A Few Words About Sound

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Barton Fink, the main character in the Coen Brothers’ 1991 film of the same name, is told time and time again, “You don’t listen,” “You didn’t listen,” or “You’re not listening, Barton”. He goes from being the hottest new playwright on Broadway to a down and out hack in Hollywood. The cause of his downfall? He didn’t listen. Only the Coens could make entertainment out of the existential crisis faced by a schlemiel who doesn’t listen. But listening is something we all tend not to do.

We live in a world obsessed with images. Sight has precedence over all the other senses. Yet sound is what we experience first, and last, in our lives. Walter Murch, the celebrated film editor and sound designer whose work can be seen/heard in Apocalypse Now, The Godfather and The English Patient, elegantly explains this paradox:

We begin to hear before we are born, four and a half months after conception. From then on, we develop in a continuous and luxurious bath of sounds: the song of our mother’s voice, the swash of her breathing, the trumpeting of her intestines, the timpani of her heart.  Throughout the second four-and-a half months, Sound rules as solitary Queen of our senses: the close and liquid world of uterine darkness makes Sight and Smell impossible, Taste monochromatic, and Touch a dim and generalized hint of what is to come.


Birth, however, brings with it the sudden and simultaneous ignition of the other four senses, and an intense competition for the throne that Sound had claimed as hers alone. The most notable pretender is the darting and insistent Sight, who dubs himself King as if the throne had been standing vacant, waiting for him. Surprisingly, Sound pulls a veil of oblivion across her reign and withdraws into the shadows.

The same hierarchy prevails in filmmaking and all audio-visual media. Audio plays a supporting role to the visual, sound is added to the picture. But we underestimate its effect on us.

Moment by moment we decipher our environment through the clues sound offers. Everything from time of day and the weather to the character of people around us, the quality of objects and our physical and mental spaces is expressed through sound. And film sound uses the same components – voice, environments, the sounds of people and objects – to make a film world believable. The sound verifies the veracity of the image. But sound does not merely give information; more importantly it conveys emotion. Usually we don’t hear these sounds but rather feel the world we are meant to be in. In film, as in real life, we can perceive the mood of a room, a person’s spirit or the quality of an object by what we hear.

From the late 70s, film sound became clearer, more detailed and more intelligible. Dolby and then digital recording made the film worlds we experienced feel closer, more tactile and more emotional. Media was becoming truly audio and visual and while some filmmakers and artists embraced this change by experimenting with the relationship between sound and image, commercial filmmaking remained (and remains) largely rooted in the dialogue/music tradition of theatre and opera that spawned the Talkies. But there were (and are) filmmakers like Walter Murch who began to work with sound and image as equal partners.

Since its beginning in 1998, the School of Sound has raised the profile of sound production across the arts and media. This unique forum has offered an exceptional series of presentations exploring the use of sound with the moving image: soundscapes, non-naturalistic sound, sound as metaphor, human sound perception – the topics have ranged from the practical to the aesthetic to the metaphysical during these intense four-day meetings.

We created the SOS as a forum to dissolve the barriers between the worlds of entertainment, art, theory and practice; to cross-pollinate thinking between Hollywood, Hoxton and Oxbridge. At each event, people from all the arts, media and audio-visual industries have gathered from more than 40 countries to hear directors, sound designers, composers, editors, artists and theorists define and interpret their personal use of sound from both traditional approaches and radical new perspectives.

But the focus of the SOS is actually more than just professional practice or creative thinking. It is about listening – not only listening to the reflections and experiences of some of the world’s leading creatives and educators but also generating an awareness in our audience of the process of listening.

Listening is a fundamental part of effective communication and, quite simply, people need to be listened to. Within day-to-day conversation, let alone mass media, we fail to listen deeply and, therefore, fail to truly connect with each other. At the SOS we teach people new ways to work, using technology and a new-found understanding of sound to bridge the gap between what we see, what we hear – and what we feel.

Look out for more essays, opinions and articles on sound from Larry in future.

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