A Strange Border – Essay on Music & Sound

A Strange Border – Essay on Music & Sound

There is a strange and porous border in film sound and that is the one that exists between music and sound design, it is not a sealed and clearly defined boundary, but an open, shifting and nebulous one, easy to cross over back and forth, sometimes inadvertently and other times boldly and deliberately, by both the composer and the sound designer.

One might ask what is the difference between music and sound design? A flippant answer would be royalties. A better answer would be at times a great deal and at others not much at all. For the most part the roles of music and sound design are clearly defined, music in film continues the role of the “pit” orchestra from the days of silent cinema, commenting, narrating and guiding the audience emotionally through the action.

Sound design mostly exists within the world created on screen, but from time to time it steps out from this perhaps “functional” role and crosses over the borderline into music, and it is this area of overlap and blurring of distinction between the two that I find increasingly interesting. The films of David Lynch and the work of his sound designer Alan Splet are good examples of this ambiguity and were an early inspiration for me, their early film “Eraserhead” in particular.

Most sound designers have a musical background, which may be a formal one or perhaps, like me, their love of sound started in manipulating electronic instruments and discovering the wonders of the recording studio. The reason I call the supposed divide between music and sound design a strange border is because it is often an arbitrary one, for example an atmospheric drone can be created by a composer and it is a music cue, similar material created by a sound designer is a sound effect.

In the past I have contributed sound design elements to films that I felt had crossed that border from sound design into scoring, I’m thinking in particular of moments in the films Love Is the Devil and Chatroom. I used to have a rule...

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