Thinking about sound on film

The Piano (Jane Campion, 1994)
By Sophie Mayer

How film sound theory is bound up with gender, emotion and identity.

Sound has been film’s dark secret. Film historians – and early cinema’s viewers – agonised over the introduction of recorded sound, arguing that the unwieldy microphones and emphasis on dialogue hindered the development of film as a visual and kinetic art that had told its stories just fine through impassioned close-ups, increasingly sophisticated framing and editing strategies, and just the occasional intertitle. Implicit in this critique is the charge that sound turned film from an emerging high art form linked to visual arts into a commodity, as it assimilated traits of the music hall and popular theatre, genres associated with working class, and particularly female, audiences. Recently, film historians such as Tom Gunning have insisted on the presence of sound in so-called ‘silent’ cinema, recovering histories of the earliest films’ sonic embedding in performances that encompassed live and recorded music, carnival barking and film-telling, as well as various traditions of audience’s verbal interaction with films.

Image courtesy of the Cinema Museum, London

In the Yale Journal of French Studies 1989 issue on sound in film, the first collective attempt by film theory to address sound, Rick Altman argues that when film theory ignored sound, it was guilty of ‘repressing yet again the scandal of theatrical language’, which is that it points to ‘film’s composite nature’ (13). Sound troubles film’s claim to be indexical, documenting the world: because it is recorded on a separate track, it could be and usually is recorded and/or edited in post-production. It is, to borrow Jacques Derrida’s useful term, a supplément, something that appears to be outside and additional to an object that boasts of its self-sufficiency, but which is always infolded within the original, so troubling the original term’s boast of completeness.

To call sound a supplément is to say that film is, and has always been, more than a visual medium – one that is open to and partakes of a quality that has long been identified with the feminine, through the identification of excessive and unreliable speech such as gossip with women. The uncertain nature of speech in Western culture is demonstrated through our reliance on written texts for legal, political, cultural and historical authority – a reliance questioned and upended by JL Austin’s idea of ‘performative speech’ and the significance of verbal oaths, promises and declarations of all kinds. As Anne Carson writes in her essay, ‘The Gender of Sound’, sound – particularly sound that is excessive in pitch, volume or quantity – is associated with death (mourning rituals), childbirth, sorcery, and monstrosity. It signals something that should remain inside the body coming out, a lack of control at odds with the stable, sealed nature of masculinity, the nation-state – or the supposedly autonomous cinematic image.

In the mourning cry or howl of childbirth or the Siren’s song, Carson identifies a doubled aspect of sound: its lack of stable meaning, a changeability underlined when musical intonations are added, and its power over the emotions of the hearers. Sound’s excessive, troubling, seductive ability to undo us emotionally is connected by Julia Kristeva to the period in very early childhood that she refers to as ‘semiotic’, the time before language and society have taken on their full and fixed meanings for us. In her 1977 essay ‘Stabat Mater’, she evokes a sensual world in which the foetus, and subsequently the infant, and the mother are connected by sound without stable meaning: she points to the heartbeat and other bodily sounds carried by amniotic fluid, and to the lulling, cooing, burbling, gurgling sounds exchanged by mother and infant after birth. She calls this sound-world ‘chora,’ meaning space/place, that which locates and contains us.

In Narrative Film Music, the first book on music’s role in film, Claudia Gorbman draws a similar association between the musical realm, the emotive and the feminine. She exhibits a pervasive embarrassment about music’s affective ability, as if music brings bodily secrets to light against the will of the rational mind. ‘Music gives a “for-me-ness” to the soundtrack and to the cine-narrative complex. I hear (not very consciously) this music which the characters don’t hear; I exist in this bath or gel of affect; this is my story, my fantasy, unrolling before me and for me on the screen (and out of the loudspeakers)’ (5). Music is situated as part of the narcissistic or voyeuristic fantasy of taking pleasure in film: it is a ‘bath or gel of affect’, a return to an amniotic state of which Enlightenment culture is highly suspicious.

Gorbman’s careful audition of cinema was revolutionary in 1987 and it led to the development of a more complex range of soundings. Richard Dyer, one of the pre-eminent theorists of musicals, quotes Suzanne Langer’s observation that ‘music is a tonal analogue of emotional life’ to argue that the musical’s free expression of emotion is utopian. Estelle Tincknell and Ian Conrich make a similar point, in their 2006 book Film’s Musical Moments, about music in non-musical films, arguing that ‘the performance of song and dance… does not simply disrupt the narrative flow, it represents an eruption of anarchy and disorder that condenses the film’s own refusal of convention’ (5). It’s not that the cultural symbolism of sound has changed – it remains identified with the chaotic, emotional, destabilising and feminine – but that, at least within theoretical counter-cultures such as queer theory, the anarchic and affective are now valorised.

Tilda Swinton in Orlando (Sally Potter, 1993)

Films such as The Piano (Jane Campion, 1994) and Orlando (Sally Potter, 1993) have inspired and been inspired by new developments in film sound theory, particularly – as in Kaja Silverman’s The Acoustic Mirror – thinking about how sound (rather than the much-vaunted gaze) engages the viewer in identification with the protagonist. Both films use the sounds of breath and bodily gestures (accentuated by the movement of fabric), the sounds of the natural world and direct address by the protagonist (in voice-over in The Piano and to-camera in Orlando), along with an emphatic use of music that often blurs between diegetic and non-diegetic, to create a soundscape or soundspace similar to chora.

Sound is integral to the style of such films (as the title The Piano suggests), and to our sometimes overwhelming experience of them. Sound on film offers us a way to return to the vulnerability and openness of chora, to risk dissolution in allowing ourselves to be moved. As Judith Butler suggests in 2004’s Precarious Life about this necessary cultural turn to embrace the affective, ‘we’re undone by each other. . . and if we’re not, we’re missing something’ (23).


Sophie Mayer writes about film for Sight & Sound, and is co-curator of the Feminism and Documentary retrospective at Punto de Vista 2011. She currently teaches creative writing at King's College, London, and is the author of two collections of poetry, as well as The Cinema of Sally Potter, and co-editor of There She Goes: Feminism, Filmmaking and Beyond. See for more information.

As part of the Bloody Women programme at the Bird's Eye View Film Festival and the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre, cutting-edge musicians Tara Busch, Seaming, Micachu and Imogen Heap will be performing live scores composed for silent shorts by Lois Weber, Maya Deren, Lotte Reiniger and Germaine Dulac, on 11 March. Sophie Mayer will report back from the event in April.

Sound and Music|3rd Floor, South Wing, Somerset House, London WC2R 1LA|Tel +44 (0)20 7759 1800||Registered Charity: 1124609|VAT Reg No: 937 5533 96 

Designed by Fitzroy & Finn|Built by Platform3|Copyright © Sound and Music 2016