Importance of Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sounds in Film

The complexity within films arises from three basic elements of sound known as music, speech, and sound effects. These elements are commonly referred to as diegetic and non-diegetic sounds in the film which are dubbed to be the relation of sounds in a fictional world. The internal sounds of the film are known as diegetic sounds, for example the car radio within a movie in which the characters can hear. Diegetic sounds are often thought to be realistic, such as fight scenes in a movie when the character as well as the viewers can interpret the different sounds. The external sounds are more commonly known as non-diegetic sounds, for example a narrator telling the story. These types of sounds help explain the important message found within the movie and reinforce the plot.

The aspects of sound and music play an important role in the plot of a story, whether it helps create suspense or an emotional impact for the viewers. Sound may differentiate a thriller movie from a drama movie, such as that found in Jurassic Park and One Week. Within the two films we can see how these sounds produce a much more diverse plot. The investigation and emphasis of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds within the movies from Michael McGowan’s One Week and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park shows their importance in the contribution to the plot.

In the movie One Week, non-diegetic sounds contribute the most to create the mood and atmosphere throughout the movie. A narrator is used at the most significant scenes in the movie, such as at the introduction when he states, “What would you do if you only had one day, or one week, or one month to live?” This expresses the initial atmosphere in the movie as we know that Ben Tyler (Joshua Jackson) is diagnosed with cancer; this foreshadows what the entire plot is like throughout the story. Along with the treacherous news, the narrator also provides us with some beneficial outlooks for Ben, such as he won’t have to mark six classes worth of English papers.

This movie is based upon the narration of Tyler’s book which describes his adventures living with cancer as he travels west. The music in One Week also resembles a type of sadness for the realization that Ben’s life is coming to an end; these types of harmonies are played as he travels away from home as well as visions of flashbacks with the family and his fiancé, Samantha Pierce (Liane Balaban). For example, flashbacks of Ben’s past come to life as the narrator explains that if he did something one way or another, it may have significantly changed his entire outcome in life. The narrator also explains how Ben had created an “orphan” from the novel he wrote, and was once told he had a terrible voice in which he never sung a tune ever again. On Ben’s journey, he comes to the realization that he did in fact write a masterpiece novel and is actually a decent singer; he realizes that he values his life a lot less that what he should and he tries to mend relationships with family and himself.

Joshua Jackson in One Week pursuing his trip across Canada
Joshua Jackson in One Week pursuing his trip across Canada.

On the contrary, Jurassic Park uses many non-diegetic sounds to stress the importance of action within the film as well as contribute largely to the building of a suspenseful atmosphere in order to keep the viewers interest. A majority of the story is based around non-diegetic sounds. This is shown in many chase scenes involving the T-Rex when the music becomes intensely packed to create the negative mood in which the viewer’s become much more interested in the movie. There are also many parts in the movie where a suspenseful melody transforms into a triumphant harmony to show that the conflict at that particular point in time has been resolved. The non-diegetic sounds in One Week and Jurassic Park show completely different ends of the spectrum when it involves the storyline.

One Week uses the aspect of a narrator to depict the story of Ben Tyler’s (Joshua Jackson) life living with cancer; it is meant to create a sad atmosphere towards the viewers to feel emotional. However, Jurassic Park utilizes different types of themes and music to create an action packed plot. The use of music and sound is one of the most effective ways that a movie can use to create underlying messages as well as to create a certain atmosphere or sense of mood in the movies. This can be seen in the introduction of Jurassic Park as the main characters are approaching the island consisting of scientifically evolved prehistoric dinosaurs. The grand orchestral theme of music is loud and creates epic, yet positive imagery and atmosphere. Both of these movies apply the concepts of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds in many different ways to express various feelings throughout the movie.

There are many examples of diegetic sounds in Jurassic Park, such as the rustling of bushes, birds chirping, the vibrations of the T-Rex as it approaches, and even Allen (Sam Neill) screaming when he touches the electricity fence just to scare the kids, to name a few. In One Week the diegetic sounds of the snapping of the camera as Ben takes pictures throughout his travels reveals how his trip is worth the length of one lifetime in just one week. This sound also allows us to interpret that Ben himself can hear this sound as well as us; it captures each monumental Canadian sites that contribute to his journey, enlightening the viewer’s mood. Although these two movies create opposite feelings toward the movie, they both have similar diegetic sounds that are found in real life situations. These diegetic sounds are sources that have the ability to be heard by all of the characters on-screen. For example, the music played in One Week on the radio of the motorbike as he is traveling west can be referred to as a type of diegetic sound in which music is played to create a feeling for both the viewer as well as the character on-set.

Jeff Goldblum running fron a T-Rex in Jurassic Park
Jeff Goldblum runs fron a T-Rex in Jurassic Park.

Many forms of sound effect, music and speech can be seen by the preceding information. Diegetic and non-diegetic sounds contribute largely towards different kinds of plot, whether it is an action packed film or a Canadian drama film. These kinds of sounds help create an epic atmosphere and mood for the viewers to watch. Diegetic sounds allow characters as well as viewers to hear what is happening around them, whereas non-diegetic sounds is promoted by a narrator to help explain the storyline.

The narrator in One Week creates a negative, yet positive atmosphere throughout the movie, but the music is what generates suspense. The changing from diegetic sound to non-diegetic sound is a technique used by many editors in order to acquire the viewer’s interest throughout the movie (Robertson, 2014). From the information provided above, we can see that there is in fact a correlation between the sounds in movies and their contribution to the plot.

Works Cited

Giannetti, Louis D. Understanding Movies. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008. Print.

Robertson, Hal. “Diegetic Sound.” Videomaker 27.10 (2013): 59-60. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 18 Oct. 2014.

“Jurassic Park”. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum. DVD. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 1993.

“One Week”. Dir. Michael McGowan. Perf. Joshua Jackson, Peter Spence, Marc Strange. DVD. 101 Distribution, 2008.

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  1. Emily Deibler

    Wonderful work. Sound, both diegetic and non-diegetic, is such an important component of creating atmosphere. Sometimes, even silence is a strategic choice. I think Jurassic Park is a great example.

  2. Where is Joshua Jackson nowadays? I miss Fringe.

  3. I’ve had cancer, in my 20s. One Week has never failed to move me to tears.

  4. Interesting article – I’d never heard the terms diegetic and non-diegetic before and now that I have a basic understanding of each I’m sure I’ll be paying attention to more than just the background music the next time I go to the movies.

  5. Ok Messer

    One Week is a wonderful story.

  6. Watching Jurassic Park in the theater was a revelation, one of the greatest movie going experiences in my life. I remember being utterly terrified and thrilled through the whole film. This post brought that back and I need to go get my hands on the DVD. Too cool.

  7. It’s probably been 15 years since I last watched Jurassic Park.

  8. Goldblum is magnificent in JP.

  9. Cherrie

    This reminds me of the pioneering work Martin McDonough did with his Bradbury 13 radio series in the early 80s ten years before Jurassic Park.

  10. Carmel Swift

    I love the hidden sources of sound design makes the job sound like a lot of fun.

  11. Both of these types of sounds play a big role in horror films and other suspenseful stories where the audience may know something that the characters don’t.

  12. Munjeera

    Awesome article.

  13. The dilophosaurus still gives me shivers.

  14. I’ve always been interested in the diegesis of sounds and music in film and this is a nice introduction to that concept to those who don’t really pay much attention to details like that.

  15. Rather than sound ,visuals also play a part in movies too

  16. A.C. Lewis

    Very interesting, I never thought of sound design in such a way, especially in regards to musical scores.

  17. Miles Smith

    I totally agree with you! During one of my Videography classes, the prof said “a good movie is only as good as its sound”, and it’s completely and utterly true. Good article!

  18. Great article! One of the more interesting approaches to non-diegetic sound design I have heard recently is in Better Call Saul, in relation to a character’s sensitivity to electromagnetism. In the instances when the character is becoming stressed by electromagnetism the audience hears a mash-up of EMF (electromagnetic frequency) recordings, to emphasize this feeling. This approach to non-diegetic sound is particularly interesting as it uses sounds that are not only not in the world of the story, but sounds that cannot physically be heard by humans without the use of an EMF mic, to emphasize the character’s mental anguish.

  19. This is excellent! Very interesting!

  20. Great analysis! It would be interesting to also focus on the use of extra diegetic sounds.

  21. Another example is the “spidey sense” sound effect in Spider-Man.

  22. Have you ever tried watching a movie muted? It’s a much different experience than watching it with sound because you can interpret scenes in so many ways. Great article!!

  23. I loved the explanation between the two different types of sounds in a movie.
    I am a student in Film, so I completely understand what you are writing about.

    Felipe M.

  24. It is awesome that you are bringing up the diagetic and non diagetic sounds in fils. As a keen cinema student/ cinema goer myself I often find myself engaged on what are onscreen or offscreen sounds. I personally love the “wilhelm scream”

  25. There is no mention of the main function of diegetic sound in this article. It is employed to establish a sense of realism. We hear the sound the raptors make and accept their existence as real. Non-diegetic sound, third person narration or music, establishes an objective point of view as in One Week or a particular atmosphere.

  26. I have always said that people should make movies for the blind and for the deaf. The visual part of cinema should tell a story while the audio tells another one. The mix of both is what makes cinema the incredible medium that it is. However, people underestimate the power of sounds, and as you mention, it amplifies the power of a movie if used properly. I rather watch a movie with low image quality than with bad audio.

  27. Educational. To me (and I’m sure to most), sound is the biggest contributor to the immersion into a world that the movie creates. It is true these two types of sound are important and impart different types of messages and sentiments to the listener/viewer. Thanks!

  28. Interesting text, I mostly enjoyed the part about Jurassic Park, it reminded me of the fear I felt as a child, when the sounds of the T-Rex steps became louder and louder coupled with the moving water in the cup.

    It would be interesting to research how a film like Jurassic Park would make people create emotional response if it was seen without non-diegetic music.

    Although your text has an educational value, it lacks in originality, it’d be great to see links between these basic concepts and other concepts and ideas either from the film studies world or not, or dig deeper in the sentimental or even physical response these sounds bring to the audience.

  29. Lexzie

    This was very interesting and well-written. I now know the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, so thank you.

    I’ve always believed that well placed music in a film, show, or game can completely make or break a scene.

  30. Great article! Sound design can really help a movie meet its maximum potential, especially if it’s experiemental. For example, Birdman often uses diegetic sound in ways that would normally be reserved for non-diegetic sound, and it contributes to the meaning of the film as well as just being interesting in its own right.

  31. I think that the author raises some legitimate issues but fail to make two crucial points. Diegetic sound, the source of which is known to the film’s characters, is employed to authenticate a film’s time, place, and genre. We know from the compilation score of southern rock that Linklater uses in Dazed and Confused that it is set in the 70s in small town America and that it is film about teen culture. Non-diegetic sound is mostly used to create mood and atmosphere as when music swells at times of great excitement or plays lightly in the background of a romantic rendezvous.

  32. I’ve always been a big supporter of using sound, namely music, to convey the mood of a story. I usually listen to music while I write to help generate a picture in my head for whatever scene I’m writing. Battle epics written by Two Steps From Hell help when I’m writing something dramatic; more melancholy music written by, say, Radical Face or The Civil Wars, aid my imagination while I write a sad scene. One topic which you did not cover was the use of non-diegetic sound in horror and thriller films. I’m not entirely familiar with “scary” movies because, well, I scare easily and I’m not really a fan of psychological thrillers, but I do appreciate the way the music always tells you what to expect. A swell in sound and tempo gives you a feeling that maybe you’re being chased. A sudden pause might mean there’s a jump scare ahead (those are the WORST). However, there is a series of horror films that doesn’t use music at all, which you would think makes the fear factor feel a bit lacking, but actually spurs on the suspense much more when you don’t know what to expect. The Paranormal Activity series makes the feeling more malignant and much more realistically scary without the use of thrilling music. An interesting and original tactic, very horror-haunted house feeling.

  33. Amanda

    I won’t be able to watch a movie without considering the effects of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds now! Very interesting.

  34. Interesting…my film analysis skills are amateur at best (I have one undergraduate film class to my name), but I’ve always been interested by sound. I do remember being at least as frightened as the Jurassic Park characters by the ‘thudding’ of the T-rex’s footsteps. An excellent use of diegetic sounds used to terrify not only those inside the movie world but also those spectating it!

  35. It’s great to know the term non-diegetic. In all of the Jurassic Park movies, I’ve always loved the almost magical feeling that is created in the scenes where they are introducing the island with the orchestrated music in the background. Now I know how to describe this effect!! Thank you

  36. danielle577

    I find diegetic and non diegetic sound to be an amazing interesting dichotomy in adding a quality of richness to cinematic representations. The non diegetic sound is a wonderful tool, as you note, in creating a level of suspense, excitement, and anticipation amongst an audience. This is a powerful aspect in television and film that is notably lacking in literary works.

  37. RitoGaming

    Very Great

  38. Jessica Rowe

    This article does a good job of providing a high-level overview of diegetic sound and its importance to every filmmaker.

    This popular term is basically “the difference between telling how a story unfolds or seeing the story unfold. The term diegetic sound comes from film techniques and sound design. Diegetic sounds are those sounds that the on-screen characters experience.”

  39. aflie stannard

    i didnt read it lol

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