“Humanly Organized Sounds”

  1. Strictly speaking, music is not needed to ease the spectators’ immersion into the world of the story. A large number of music-less opening credits testifies to this. In fact, there are cases in which the absence of music is necessary to the success and stylistic coherence of a film. In Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983), for instance, the silence “accompanying” the brief credits sequence conveniently underscores the fact that the film is a mock documentary. Music is also conspicuously absent from the beginning credits in all of Luis Buñuel’s later films—from Belle de Jour (1966) to his last work, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Far from being merely a capricious rejection of a movie convention, the lack of music in the credits foreshadows the character of the soundtrack as a whole. It is the correlative of the de-dramatized plot and subdued light, colors, and sounds of a world in which the ordinary and the surreal miraculously meet. In a gesture more radical still, Federico Fellini disposes of the credits altogether—except for the brief display of the title—at the beginning of his metacinematic film 8 1/2 (1963). In this case, the choice is also highly symptomatic of the film as a whole. In the moment normally allotted for the credits, Fellini reflects the absolute coincidence between the film the protagonist Guido is planning to make and the film we’re watching.

  2. These examples notwithstanding—and there are many others—the use of music over the beginning credits of a film is an overwhelmingly widespread phenomenon. Indeed, it has become a norm that very few films violate, and when this happens, as I have shown, that in itself is perceived as a marked, highly significant authorial gesture fulfillinga highly specialised function. Why? Though it may not facilitate our immersion in the fiction as directly and vividly as in the Another Woman example examined above, music invariably prepares, enables, and signifies the perceptual, cognitive, affective shift that marks the spectator’s psychic life the moment a film begins. It is like a passport into the world of the film, and on the other end it becomes a signpost pointing to our exit. The conventionalization of the practice has made the presence of the music necessary even though the effects that motivated its employment to begin with may be overlooked (or, better, “overheard”). At least, hearing music reassures us that a convention is being honored: it plays because one expects to hear it, and is thus necessary to the extent that it is part of the “decorum” of the spectacle. We might call this the “zero degree” of film music’s effects on the spectator.6

  3. If music signifies a nascent relationship between the film and the spectator, then it must be perceived and employed as “humanly organized sound” (to use John Blacking’s expression). This is to say that upon acting on the listener, film music must mobilize the same mental resources, behavioural patterns, social and cultural conditioning involved in the reception of other kinds of cultural artifacts. Unquestionably one of the main components of the beginning of the spectacle, music does not directly provoke a state of mind appropriate to the appreciation of a film, like a mere physical agent acting on a passive physiological apparatus. Rather, music socializes the emotional and cognitive shift the spectator undergoes in preparing herself for a cinematic narrative. It is a socially constructed mediator, not a material cause in the strict sense.7

  4. Enabler, conventional sign, and invitation to imagine: the significance of this cluster of overlapping functions cannot be underestimated. Not only are these functions the surviving traces of ancient rituals, they also constitute the necessary stepping-stone, both historically and psychologically, for the successful deployment of a whole array of syntactic, expressive, narrative, and symbolic functions within the ensuing narrative. The music played over the beginning credits, in other words, underscores the shift toward the imaginative understanding of not only images and sounds, but also of music itself.

    The Ontology of Diegetic Music: Hearing as “Double Intentionality”

  5. The music we hear during a movie comes from the loudspeakers in the theater and is the result of a number of stages: recording, editing, mixing, and playback. One hardly pays any attention to this, as the soundtrack is normally perceived in terms of a source internal to the scene depicted (be it a radio, a voice, or a musical instrument). This anchorage to a source is sometimes called “diegeticization,” and scholars often call this music “diegetic music” (from the word “diegesis,” which in film studies parlance has come to mean “story world” or “fictional world”).8

  6. Despite the fact that during a film we never quite abandon the belief that the music we’re hearing has been recorded and subsequently manipulated, it is undeniable that anchoring music to a diegetic source lowers our moment-to-moment awareness of the production process as well as our awareness of the actual source of emission (the loudspeakers). In this respect, diegetic music functions in the same way as the objects, places, people who populate the movie world. They too “monopolize” our attention, diverting it from the fact that we are seeing a photographic image.9

  7. The spectator is co-responsible for this process. When we hear music in a film as if it were produced by a band playing on-screen, we are abstracting from any considerations about the actual genesis of the sound and its subsequent manipulation during the filmmaking process. We are concentrating instead of what the sound is a sound of, in the context of the story world. This process of perceptual abstraction may have become a habit, but it isn’t imposed upon a passive, defenceless, perceiving subject. It is an act of selection, memory, and ultimately construction, and it is central to the appreciation of many forms of representation, such as the spoken theatre, ballet, or painting. Upon pondering the “mysterious way in which shapes and marks can be made to signify and suggest other things beyond themselves,” art historian E. H. Gombrich has famously named this process “illusion.” Illusion is a charged word, however, fraught with implications of error, deception, and even hallucination.10 Let us refer to this process instead as “imagining.”

  8. It may seem strange to invoke the concept of imagination to explain the perception of diegetic music. What, one may wonder, is there to imagine? Isn’t the music “out there,” audible to anyone in the movie theatre? To be sure, hearing diegetic music at the cinema need not consist in the inner, mental recreation of the sonic manifestation of the music as such, for music is played aloud and is rendered with a high degree of resolution by the recording technology. When I use the word imagining, however, I am not referring to the notion of imagination as a kind of daydreaming, the conjuring up of mental imagery about things absent, or the mental, inwardly completion of things barely sketched as in the everyday usage of the word. Rather, I am using the word imagination as the ability to consider things that are not taken to be real (whether absent or not).

  9. In terms of this definition of imagination, to take Laurence Olivier acting Hamlet on stage, for instance, is toimagine that he is Hamlet. Note that in imagining that he is Hamlet we are not forming a mental image of Hamlet; rather, we are taking Olivier himself, the actor in flesh and blood whom we see and hear on stage, to be Hamlet. Similarly, upon looking at a trompe l’oeil painting of a fruit basket, we are imagining that we are seeing a fruit basket. No inwardly completion of the visual object is necessary, since the painting is replete with information, spelling everything out to the smallest detail and in the most realistic fashion possible. Still, looking at such a painting is to engage in imagining to the extent that looking at what it depicts is simultaneous with the awareness that we are looking at a painting. In this respect, there is continuity between a trompe l’oeil and the most barely sketched outline calling for much projection on the part of the beholder. They are both props in a game of make-believe.11

  10. So it is with a cinematic scene, and the music we hear in it (if any). Hearing the music coming from an on-screen radio in a film is an act of imagination to the extent that we are hearing the music as if it itself were radio music within the movie world, exploring it perceptually as if it were such, and responding to it accordingly. Of course, this also implies that we imaginatively attribute the music’s source to the radio we see or know to be in the scene, despite knowing full well that the music actually comes from a recorded track and reaches our ears via a set of loudspeakers. Imagining consists precisely of the capacity to regard the recorded sound as the result of a chain of virtual relations internal to the story world. We need not think of this as an inner, occult mental activity. It can be described, more simply, as a form of behavior.12

  11. Imagining is to take an interest in appearances, while maintaining intact one’s awareness of the status of the physical substrata that make those very appearances possible—be they actors, pictures, printed words, moving images, or recorded sounds. The simultaneity of these seemingly contradictory stances is a puzzling phenomenon, difficult to express in words (see the epigraph by Ruskin above). Philosopher Roger Scruton has characterized this phenomenon as an instance of double intentionality. Upon looking at a picture of a face, says Scruton, “I am presented with two simultaneous objects of perception: the real picture, and the imaginary face” (87).13 Approaching the question as an experimental psychologist, J.J. Gibson too has formulated the problem in terms of a duality: “The picture is both a scene and a surface, and the scene is paradoxically behind the surface. This duality of information is the reason the observer is never quite sure how to answer the question, ‘What do you see?’” (280).

  12. The contrastive pair of nouns “scene/surface” is not of much help in describing the perception of a diegetic soundtrack, not even metaphorically. But the notion of a dual experience is. Like a face in a picture, diegetic music is the object of twofold perception. The spectator is confronted with a real sound—the recorded sound of the music via the loudspeakers—as well as a virtual one—the music as the imaginary product of agents and causes internal to the movie world. An immense, unbridgeable gulf separates them, both ontologically and psychologically. It is because they are so incommensurable that the real and the virtual (or imaginary) sound do not exclude each other in our perception. They act upon two different areas of the psyche. They occupy adjacent yet distinct spaces. That is why one actually hears both.14

  13. Dual perception is paralleled by dual belief. Note that there is no contradiction between believing the music to be a (virtual) element in the diegesis and believing it to be a (real) sound in a (real) space. Indeed, there cannot be any contradiction between these two beliefs, since they reflect two entirely distinct ways of approaching musical sound. They are mutually exclusive only in the sense that one’s attention can focus on only one at a time.

  14. No matter how much we may be “caught up” in a story, our belief that the music consists of pre-recorded sound emanating via the loudspeakers is never called into question. The belief in diegetic music’s actual absence and impossibility at the moment of its apparent presence or reality—to paraphrase Ruskin—permeates the whole listening experience. True, such belief may not be entertained or asserted on a moment-by-moment basis. Even then, however, it will be present, alive, even nurtured. This is because of the peculiar nature of belief as a mental state. A belief is not so much an occurrent mental act as a disposition or readiness to act in a certain manner. As such, a belief remains “alive” across time independent of whether one consciously focuses on its content or provides external, behavioral evidence that one believes. It follows that to hold certain beliefs about the actual physical status of music need not entail entertaining them on a moment-to-moment basis, let alone articulating them in language.15

  15. Just as our knowledge of the actual nature and provenance of film music is never quite discarded, so is “disbelief” about its fictionality never “suspended,” to quote Coleridge’s notorious expression. During a film, in short, beliefs concerning the actual status of the music heard are neither discarded nor suspended. They are, more simply, nonoccurrent. The perception of diegetic music differs from an illusion proper because it does not entail that we discard our beliefs about the actual status of the sound in the physical world we inhabit.16

  16. That said, these beliefs make themselves felt. But how? As a readiness to differentiate a failure of the power system from a silence in the make-believe world of the story, for example; or as a kind of safety blanket enclosing the film-goer’s listening experience. The firm conviction that diegetic music exists in a purely fictional realm “frees” the filmgoer, as it were, enhancing her sensitivity to its dramaturgical and poetic roles. In this respect, the reception of diegetic music merely mirrors the reception of representation in general. The firmness of the spectator’s belief in the fictional status of the narrative, makes her more vulnerable to a range of responses that are not as readily available when we observe human dramas being played out in our real world.17 There is a sense, then, in which the intensity, richness, and vivacity of our absorption into a world of make-believe is evidence not of a deceptive, illusory state of mind but rather of the opposite—an all too encompassing understanding of the nature of representation and the subject’s relation to it.