Sound Design


Sound design represents the overall artistic styling of the sonic fabric in an audio production.

— Alten, S. R. Audio in Media. 1994. pp. 1.

Alten gives a detailed introduction to sound design, from explanations on ‘how to listen’, to recording technique, to sound structure. In this post, I will follow-on from our discussion of Robert Bresson’s notes on sound design by analysing Alten’s theory of Sonic Structure and Human Response, firstly looking at ‘cognitive response’, followed by a discussion of ‘affective response’.

For most of us, sound is elemental. It provides all sorts of cognitive information – information related to mental processes of knowledge, reasoning, memory, judgement, and perception – and affective information – information related to emotion, feeling, and mood.

— Alten, S. R. Audio in Media. 1994. pp. 9.

Sound design provides information to both make us think and contribute to our thoughts. It can add meaning to an interpretation of an image, or, in a more direct way, speech can provide us with the film’s dialogue. Not only what the characters are saying, but also how they say it. If we hear a siren, we make a judgement based upon our contextual, predetermined knowledge of that sound. When we hear dialogue, we interpret that dialogue and it affects our perception of the characters involved. This is cognitive information. Writing on music in film, Annabel J. Cohen examines a ‘cognitive framework’ approach towards understanding sound design in film. Cohen goes in-depth about Frijda’s (1986) laws of emotion, short-term visual narrative, top-down processes and attentional and inference process (2001, pp. 259 – 263). Cohen offers this helpful example:

…provided by consideration of a portion of the film Apollo 13... Toward the end of the film, Apollo 13 hovers over the moons – so near and yet so far. The film depicts the fantasy of one of the astronauts, Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) imaginng his dream of having landed, taking several weightless steps, and slowly brushing his gloved fingers across the moon’s surface. The audience has no trouble inferring the anguish, awe, and exhilaration that he would have felt. Thanks to the composer, Hames Horner, the musical basis for such emotional information is carried by the musical soundtrack. On the other hand, the story gives no reason to predict that a full symphony orchestra is performing outside the spacecraft; hence, the acoustical aspect of music is not transported to the Short Term Memory. It is encoded by the sensory memory but it is not predicted by inferences derived from the Long Term Memory and hence it is unattended to.

— Annabel J. Cohen. Music as a Source of Emotion in Film. 2001. pp. 262.

Cohen’s example outlines cognitive response provoked by sound design. As she explains, the soundtrack not only helps the audience decipher the images on the screen, but also requires the brain to piece together the information it is presented, ie. ‘there is an orchestra playing, but it is clearly not in space with Tom Hanks (it is non-diegetic)’.

The “affective information” that Alten outlines is about emotional response. It is of no surprise, really, that soundtrack and sound design can evoke an emotion in an audience. We all can understand music that makes us feel melancholy or a beat that picks up our spirits. What is of great interest to me in this field is the unique way that the ‘layering’ of sounds affect an audience.

Alten uses the analogy of “a fire engine or police car speeding down a street” in silence (1994, pp. 9). Sure, it may be visually stimulating, but as Alten argues, the image alone elicits little sense of urgency in the audience.  Add the sound of a siren and things change. Cohen supports this, adding:

The capacity of music to accomplish the emotional task, arguably far better than the screen itself… may be based on the ability for music to simultaneously carry many kinds of emotional information in its harmony, rhythm, melody, timbre, and tonality.

— Annabel J. Cohen. Music as a Source of Emotion in Film. 2001. pp. 267.

Sound professional Neil Hillman explains how new sound technologies, such as Surround Sound in cinema and television, are constantly adding aspects to the sound designer’s capacity for evoking emotional responses:

…it is clear that the evolving Surround Sound technology has also aided the film and television sound designer to evoke emotions. Surround Sound recording and replay processes have transformed a simple stereo listening experience into one that increases audience immersion and enhances a sense of mise-en-scène;

The surround channel also lends itself as a conduit for Abstract sound elements; and with careful use, surround sound can provide a closer sense of reality, or even heightened reality.

— Neil Hillman. Organic and Free Range Sound Design. 2014.

It is clear that as sound technologies continue to develop and sound professionals move into the realm of acceptance as designers, artists and creatives, sound design only stands to become a more and more powerful tool used for making an audience feel. 

Works Cited

Alten, S. R. (1994). Audio in Media. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Cohen, A. J. (2001). Music As a Source of Emotion in FIlm. Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, 249 – 272.

Frijda, N. H. (1986). The Laws of Emotion. Amsterdam: The University of Amsterdam.

Hillman, N. (2014). Organic and free range sound design. The New Soundtrack, 4(2), 123 – 138.

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