Music, sound, and space in film

Matthew McDonald

The final segment of the Active Listening workshop, “Music, sound, and space in film,” featured discussion of how physical space is defined in films led by Northeastern music professor Matthew McDonald.

McDonald’s specialty is music in film. “Film music is in some ways a really hard thing to study because it thwarts active listening,” he said. “More often than not, music is meant to work on us subliminally.” To illustrate how films use sound to define setting, he had audience members listen closely to a segment of the movie “No Country for Old Men” — a 2007 western thriller — two times without the visuals and then had audience members respond to what they heard.

After the second listening portion of the exercise, attendee Carolina Herrera, a Northeastern undergraduate music student studying composition, pointed out the soft, understated wind blowing in the background that intensifies as the narrator pivots into a conversation about a local boy killing a girl. McDonald said this is a commonality in Coen brothers’ soundtracks: to use the sound of wind at the beginning of a film, often connected to a voiceover.

Event attendee Minko Dimov, the founder and creative director of impromptustudio, said the thunder in the beginning made it seem like there was a storm approaching, but the wind takes command as the narrator talks about the past, creating a daydream-like atmosphere.

But then, Dimov pointed out, there are abrupt mechanical noises — metal doors opening, the clinking of metal, tires spinning on a road. These noises mark coming back to reality out of this dream world.

As they tried to describe the change in the narrator’s voice through the scene, attendees found they didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it. McDonald said this is common in the soundscape field — we often don’t have the quality of language to describe the sounds and impressions we hear.

McDonald also pointed out that there are certain “sync points” that contribute to the “phrasing” of sorts of the “audiovisual canvas,” allowing for the comparison and intertwining of sounds and images.

Afterward, McDonald played the clip again, this time allowing the audience to watch the visuals that accompany the sound.

Dietmar Offenhuber, a Northeastern professor of information design and visualization, said he liked to compare the sense of distance created by the sound and reinforced by the imagery. “The auditory space also gives you a circumstance of distance,” he said. “Things are far away, but you still notice them.”

Herrera said there was a cyclic element to the scene. The sounds and images convey a storm coming. Then there is calm. And after the storm comes, there will be calm again. “It’s setting up the trajectory of the film,” McDonald replied, “which is often something that a title sequence will do — and certainly music can be a big part of that: giving you a sense of the larger trajectory.”

writeup by Paxtyn Merten