Sound Design In Modern Scores

Ever since movies have been around, even before there was sound, there was music. In fact, the first moving pictures were meant to enhance a musical production and not the other way around. The first films started out with traditional and classical music played live, usually by a single piano player (in some elaborate productions a full orchestra was used). In the days before sound, the music soundtrack would be playing during the entire film. There were musical parts that simply added to the film and there were others that were integral to making the scene work. With the advent of sound, music was still integral to the film, but had taken a back seat to sound and dialogue. There was the music, there was dialogue, and then there were the sound effects and Foley; three separate processes.

Movin’ On In

Later, music once again began to take a bigger role in the soundtrack, in some cases replacing the traditional sound effects. In animation, the music would be integral to the sound design. Think about the famous Warner Brothers cartoons; instead of footsteps, we would hear the pizzicato strings. By the Golden Era of the 40’s and 50’s, the line between a traditional score and sound design started to get a lot more blurred. Composers started using more modern elements in their scores. More and more atonal, 20th century and serial type of music was becoming part of many movies. Bernard Hermann was famous for using these type of elements in his scores. “Vertigo” is a good example of a score that uses a lot of 20th century elements. It was taken to extremes in some cases. The first “Planet of the Apes” is a good example of the orchestra being more of a sound design element than a traditional orchestra. Throughout most of the movie, the orchestra plays sounds and noises that jet out and jerk the audience into the notion of the future coming in contrast to the past. There are no melodies to speak of. The score becomes and extension of the film’s soundtrack in terms of creating a sonic background.

Cannons in the 3rd Movement

Sound design elements and special FX has been part of classical music for a long time. There are some symphonies that require special instruments and objects that aren’t part of the traditional orchestra. Some famous composers used sound FX and special instrumentation to great effect (e.g. Handel and Tchaikovsky). There are some symphonies that have players making noises in different parts of the stage, some in other rooms altogether.

Part of the Score

Today you’ll find these same elements in most modern scores. These days however, sound design is an integral part of every composers palette. It’s normal to interject sounds, noises and atonal elements right into the middle of a traditional score. Most of the time, we’re so used to this that it happens without us realizing it. Sometimes ambient noises form the background for more traditional orchestra parts. Sometimes noises and FX are integral to homophony of the piece being performed. Sometimes the noises and FX are the actual ‘melody’ with the more traditional instruments playing a more supporting role.

Where’s the Melody?

We also have the modern versions of the ‘atonal’ scores. We’re used to hearing these in horror movies but they happen in other genres as well. It could be argued that some modern horror scores  are nothing more than sound design. There doesn’t seem to be any traditional composition in there at all. Traditional symphonic writing has taken a back seat to this style in recent years. There are some producers and directors who don’t want to hear actual melodies in their scores. Fearing that it may sound dated, or too traditional, they prefer the sound design method.

Music for Airports

The other way these sound design elements have been integrated into modern scores is through loops. There are the ambient ‘Eno’ type of loops that enhance the mood of the scene while almost being invisible to the audience. Most of the time these loops are made up of nothing more than ambient sound and noises looped and synched to a specific tempo. You get the feel of motion and music without actually hearing a harmony or melody. It’s also become normal to incorporate these loops under a traditional score so you get the element of the noise background while hearing a traditional instrument or melody. Most modern scores are made up of these elements.

50 Piece Percussion Sections

Percussion has also taken a bigger role in recent years. It has become commonplace for composers to interject rhythmic elements only; forgoing any melody or harmony. Traditional action films used to be underscored with big orchestras with soaring strings and blasting horns. While the strings and horns are still used (sometimes too much!), drums and percussion have to take center stage in most action films. While percussion is not considered sound design in the traditional sense, it’s hard to tell sometimes where the line is drawn. The drums will enhance action scenes and move the audience and become part of the sound of the scene. In some battle scenes, it’s hard to tell if the drums are part of the scene, or part of the the score.

Modern ‘Composers’

There have even been composers who have written scores for movies that have no composition at all. It’s all sound FX and sound design. There is one famous case where a composer won out the scoring duties for a huge Hollywood feature. The actual soundtrack was nothing more than a (hugely popular) sample CD, edited and pieced together for the final picture. It was all sound FX.

Here to Stay

Like it or not, sound design elements, atonal elements and loops are all part of the modern score. It happens so much that it has become part and parcel of the modern film score. There are times where a composer will go of their way to not include these elements but it’s usually on purpose (in an effort to make the score ‘more traditional’). The line where the score and composition ends and the sound design begins is becoming harder and harder to discern.  Like it not, whether you realize it or not, sound FX is becoming part of your regular listening experience.