Sonic Synergy – Film Examples of Blurring the Lines Between Music and Sound Design

What sonic elements belong to the film score, and what belongs to sound design? In the conventional movie-making process, it’s rather a question of dividing responsibilities. However, it can also be a creative choice. Nowadays, more and more films follow this approach. In this article, we take a look at outstanding movie examples, such as “Arrival”, “Dune”, and “Chernobyl”, take a deep dive into their rare score workflows, and explore the poetic topic of blurring the lines between music and sound design. A custom-composed film score is an immensely powerful tool. Not only does it create a particular atmosphere for your visual world, but it also affects storytelling and alters how we perceive a given scene. For that, of course, it has to be executed mindfully. As the sound guru Mark Edward Lewis says in his MZed course “Cinema Sound”: The hard part of film music composing is to be able to get the essence of the emotion of your scene into the music, so that the audience can feel it.Still of Mark Edward Lewis in “Cinema Sound” (MZed course). Image source: MZedThat means, that sometimes composers have to leave the conventional path and start inventing new tools and non-existing sounds. This is where the borders begin to blur.Pushing the boundaries of music and sound designThe question of how to approach your film’s music and sound design often comes already at the project’s very start. How should your created world feel sonically? Do you have references, or can you already envision it? It’s a huge part of the cinematic universe, after all, even if you don’t attempt to work in fantasy or sci-fi. And if you do – well, that’s where the ability to challenge traditional ways becomes crucial. Let’s take “Arrival” as an example. Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction drama offers a slightly different angle on what human encounters with aliens may look like. This almost intimate story is not about already beaten-out intergalactic wars, the power play between species, or killing monsters trying to invade Earth. And that’s precisely why filmmakers had to find different sonic sensations in music: otherworldly, suspenseful, yet quiet. Take a look at the following scene, where the protagonist Louise Banks makes first contact with aliens, and listen carefully to the score, especially in the scenes where they arrive.You can’t define with certainty, what parts are music and what parts are sound, can you? All the sonic elements blend to create this visceral experience. The film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson said in an interview, that for some parts of the score, he recorded a 16-track tape loop, capturing acoustic sounds from cello, piano, and wind instruments, along with vocals. This helped him to achieve an analog quality. He also opted for playing the piano without the attack. “It’s like piano wire. You’re hearing just the sustain of the piano.” What an interesting way to take rather old-fashioned tools, and make something futuristic out of them! Using unusual practical sounds to create an engaging scoreWhat if you need to create an atmospheric soundscape, related to a specific location? Why shouldn’t you use the real practical sounds from it? That’s what the “Chernobyl” composer Hildur Guðnadóttir decided during the conception phase. As she explains in a podcast, her intention was to build the haunting character of the power plant in the mini-series score. For that, Hildur needed to experience it for herself, what it feels like to be there, and above all – how it sounds. Thus, together with her team, she went to an actual power plant in Lithuania, put on a hazmat suit, and recorded hours and hours of footage.This process wasn’t about playing instruments or banging on walls. The team merely explored the space, paid attention to the smallest nuances, and listened carefully to the already-existing sounds, that the plant made. For instance, Hildur remembers one door to a pump room. They didn’t touch it, but when they came to it with a microphone, suddenly, they heard an almost inaudible high-pitched sound. All such recorded experiences became snippets of the melody. Having that in mind, let’s re-watch one of the “Chernobyl” scenes. What do you hear, especially towards the end of this clip? How does it make you feel?Hildur Guðnadóttir’s approach to the score was to be as honest as possible. Not to over-dramatize or create thriller-like suspense, but to capture what this tremendous catastrophe must have felt like in real life. The music, resulting from the composer’s spacial explorations, is heavy and oppressing, and to me personally, it transmits raw fear.Inventing new instruments and sounds for musicSometimes, on the contrary, a film’s soundtrack should bring us to places, that don’t even exist. That’s why for Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune”, Hans Zimmer decided to invent sounds that don’t exist, and build instruments, that don’t exist. Renowned composer worked with an instrument sculptor Chas Smith, who constructs whole sonic worlds (like an entire house that functions as a musical instrument itself, for example). But that’s not all! Hans also recites, how he approached the classic instruments so that they created a distinct experience. For instance, he used to give his players directions like: “I want your cello to sound like a Tibetan war horn.” It didn’t even have to be a melodic reference, but rather an image, that he would put in the minds of music performers. Another example is how Hans Zimmer used flutes in his score. His flautist Pedro Eustache remembers being told to play his instrument as if it was the wind whistling through the desert dunes. On top of that, Hans asked him to make vowels, while blowing the air into his flute.Hans Zimmer and Pedro Eustache. Image source: Vanity FairIndeed, this unique approach of creating non-existent sounds made “Dune’s” score so powerfully immersive and cinematic. And vice versaIt also works the other way around. Oftentimes, sound designers grab musical instruments to achieve something unique. Again, in “Dune”, Mark Mangini shows, how he used a wind wand to create a futuristic sound for ornithopters.A wind wand is an instrument, that combines sonic characteristics of the didgeridoo and the bullroarer. It is constructed of wood with a rubber band resonator and makes these interesting sounds when twirled with the handle. That’s what the film’s sound designer did so that the ornithopters would get a fluttering rather than circular motion, and remind more of buzzing insects than traditional helicopters. In my opinion, it fits perfectly, making our experience of this science fiction world complete! No wonder, that Dune’s incredible sound design got an Academy Award.Creating music from editing stemsSo, if you want to blur the lines between music and sound effects, what could be your workflow? How do you achieve a beautiful blend, instead of chaos with a mixture of sonic elements? For one, it can be a conceptualized collaboration. That means, that your sound department delivers the sounds, true to the film’s universe, to the composer. Let’s say, there are some recordings from location, foley, or even special sounds, like the ornithopter’s motion, we talked about earlier. The composer can use them as separated stems while creating the score.Mixing as a connecting tissue between music and soundsThe main solution is, of course, to deal with a perfect blend during the mixing phase. Mixing is a masterful tool in the filmmaker’s kit, which has way more power than the audience might know.In the course “Cinema Sound”, Mark Edward Lewis explains, what placing sounds above your viewer’s head can achieve. If you place singing birds, or tree leaves rustling, it will help the immersion. Conversely, something unexpected, such as even a small chimpanzee sound emanating from the ceiling, can really startle people.11.1 mixing, the placement of speakers. Image source: MZedAnother example: Imagine a scene in which two people are arguing. Mark took their voices and put them on the above speakers, mixed very low. The uncomfortable notion made the audience feel uneasy, making them want to leave their seats but instead, they got pushed further into the scene. Again: hello immersion!So, yes, mixing is a great tool, and there are many more tips and secrets to unveil. If you want to learn how to mix like a pro, we recommend our MZed “Cinema Sound” course. The course offers almost 90 hours of professional knowledge regarding every aspect of film audio, that you could possibly need to know. Give it a try!What else do you get with MZed Pro?As an MZed Pro member, you have access to over 500 hours of filmmaking education. Plus, we’re constantly adding more courses (several are in production right now).For just $30/month (billed annually at $349), here’s what you’ll get:55+ courses, over 850+ high-quality lessons, spanning over 500 hours of learning.Highly produced courses from educators who have decades of experience and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award.Unlimited access to stream all content during the 12 months.Offline download and viewing with the MZed iOS app.Discounts to ARRI Academy online courses, exclusively on MZed.Most of our courses provide an industry-recognized certificate upon completion.Purchasing the courses outright would cost over $9,500.Course topics include cinematography, directing, lighting, cameras and lenses, producing, indie filmmaking, writing, editing, color grading, audio, time-lapse, pitch decks, and more.7-day money-back guarantee if you decide it’s not for you.Full disclosure: MZed is owned by CineD.Join MZed Pro now and start watching today!Feature image source: film stills from “Dune” (2021) and “Chernobyl” (2019), combined with graphic elements.What do you think about the roles of music and sound design in filmmaking? Are they something, that should be kept separate? Have you ever blurred the lines between them yourself when making a film? We’d be thrilled to read your thoughts in the comments below!

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