The Musicality of Sound

Most of the time what can set apart a great film from an absolutely amazing one is the choices made with sound.

I have been a fan of NPR's Radio Lab for years now. When I found out Jad, the host of the show, had a background in music, it made sense. The sound design and the pacing of each episode was fresh from anything I had heard before.

But it wasn't until recently when I listened to a new show from NPR, Invisibilia, that I realized what really made Radio Lab so effective and impressive.

Invisibilia, like Radio Lab, is another show that takes an investigative approach into deep subjects of human thought and emotion and extract unforeseen stories that act as great anecdotes for amazing life can be.

Immediately I noticed they were pulling little auditory tricks to bring the listener into the story; repeating sound bites from an interviewee to emphasize importance, or background chatter to give ambience to a certain location they were visiting. They even used the classic screen door opening sound when greeting one of their subjects at their office. All the pieces were there to aurally create a radio piece similar to Radio Lab.

But of course something was missing. Something was off. The timing was wrong. The levels weren't just right. The filters felt cheap or misused. It felt like all the puzzle pieces were there, but they were forced together in the wrong order and the image painted on them was just a sketch.

Listening to this only elucidated my reasoning for why Radio Lab just sounds so damn good. Musicality. It is the rhythmic nature of sounds and silence that creates a subconscious pattern-like flow to an edit. I believe this is something extremely important when using sound as a storytelling device. You can embellish all the emotions of drama and comedy just by the ebb and flow of sound.

But my underlying question is what does it take in someone to sense those musical qualities and know when it is and isn't working? I think most of us don't even know that this is happening when we watch a film or a commercial or listen to a radio show. One the most obvious examples of this having such a profound effect on editing is the world of movie trailers.

Look at any number of trailers today and you'll find another hard hitting, shoot-em-up, booming music track that creates the flow of the edit. It has become a blatant device to cut a pulsing edit, wrought with epic emotion.

To wrap this up, how sound and image come together dictates the impact that a film can have. The more they are deftly aligned and hinged on each other, the better the end result becomes.