Difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sound Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 1 July 2016

Difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sound

What is the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sound? Can they ever be confused? Discuss with reference to at least three recent films.

For this essay I shall be highlighting the differences between the two terms; diegetic and non-diegetic sound. I shall also discuss whether or not the terms and their meanings could ever be confused. To help highlight my arguments within this essay I shall reference to films such as “The Italian Job”, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Entrapment”. The final section will hopefully round off the essay with a critical conclusion of the given question and the evidence presented within the essay.

Yet sound is perhaps the hardest of all techniques to study… Our primary information about

the layout of our surroundings comes from sight, and so in ordinary life sound is often simply a background for our visual attention.

(Bordwell.D. & Thompson.K., 1947, Film art : An introduction, Fifth Edition, New York; London : McGraw-Hill.)

Sound which can be implied or linked by a character or an action taking place within the context of a scene is often referred to as a diegetic sound. This can include music that is being performed within the ‘film’s world’, such an example could be taken from the film Titanic. The particular scene I am referring to, is when the ship has just started to sink and the band decide to continue playing.

ON WALLACE HARTLEY raising his violin to play.


Number 26. Ready and —

The band has reassembled just outside the First Class Entrance, port side, near where Lightoller is calling for the boats to be loaded. They strike up a waltz, lively and elegant. The music wafts all over the ship.

(Anon, Titanic Script, http://sites.inka.de/humpty/titanic/script.html)

Another prime example of music being used within a scene of a film as a diegetic source, would be in “The Crow”. Here we see a mysterious figure playing an electric guitar in a way that has quite a phallic relation to his character.

She pauses as she hears a lilting, faraway GUITAR STRAIN.

Across the street she can make out the figure of Eric on his

roof playing the guitar.

(Anon, The Crow Script, http://abahb.crowfans.com/TheCrow/crowmov.txt)

Another form of audio use in films which falls under the diegetic category, would be when a character within the scene is talking, singing, shouting etc. My first example to highlight this is taken from Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet”. The scene in question is when the Montague’s and Capulet’s meet for the first time.


Do you bite your thumb at us, sir!

Sampson’s shaking hand hovers – ready to draw.


I do bite my thumb, sir.

(Baz Lurhmann’s “Romeo and Juliet”)

Another example, can be taken from the film “To Die For”. However, with this example the character is talking directly to the audience.


You aren’t really anybody in America if you’re not on TV.

(iMDB, Memorable quotes from To Die For, http://imdb.com/title/tt0114681/quotes)

A final criterion that helps define diegetic sound is the use of natural sounds. For example a car’s engine revving. When sounds like this are used they tend to be highlighted and amplified, so as to draw the audiences’ attention to the relevant action. My first example is taken from the recent re-make of “The Italian Job”. Here the echo, “ominous thud”, resonates the seriousness of the situation, i.e. the fact that they are at the worst of their troubles.


The Humvee strikes the surface bottom with an ominous thud.

(AllMovieScripts.com, The Italian Job Script, http://www.allmoviescripts.com/scripts/italianjob.PDF)

Another example can be taken from the film “Entrapment”. Here the sound we are focusing on is not amplified a great deal, in fact it seems the director wants the sound to be as quiet as possible. No doubt to tie-in with the secrecy and precision required within the context.

…Nearby, an ALARM BOX softly BEEPS its

60-second warning to the pulsing of a green light, and the Thief

attaches a small computerized DEVICE…

However, the interesting point that can be brought about with this example is that even though the sound stops, it receives almost the same if not more attention as when the box was beeping.

…the right one STOPS. Illuminated in red. The beeping, the

green light, go OFF. The device is removed.

(AllMovieScripts.com, Entrapment Script, http://www.allmoviescripts.com/scripts/14984220623f39e70a15fbb.html)

The other side to looking at audio within the film environment is non-diegetic sounds. Non-diegetic sound is just as important within films as natural or diegetic sounds. However, it appears that you can spot a lot more use of non-diegetic sounds within science fiction or fantastical films, such as “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings”. Again this can be broken up into three main criteria.

Sound effects are often used to create a ‘real’ sound from an unnatural object, such as a futuristic spacecraft, or as in my next example a light-sabre.

Through Lucas’ perserverance and continuity of the light-sabre sound, the constant whirring, the audience is quite accustomed to believing that the light-sabre is an organic object.

Just as the ice creature looms over Luke, the lightsaber jumps into Luke’s hand.

The young warrior instantly ignites his sword, swinging up, and cuts himself loose from the ice.

(Smith.K.B, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Script, http://www.wheelon.com/swscripts/scripts.htm)

However, sound effects don’t just help out futuristic objects gain a realistc ‘life’ they can also be used to exaggerate the movement of a ‘real world’ object. This principle is explained in the following example that briefly talks of “Mr.Hulot’s Holiday”. Although the door doesn’t make a realistic noise, the sound that replaces it is organic, i.e. natural.

much humor arises from the opening and closing of a dining-room door. Instead of simply recording a real door, Tati inserts a twanging sound like a plucked cello string each time the door swings.

(FilmSound.org, Dimensions of film sound, http://www.filmsound.org/filmart/bordwell2.htm)

Narration within a film is also considered a non-diegetic sound, for although it could quite easily link to what is taking place within the scene, it is not an ‘actual’ part of the scene. Such as the characters are not normally aware of this external voice or sound. It is used to best effect when thinking of an adaptation of a classic book or story. An example of a story that used narration throughout the film is “The Englishman who went up a Hill but came down a Mountain”.

Narrator: For some odd reason, lost in the mists of time, there’s an extraordinary shortage of last names in Wales…To avoid widespread confusion, Welsh people often add an occupation to a name… But one man’s name was a puzzle, and it wasn’t until I was 10 years old that I asked my grandfather about the man with the longest and most enigmatic name of all.

(iMDB, Memorable quotes from The Englishman who went up a hill but came down a mountain, http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0112966/quotes)

Another take on narration within film, is when the narrator is actually part of the story, but is say, recounting previous events. This normally takes the audience through the story to the present moment that the narrator/character has found themselves in. For example in the film “Carlito’s Way”, the main character, Carlito Brigante, is recounting his story of failure from free man, through to his imminent death,

Sorry boys, all the stitches in the world can’t sew me together again. Lay down…lay down. Gonna stretch me out in Fernandez funeral home on hun and ninth street…Getting the shakes now, Last call for drinks, Bars closing down Sun’s out Where are we going for breakfast, Don’t wanna go far Rough night Tired baby… Tired…

(iMDB, Memorable quotes from Carlito’s way, http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0106519/quotes)

You also tend to find that with this kind of narration, i.e. story recounting up to present day, the opening lines or quotes are echoed in the final closing lines.

One of the final main criteria of non-diegetic sounds within a film is background or mood music. This is also known as the soundtrack or score.

Any attentive filmgoer is aware of the enormous power music holds in shaping the film experience, manipulating emotions and point of view, and guiding perceptions of characters, moods, and narrative events.

(Hill.J. & Church.P., 2000, Film studies : critical approaches, Oxford : Oxford University Press)

This part of non-diegetic sound is probably the most under-estimated, through the use of mood music the audience can be taken on a rollercoaster of emotions. This use of audio is an essential ingredient to any film. It is very hard stretched, certainly with Hollywood blockbusters, to come across a film that doesn’t employ the technique of atmosphere music or score to shape the feeling of a scene.

This next part to this essay should hopefully try and cover similarities between the different criteria of diegetic, and its counter-part, non-diegetic sound. Through this section I shall attempt to answer the question as to whether these two distinctive forms of audio can ever be confused. The way in which I shall do this will be through using the obvious links that are the defining criteria of the different audio types. The comparison shall follow the form of; defining which diegetic criterion and how it relates to the example scene, then the comparison shall follow with the non-diegetic link using the same scene and instance.

The first of the three links to be compared shall be the natural voice or sound of the character within the scene. The opening scene of Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet uses a news reporter, being portrayed as a news programme through the use of the medium close-up of the T.V. set. Here we see a news report that at first glance would seem as a typical bulletin. However, this is when the two different types of sound categorization can become blurred or confused. The reason for this is because the news reporter is actually taking on the role of the narrator as depicted by Shakespeare’s original work. This is also evident through the type of language being used and how it is brought to life with the tone and emphasis.

The second example that can be used to highlight when the two conventions become blurred is when a natural or organic sound is reproduced and accentuated through the use of sound effects. We can take a closer look at this argument with a typical western film that has a Hollywood budget attached to it, such as “Young Guns 2”. When watching a spaghetti western, it’s an unconscious convention that we expect the gun to make quite a prominent sound, from either the initial bang through to the ricochet twang. My feeling is that, the natural sound produced by a gun, particularly props, would not be enough to convince the audience, especially with modern expectations. I feel its at this point when you could call the sound effect that replaces the original sound non-diegetic in respect to it being created artificially.

My final example links back to a film I have referenced frequently throughout this essay, “Romeo and Juliet”. Music that is rooted within the scene, a band for example, is classed as being diegetic, however mood music is known as non-diegetic. The scene in which Romeo and Juliet first meet is that of a house party. In this house party there’s a typical mini-orchestra and singer performing (Desree – Kissing You), so for arguments sake we could class this as being diegetic for the moment. Yet, when Romeo and Juliet are first engaging each other in secret conversation, the music becomes the mood setting for the background. This is emphasized more when a natural break in the song, serves as an intensifying moment between the two characters. This could then be classed as non-diegetic as it serves to put across the mood between the two lovers of excitement and intrigue.

To round of this essay I’m going to finish with a short conclusion about how I feel regarding the essay question. It seems to be that it’s easy enough for us, as the audience, to pigeon hole a sound at first glance. However as with my last cases these sounds might not always fit into the categories you first think they would. It could be a fair point to say then, that rather than being confined to one standardisation, these sounds might actually fluctuate and vary, depending on the scene’s mood and context.



Bordwell.D. & Thompson.K., 1947, Film art : An introduction, Fifth Edition, New York; London : McGraw-Hill.

Hill.J. & Church.P., 2000, Film studies : critical approaches, Oxford : Oxford University Press

Online Sources

AllMovieScripts.com, Entrapment Script, http://www.allmoviescripts.com/scripts/14984220623f39e70a15fbb.html

AllMovieScripts.com, The Italian Job Script,


Anon, Titanic Script,


Anon, The Crow Script,


FilmSound.org, Dimensions of film sound,


iMDB, Memorable quotes from Carlito’s way,


iMDB, Memorable quotes from The Englishman who went up a hill but came down a mountain, http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0112966/quotes

iMDB, Memorable quotes from To Die For,


Smith.K.B, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Script,



Amiel.J., 1999, Entrapment

Gray.F., 2003, The Italian Job

Lucas.G., 1980, Star Wars : The Empire Strikes Back

Lurhmann.B., 1996, Romeo and Juliet

Monger.C., 1995, The Englishman who went up a hill but came down a mountain

Palma.D.B, 1993, Carlito’s Way

Proyas.A., 1994, The Crow

Sant.V.G., 1994, To Die For

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