Michel Chion’s Soundscapes

by Charlie Donnelly

The majority of meaning in film is derived from association. Whether this association is present in the form of the eyeline effect or the Kuleshov effect, no larger message can exist without relying on the audience’s ability to join elements in their minds. To Michel Chion, the associations made between visuals and sound seem equally important as any visual association.

In his discussion of the association between sound and visuals, Michel Chion, a prominent film theorist and the author of Film, A Sound Art claims there are three categories of sound that can be coupled, blended, and traversed in a multitude of different ways as opposed to the simplistic categories of only “offscreen” and “onscreen” audio.

The first is offscreen and diegetic sound (diegetic from Greek, “narrative.” In this case, any noise that occurs as part of the narrative but outside of the frame, including ambient noise). The next is onscreen diegetic sound: this could include but is not limited to an actor speaking, the sound of an object being used onscreen, or a musical number being performed where we see the source. The last is nondiegetic, or sound that occurs outside of the film’s narrative. We do not see the source, and this can take the form of a score that the people in the film are clearly not aware of or a narrator’s voice.

Chion approaches the world of sound with the same taxonomical discipline that had previously been applied to the moving image; specifically, he clarifies that different films can have different sound landscapes to reinforce their visuals. A primary example of this occurs in Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, where the audience is shown little to nothing of a prison and instead ambient noise (guard’s footsteps, whistles) is almost all that characterizes the space.

finalsoundscape.pngAbove: Diagram of the sound spaces within A Man Escaped.

According to Chion, A Man Escaped compartmentalizes sound and in doing so creates more rigid boundaries between the physical spaces–the difference between the cell and the hallway is evident by the echoes of the guard’s key hitting the stair rail, while the faraway train whistle hints at the wide-open space that will soon be Fontaine’s reality. Thus, by using a combination of physical and sound spaces, Bresson is able to make the boundary between guard and prisoner even more rigid. We feel Fontaine’s apprehension at the familiar footsteps in the hallway, and simultaneously cringe at the slightest clang of his homemade hook hitting the floor of his cell.

By exploring the association between audio and visual, I noted that Chion leaves us with the possibility of linkage and unlinkage. If sound contributes to meaning as much as visuals do, then the possibility for disrupting or confirming our expectations seems infinitely greater than I anticipated. For example, Abigail Child’s Mercy was partially able to “unlink” us from the meaning of the film through the disconnected wail of the audio as opposed to just the visual component.

In Chion’s discussion of A Man Escaped, he describes it as a piece with “rigid compartmentalization of the three zones,” where any crossing of boundaries (which will be discussed later) has a significant and symbolic purpose. This idea of classifying a film by its soundscape gives us even more taxonomy for describing film and meaning as a whole–not only is the visual world or soundtrack of a film unique, so is the entire audio “soundscape.”

Just as a film can have a unique soundscape, it can also define its own sound-emblems or motifs. Chion details one example of this effect where a train is heard during the night when Fontaine (the prisoner) hoists himself to the window of his cell. Chion remarks that the train sounds as if it is “resonating in a fairly wide-open space.” This emblem is repeated frequently during the final escape scene, recurring at increasing volumes and intensity in the place of their gravelly footsteps almost as if to protect the two escaping prisoners. Ultimately, the two free men cross a bridge above a train as Mozart’s C-Minor mass crescendoes triumphantly and smoke engulfs them. In this final frame, we at long last see the evidence of the sound emblem: the two men have reached the wide-open space and the train whistle, and yet we still don’t see the train and it “retains its mystery.” 

Above: assorted clips of the train sound-emblem being introduced and then used throughout the escape scene.

The concept of a sound-emblem was a relatively new one to me. While we’ve discussed visual metaphor in class, the idea that a sound (other than music) could represent something seems to allow for a new world of meaning through audio. When considering the sound-emblems in films I have seen, all that came to mind were iconic soundtracks (including Jaws or any Bernard Hermann score) where a recurring theme brought terror into my heart, no visual needed.

Ultimately, Chion makes the point that the three sound boundaries can be blurred: just as a streetcar in A Man Escaped can be brought into frame and therefore acousmatized, crossing the offscreen-onscreen boundary, films often blur the boundaries between diegetic and non-diegetic sound for comedic effect. One example I came across while researching was Blazing Saddles and its grand reveal of Count Basie and his band playing in the middle of the desert. By initially hiding the song’s source, the audience is left to assume that this is part of a grand soundtrack while revealing the band among the cacti creates an absurd tension–why are all these musicians in the middle of the desert?

Above: A song goes from nondiegetic to onscreen diegetic for comedic effect in Blazing Saddles.

Stranger than Fiction also challenges our expectations of non-diegetic and diegetic sound using narration; specifically during the moment when the protagonist Harold Crick hears the narrator describing him. Confused, he questions his toothbrush and looks around him–compelling the audience to laugh at his confusion. By uniting the diegetic and non-diegetic world, the film establishes the rest of the plot (the collision of the author’s world and the protagonist’s) and gives the audience a laugh along the way.

Above: A song goes from nondiegetic to offscreen diegetic for comedic effect in Stranger than Fiction.

As I read The Three Borders, one question that came to mind was–why don’t more films set up unique soundscapes? Perhaps A Man Escaped makes such precise use of sound because it is an authentic depiction of someone’s experience, and therefore endeavors to recreate the sensory elements of their imprisonment. If this is the case, why don’t authentic retellings set up such individualized soundscapes? While some of the movies I’ve watched (including A Man Escaped) have a unique set of sounds to accompany their specific location, many of the larger feature films I’ve seen don’t use sound as creatively. Even the soundtrack to most feature films isn’t as notable even though sound can (and perhaps should) be given a prominent role in establishing meaning and setting tone–so why aren’t we using every tool at our disposal?


A Man Escaped. Dir. Robert Bresson. Gaumont, 1956. Film.

Chion, Michel. Film, A Sound Art. Columbia University Press, 2009.

Blazing Saddles. Dir. Mel Brooks. Warner Bros., 1974. Film.

Stranger than Fiction. Dir. Marc Forster. Columbia, 2006. Film.

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