How We Understand Sound and Its Impacts

Like many other people, I don’t always notice every single sound around me. From the moment I wake up there are countless sounds that surround me: my alarm wakes me up, maybe an ambulance or car horn wakes me up first, my refrigerator hums as I close cabinets, footsteps and muffled voices move past my dorm door, perhaps rain taps on my window, and many other things happen in the small amount of time it takes me to get ready for my classes in the morning. Many other sounds occur throughout the day, even ones that I’m not consciously aware of. The text “Sound Matters” by Heidi McKee stirred my thoughts and required me to do some deep-thinking about how sound—and silence—impacts my everyday life. To begin with, McKee really intrigued me with the section on “locating meaning in a multimodal ensemble” (338). Of course I knew that filmmakers used music and other sound effects to create a certain mood or exemplify a particular point. Reading this section really put this idea into play for me because I never fully comprehended this idea. McKee quotes a sound editor known as Helen Van Dongen, who states that

“Picture and track, to a certain degree, have a composition of their own but when combined they form a new entity… Picture and track are so closely fused together that each one functions through the other.”

This reference definitely made me critically think about how sound influences visuals. Since the twentieth century, sound in films has greatly expanded. Now, it is almost impossible to study or analyze all the different modes (i.e. language, image, sound, etc.) separately from one another. Very few sounds or even silence can serve to be very powerful in films and other visuals. Music is another very influential piece of sound when it comes to visuals. For example, in the film The Fault In Our Stars (TFIOS), the soundtrack as well as several audio styles play a significant role in the development of of the storyline.

In TFIOS, there is a particular scene in which the two main characters, Augustus and Hazel, ride in an ambulance. (This is the scene shown in the YouTube clip above). Augustus becomes seriously ill due to his case of cancer. Hazel accompanies him in the ambulance ride to the hospital. The sounds produced in this scene formulate the somber tone that the filmmakers desired. There’s the humming of the ambulance’s engine and the beeping of medical machines in the background. No music is playing, so that the audience is not distracted from the poem that Hazel is reciting. The poem (and Hazel’s delivery of it) is the most important sound that the filmmakers want the audience to focus on.

Furthermore, McKee discusses the aspects of vocal delivery on pages 339-343; she references how Thomas Sheridan claims that there more attention needs to be a focused “on the nonverbal aspects of vocal delivery” (340), which include tone, accent, and emphasis. These nonverbal features proved to be very significant in this particular scene of TFIOS because there are very few sounds, causing the audience to focus on Hazel and her delivery of “The Red Wheelbarrow” poem. The few sounds that normally appear in an ambulance and the delivery of the poem causes the audience to feel the despair and the heartbreak of this scene—just like the filmmakers intended. The actual delivery of the poem “[gives] weight and heft to the words” (340) that may not have occurred if the audience were to simply read the poem on their own; like McKee mentions in this section, spoken words provide feelings and tones that don’t always arise from written text. Limiting the background noise, the audience is able to focus and to be affected emotionally by the poem Hazel recites.


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