech, to make it more expressive and decided that films from now on had to give the same importance to all sound categories and not only to speech. However, it is only with Burch that they managed to think out a way to actually implement the modernist ideals, by using sound manipulations. In fact, thanks to sound manipulations it was finally possible to orchestrate noises as if they were musical instruments playing a counterpoint. A few Japanese like Chikamatsu monogatari (Mizoguchi, 1954) actually tried out this approach, by using sounds overlaid in rhythmical manor . Burch advocated , therefore, that sound could reach their poetical potential once they were organized creatively and in a musical way.

Technology is still seen as the key to reaching sound’s potential by Schreger who stressed at the end of the 70s the importance of technologies that were being developed in those years, because they could finally meet many of the desired aesthetic needs many authors had been trying to satisfy in the last few years . Altman is probably the most relevant figure as he revolutionized the sound recording attitude in his films Nashville (Altman, 1975), The Conversation (Coppola, 1974), The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978), which all made ​​use of wireless microphones and multitrack recordings that allowed to create overlapping dialogues, which could be finally understood once recorded. Moreover, technologies allowed the making of soundscapes and the overlaying sounds in a clear way. Then, he started to foresee the possibility of using silence as an expressive tool as it could be finally created without too much background noise.

In the 80s, instead ,Doane decided to analyse the major innovations since the 30 years , and noticed that the technological and practical manor of Californian studios influenced the world cinema aesthetic, above all, because of their technological superiority and because they were the few to know how to take advantage of what technology had to offer. Interestingly, however, she noticed that technological mastery was considered as such only whence the film-making process could not be perceived during film-viewing. That was one of the reasons silence was seen as a taboo in the 40s, since technicians were afraid it would have made film viewers aware of the film-making process. For similar reasons, verbo-centrism without voice-overs was seen as the only right attitude towards film sonification. Fortunately, leading experts in the sound field came from radio dramas, a field in which sound manipulations were used to recreate plausible or imaginative soundscapes rather than realistic ones.Thereby, sound manipulations were not necessarily seen as taboos. Doane, instead wished film makers to riconsider once again the potential of non diegetic sounds like voice-overs as she was convinced that they withhold an effective tool to play with diegesis , screen visibility in a way which could be actually more engaging.

Balazs instead focused his attentions on the viewer audio-visual’s interactivity, because he noticed that each audio-visual stimuli can force us to focus on some details rather than others in a way which can be controlled and played with. Therefore, he also exalts the counterpoint audiovisual ideal, but rather than exalting the idea of overlaying, he believed interactivity was the reason to do so. By counterpointing sounds and images according to their interactive potential, the power and potential of sound could be unleashed, because it pushes the viewer to be engaed in the film viewing process. The film viewer this way has to keep on analysing what he can see . Balazs however, already understood that an excessively dense counterpoint could become excessively stimulative and so he invited film makers to make use of silence to allow the image to express its intrinsic sonority. He also suggests avoiding an excessive effort from film viewering who can’t endure continuous stimuli and interaction.


Belton instead started thinking the camera and the mic as virtual eyes and ears and so suggested that actual engagement could be reached by taking into account what point of view and of audition the recordings and shootings could actually suggest. Therefore, he criticized Altman’s film making attitude, because by using wireless microphones all sounds ended up being perceived as close up and you couldn’t have any perception of where the sounds were actually coming from, therefore impeding the subjective perception of the soundtrack.


Back in the 90s continues from Balazs and stresses the problem of cultural perception and consequential attitude in the audiovisual experience. Consequently he stresses that film sound is actually engaging when it satisfies all the information that is culturally relevant for us. So when designing sound for film all the relevant sound features must be stressed and underlined. Above all, he stresses the importance of dynamics and that each sound should not be aloud only to satisfy realism in the moment in time when it is supposed to be heard, but to comply with the narrative needs the film maker requires.

Ribrandt goes on from Back by defining sound as an ” Art in Time” , since the soundtrack can be seen as such only if considering how sounds evolve rather than how they are per se perceived, when detached from their conext. He also tackles the difficult issue of soundtrack comparison as he puts forward the problem of style which depends on the film itself, the sound designer and all the other film makers. However, he pointed out some significant parameters to consider when attempting such a task. The first parameter is sound projection which determines how sounds will be perceived by the film viewer, therefore how the technologies are used because he agrees that technological awareness does not necessarily imply a negative connotation to film viewing if it is used for poetical reasons. That said he believes that a soundtrack has greater impact when it attempts to relate to other sound design works and tries to push further the boundaries of the design process in an effective way. Nevertheless, he also states that all these considerations are relative to when the film was shot because this determines what the sound designer and film maker could play with and what kind of issues they had in mind.

Finally, Dykhoff goes back to the problem of sonic overload and although he agrees that excessive sonic information can not be elaborated effectively, he also thinks that sounds that are not noticed still have a subconscious reaction on us. Even thoughthey have a less obvious effect all subconscious sounds contribute to elaborations and judgements on the whole.

If you want to read the previous post on Film Sound History go to


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