Diegetic Sound — Storytelling For Your Ears (2022)

Being a filmmaker, it’s essential to know what diegetic sound is and how to use it. In this article, we’re going to define diegetic sound in a short and simple way. Then we’re going to look at key examples from film to show you how experts incorporate diegetic sound into their works.

Diegetic Sound — Storytelling For Your Ears (1)

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(Video) Diegetic vs Non-Diegetic Sound Explained - Applied Cinema Studies

Diegetic Sound Explained

How do you define diegetic?

When thinking of the "world" of a film, diegetic sound becomes a vital element that every film needs. Non-diegetic sound isn't as necessary but it certainly adds to the overall soundtrack. The overall sound design of a film would include diegetic sound and non-diegetic sound. But how do you define diegetic? It sounds a lot fancier than it actually is.

The word "diegesis" comes from the Greek and literally means narration. Within the oral storytelling tradition, the narrator creates "the world of the story." In filmmaking, we call the world of a film the diegesis — everything that exists within that world is diegetic, everything else is non-diegetic. Let's get more specific with a single element of the diegesis: sound.

DIEGETIC SOUND DEFINITION

What is diegetic sound?

A diegetic sound is any sound that originates from the world of a film. A very simple way to think about diegetic sound is to think of it as that could make sound in the world of a film. If the characters can hear it, it's diegetic.

The sound doesn't have to be featured on-screen. In fact, many diegetic sounds are not shown on-screen. Say there’s an emergency and an ambulance is called. The corresponding siren sound would be diegetic, even if it’s not shown on screen. This is because it’s a natural sound of the film world.

Examples of Diegetic Sounds:

  • Dialogue: even internal monologue is considered diegetic sound because it's the voice inside the character's head
  • Music: Piano playing at a restaurant, music in an elevator, a street performer banging drums
  • Sound effects: explosions, rain drops, car engines, and many, many more

Now that we’ve covered our diegetic definition and explained what diegetic sound is, let’s look at some examples, from the obvious to the not so obvious.

Speaking of Diegetic Sound

Diegeticdialogue

Dialogue is really the most simple example of diegetic sound. It occurs between characters as a form of verbal communication within the world of a film. Even internal monologue can be considered diegetic.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

In Sunset Boulevard, the dialogue does a great job of telling the story of the characters and the world. In this scene, Joe (William Holden) is looking for help in repairing his broken down car. But Norma (Gloria Swanson) believes he’s come to bury her pet monkey.

Dialogue in Sunset Boulevard

Through dialogue, we’re shown personalities and how characters interact with one another. The dialogue that ensues informs key aspects of character for the audience.

Steve Jobs (2015)

With a script by Aaron Sorkin, there is plenty of diegetic dialogue to go around. InSteve Jobs, characters are in constant verbal communication.

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Dialogue in Steve Jobs

This is another great example of diegetic dialogue. There are pieces of dialogue within the scene that continue off-screen. The camera cuts away while Woz and Jobs continue their contentious conversation. Take note that this is still diegetic even though some of it occurs off-screen.

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The Sound of Music

Diegetic music in film

Music is an interesting element because it can function across the diegetic line into non-diegetic sound. Diegetic music is what the characters can hear, which means any sort of musical score doesn't count. Music on a record player or being performed by musicians on-screen fall into this category.

Quentin Tarantino

Throughout his career, Tarantino has mastered diegetic music. Some of his most iconic scenes are driven by it and this video breaks down how he did it. It's more than just playing music in a scene, the right song paired with the right visuals will create indelible cinematic moments.

Tarantino's Diegetic Music • Subscribe on YouTube

From the twist contest inPulp Fictionto the unsettling harmonies of the Manson girls inOnce Upon a Time...in Hollywood, Tarantino's music is a massive part of his diegetic sound.

Casablanca (1942)

In this scene fromCasablanca, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) asks Sam (Dooley Wilson) to play the song “As Time Goes By.” This is an example of diegetic music because it is played within the world of the film.

(Video) Baby Driver Diegetic vs. Nondiegetic sound

What is source music? • “Play it Sam” Casablanca

This scene is also a great example of how to use diegetic music. The song is significant for two reasons; the first is that it implies a connection between Ilsa and Rick (Humphrey Bogart). The only reason Rick comes to Ilsa is because the song is playing and he scolds Sam for playing it because of its obvious emotional meaning. The second is in the lyrics, as they provide a subtext about their relationship.

Phoenix (2015)

Here, the music is also diegetic and significant. In fact, the songSpeak Low which the character Nelly (Nina Hoss) sings, serves as the climax of the film. The whole plot of the movie revolves around Nelly’s masked identity after being disfigured in a concentration camp.

Nina Hoss sings Speak Low in Phoenix

When she finds her husband Johnny, he doesn’t recognize her. Nelly then suspects that Johnny had something to do with her capture. So, she poses as another woman, hoping to find out the truth behind her husband’s actions.

The only way Johnny can identify Nelly is by her singing voice, which remains intact despite all the physical changes. After learning the truth, Nelly reveals her true identity with the song above.

Rounding Out The Diegesis

Diegetic sound effects

Finally, rounding out the soundtrack of diegetic sound are sound effects. Birds chirping, a car horn blaring, a telephone ringing — everything the characters can hear is diegetic.

Tarantino

Once again, if we look at Quentin Tarantino's sound design, he can be extremely playful with his diegetic sound. Specifically, pay attention to how he soundtracks violent scenes. Here's a breakdown of how he uses sound design, specifically diegetic sound, to control tone.

(Video) The POWER of Diegetic Sound

Tarantino Sound Design • Subscribe on YouTube

Whether its gun shots, whips, explosions, or that insane bladed mace that Gogo Yubari swings around, he never lets sound become "standard." Listening to a Tarantino movie can be just as invigorating as watching it.

North by Northwest (1959)

This scene is an excellent demonstration of diegetic sound effects. The sound of the plane hums as it soars overhead. Then, the sound becomes louder and fuller as the plane zooms at Roger (Cary Grant).

Diegetic sound effects in North by Northwest

Here, Director Alfred Hitchcock uses diegetic sound to build tension. There is very little music overlay. Instead, the drama is built with sounds from the world of the film — the plane, the vehicles, then an explosion.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road is chock-full of diegetic sound effects. In every car scene, we’re flooded with engines roaring and metal clanking.

Diegetic sound effects in Mad Max: Fury Road

Like most things in the world of Mad Max, diegetic sounds are taken to the extreme. But the way the film uses these sounds really speaks to the immersive impact they can have.

UP NEXT

Non-diegetic sound explained

We’ve talked about the qualities that make a diegetic sound, but what about non-diegetic sounds? In this article, we define what a non-diegetic sound is, then look at examples from films that show how they are used by filmmakers to complete a layered and meaningful soundtrack.

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Up Next: Non-diegetic sound →

FAQs

What are examples of diegetic sounds? ›

A character's speech, the roar of a speeding car, or the bang of Clint Eastwood's revolver are all examples of diegetic sound. The source of diegetic sound doesn't necessarily have to be on screen – the rumbling of thunder or background piano music in a restaurant scene are also diegetic sounds.

What is a diegetic sound? ›

Sound that originates from within the video or film's world is termed diegetic sound. It can come either from on-screen or off-screen but it always happens at the same time that the action takes place.

Can diegetic characters hear? ›

Diegetic music is what the characters can hear, which means any sort of musical score doesn't count. Music on a record player or being performed by musicians on-screen fall into this category.

How do you make a diegetic sound? ›

How to Make Background Music Sound Diegetic - YouTube

Is singing a diegetic sound? ›

diegetic sounds come from sources within the world of the story; non-diegetic sounds are those not originating from inside the scene; background noises are those heard outside or off to one side (without being related to what's happening on-screen); and. source music is played by an orchestra, band, singer, etc.

Why are diegetic sounds used? ›

Diegetic sounds allow characters as well as viewers to hear what is happening around them, whereas non-diegetic sounds is promoted by a narrator to help explain the storyline.

What is an example of diegetic sound turning into Nondiegetic sound? ›

What is an example of diegetic sound turning into nondiegetic sound? We hear an onscreen radio play a song, which continues when the setting changes.

What are diegetic elements? ›

In a rather different usage, diegetic elements are part of the fictional world ("part of the story"), as opposed to non-diegetic elements which are stylistic elements of how the narrator tells the story ("part of the storytelling").

What is diegetic vs non-diegetic sound? ›

SOUND SOURCE. Diegetic sound is any sound that the character or characters on screen can hear. So for example the sound of one character talking to another would be diegetic. Non-diegetic sound is any sound that the audience can hear but the characters on screen cannot.

Is silence a diegetic? ›

nondiegetic sound Sound coming from the space outside the narrative— whose source is neither visible on the screen nor implied by the present action. Nondiegetic sound is added by the director for dramatic effect. Examples would be mood music or an omniscient narrator's voice. Silence can also be nondiegetic.

What are the 4 types of sound in film? ›

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  • Soundtrack – all the different layers of sound used within a film, including location sound, dialogue, sound effects (FX), Foley sound, and musical score.
  • Location sound (also known as production sound or direct sound) – sound recorded during production (filming).

What is the opposite of diegetic? ›

What Is Non-Diegetic Sound? Non-diegetic sound, also called commentary or nonliteral sound, is any sound that does not originate from within the film's world. The film's characters are not able to hear non-diegetic sound.

Which of the following is an example of non diegetic sound? ›

The definition of non-diegetic sound.

Some of the most common examples of this type of sound include Foley sound effects, traditional film music or score, and voice-over narration.

What is an example of non-diegetic sound? ›

The definition of non-diegetic sound.

Some of the most common examples of this type of sound include Foley sound effects, traditional film music or score, and voice-over narration. Non-diegetic sound plays a huge role in making the final film that the audience sees — and hears.

What is diegetic and non-diegetic sound? ›

Non-Diegetic Sound. Diegetic sound is any sound that the character or characters on screen can hear. So for example the sound of one character talking to another would be diegetic. Non-diegetic sound is any sound that the audience can hear but the characters on screen cannot.

What is non-diegetic sound give an example of it? ›

Non-diegetic sound is any sound in a film that doesn't originate from the world of the film. These are typically sounds that are added for effect in post-production. For example, a film soundtrack is almost always non-diegetic sound because the characters don't hear it.

What is an example of diegetic sound turning into Nondiegetic sound? ›

What is an example of diegetic sound turning into nondiegetic sound? We hear an onscreen radio play a song, which continues when the setting changes.

Videos

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