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Coming Of Sound Essay

The coming of sound was an innovation to cinema that forever changed the way films were produced, viewed and performed. Sound plays many roles in the way a film is narrated and perceived by the audience. Sound, as defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, ‘is central to the way in which a film establishes setting, shapes character, signposts its narrative, directs the audience’s and instils general emotional states’ (2012: 385). Sunrise: a song of two humans by F. W. Munrau was released in 1926, at the turning point of the transition to sound after years of ‘silent’ films, and used brilliantly sound.

In relation to Sunrise, we can explore the use of sound, especially the use of music and sound effects, and their functions and effects. Sound consists of three components: dialogue, music and sound effects. Alongside the major role of dialogue in a film, music also has its importance. Music is essentially the musical score the audience hear during the film. In some cases, the filmmaker decides to include popular music in the sound track of the film, in others, it alternates classical music pieces (either composed specifically for the film or not) and popular music.

In the case of Sunrise, the musical score was composed for the film. The function of music in a film is to set the mood or to manipulate the emotions of the audience. The music interacts with the narrative of the film as well as the pictures in order to ignite reactions from the audience. As Bordwell and Thompson (2010: 270) put it in Film Art: An Introduction, ‘the sound track can clarify image events, contradict them, or render them ambiguous. In all cases, the sound track can enter into an active relation with the image track. ‘

A musical score consists of three central components: loudness, pitch and timbre. Bordwell and Thompson (2010: 351) define them as elements that ‘interact to define the overalls sonic texture of a film. ‘ Beside them, harmonics and rhythm are also elements playing part in a score. All of these elements shape the audience’s experiences of watching the film as they all play a role in a scene and, consequently, the film. A number of examples can be observed in Murnau’s Sunrise. For instance, when the Wife is deeply affected by her husband’s departure to meet with his lover – The Woman of The City.

In this short scene, through a combination of a low timbre, high pitched violin and low trumpets coming in crescendo, the music expresses or underlines her sadness and distress of her husband’s affair. Not only does the music creates a mood for the sequence, but it also tries to embody the character’s feelings and ignite reactions from the audience. Moreover, a score allows to voice the character’s feelings, as seen in a particular scene of Sunrise where the Man’s calls out for his wife: his voice is expressed through the score, which plays two roles, one of acting his voice and the other as representing his distress.

A score is played throughout the film and as a result, we can hear recurring parts of a track or the same track. Bordwell and Thompson (2010: 279) explain, ‘Musical themes are associated with particular aspects of the narrative. ‘ Thus, whenever the audience hears it, they will expect something regarding a character, a situation, or a setting. Moreover, a particular melody and other aspects of music can offer meanings that are not as obvious as one could think. In Sunrise, a few musical themes can be heard and all have a relation to certain aspects of the narrative or the characters.

For example, The Woman Of The City has her own, with a tone rather light and high pitched violin, but we hear sombre trumpets as a looming sound. The Man also has his own theme but waves through different ones as the film progresses, showing his evolution as a man and a husband. The Wife also has her own theme, a rather melancholic and sad melody, high pitched and soft, somehow expressing her fragility and distress, but there is a lighter and more romantic one as well whenever she is looking at her husband. Interestingly, when The Man and The Woman are together, a new musical theme is played.

The music is both romantic and rather menacing, complementing well the characters’ intentions in relation to one another. For instance, when The Woman asks him to sell his farm, the music begins to have a high pitch played by the violin, with lower pitch played by cellos, building up together a tension regarding the question and the position of their relationship. When The Man asks about his wife, the music abruptly stops and after a few seconds of silence, violins pick up again and the tone remain rather sombre.

However, once their decision is settled, their romantic theme is heard again. In any cases, music is situational and is played at certain point of a film for a precise reason. Sound effects are another element crucial in a film sound track and its narrative. They vary from ambient sounds, sound effects and Foley sounds. All of them have their very own functions in a film and can be either synchronous or asynchronous depending on what the director wants to do. Ambience sounds usually offer an idea of the setting but can also offer meanings to the picture.

For example, in Sunrise, the sounds of the city and of the fair are ambience sounds. They establish the surroundings of the scene and add realism to the location. The ambience sounds we hear in Sunrise consists of car horns, people, animation at the fair, the dancing ball and so on. These sounds are foley sounds, diegetic, synchronous and onscreen. They were done after the shooting of the film and added afterwards to match with the pictures. Another good example of sound effects in Sunrise is the intermittent use of church bells throughout the film.

They are both ambience and foley sounds, and they have a meaning and a narrative function. For instance, the second time we hear them is when the couple is going on the boat. They are played as background sound, while we see the church of the small village in the background as they sail off, acting as onscreen and space sound. The use of the bells at this point builds up a certain apprehension and tension as the audience knows the plan. In addition, the score playing in the background is, at first, rather sweet before picking up and having a lower timbre and higher pitch building up the tension.

The third time we hear them is when The Man almost kills his wife. The bells rings appropriately at the moment he aborts his actions. The sound of the bells is louder than the music, underlining the significance of the bells in this particular scene. They represents his guilt, his sudden realisation and the turning point of the story. As they stumble upon a wedding while The Man tries to comfort her, we can hear the bells again. In this case, they represent his attempt to redemption and the failure of their marriage in contrast to the one blossoming in front of them.

The loudness of the bells alternate between soft background sound to louder accompanied by violins, giving a sad tone to the scene. We can still hear them when both couples finalise their vows. The bells are heard louder after they renew their vows and leave the church together. The bells are first shown, giving an onscreen value to the sound before being offscreen and then slowly disappearing to be replaced by a romantic crescendo score accompanied with an organ, symbolising the character’s emotions in the scene. The combination of music and different types of sounds creates a mood and deepens or complements the pictures’s meaning.

Overall, most sounds used in Sunrise try to be faithful to what is shown in the images. For instance, when the couple arrives at the fair, the sounds we hear are typical for a fair: screams, laughs, orchestra, music of the different attractions, the animation on the fair, and so on. However, the unfaithfulness to what is shown can also give interesting meaning and function to a scene. The only scene to which we might link this in Sunrise is when The Man comes back from his meeting with The Woman of the city and goes to the barn.

There, the horse appears quite suddenly, scaring him and the moment the horse appears, we hear a rather loud metallic sound, not matching at all what we see. Sounds can be either from within the film space, in which case it would be diegetic, or from outside the film space, meaning it would be non-diegetic. Usually the sound track of present day films has both. The score is the non-diegetic sound while sound effects and other ambience sounds are usually diegetic, but can also be non-diegetic.

In the case of Sunrise, the score is nondiegetic while the sound effects are diegetic, both onscreen and offscreen, and such example can be observed with the scene of the fair. To conclude, a film without sound would not be the same Sound has revolutionised cinema as it has allowed further meaning, a connection with the audience and emphasises the mood of the characters and the film. Music and sound effects have different functions, offering different meanings and shaping up the film as much as the narrative of the story

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