Suggestions for assignments

Part I:

Part I general
Chapter 3
Chapter 4

Part II:

Part II general
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9


Page last updated 1 October 2009.



(Constructed sounds and space) Locate three scenes in three different films where a person is shown walking (this won't be hard to do) and try to describe how the sound of that walking is registered in the sound track. Then compare the three and analyze why the walking sound(s) might have been constructed as they were (suppressed because other sounds are more relevant, louder and shaped so as to bring out the typical qualities of some indoor or outdoor space, louder in order to focus our attention on the walker and his or her trajectory in the frame, etc.). 

(Constructed sounds and space) Repeat the exercise with three scenes in which two persons are talking. Are the registers (tessitura) of the speakers differentiated (that's typical) or, if not, how do the voices interfere (or avoid interfering) with each other? What other sounds can be heard while the dialogue goes on? And how do those sounds interact with the dialogue? 

(Constructed sounds and space) Repeat the exercise with scenes in the interior of an airplane. You might start with Sleepless in Seattle (about five minutes before the "second botched meeting") and Catch Me if You Can (near the end) and add a third scene from a film you know (or go back to earlier films such as Airplane! and Airport). Consider how (or whether) the characteristic sound qualities of an airplane interior are reproduced and compare the treatment in the three films.

(Constructed sounds and space) Repeat one of the three exercises above (walking, persons talking, interior of an airplane) or make up a new, similar exercise, but now focus not so much on comparing the qualities of sound in different scenes as on evaluating and comparing how the sound functions operate, in particular what kinds of textures are employed and their effects on the overall sound and on our perception of the image track. 

(Voices and tempo)  Watch The Philadelphia Story (1940) and compare the speaking tempi of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant's characters (and how those tempi change depending on the situation). As an alternative to watching the entire film, you can watch two or three scenes selected at random, as the film consists almost entirely of speech (it originated in a stage play). There is also very little music. (Two similar and equally well-known films starring Cary Grant are 
Bringing Up Baby (with Hepburn; 1938) and His Girl Friday (with Rosalind Russell; 1939).) 

(Timbre) Crash
 (1996) uses a strongly profiled techno score as background music. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this sound (compared to a traditional orchestra) in terms of its narrative functions? 

(Timbre and realism)   In 
Humoresque (1946) (Fig. 4.9), or another film that highlights performances by acoustic instruments (violin, piano, acoustic guitar, etc.), choose one or two scenes and compare the sound of the instrument on the sound track with diegetic realism; that is, does the instrument sound the way you would expect it to, given the physical environment depicted on screen and the assumed distance from the camera (the physical position of the camera is the assumed position of the viewer)? 

(Music performances and sound design)  Listen to one or more of the popular songs performed non-diegetically in The Graduate (1967) and describe the smoothness or clumsiness with which the music enters and exits. 

(Music performances and sound design)  Do a similar exercise with the jazz performances in Robert Altman's film 
Kansas City (1996).



(Audio dissolves; sound bridges)  The “So in Love” sequence from De-Lovely (1:34:19-1:40:48) is a particular rich example that illustrates a number of the sound track qualities and devices explored in this chapter. Note in particular the complicated play between diegetic and non-diegetic music occasionally mediated by audio dissolves and the frequent use of various kinds of sound bridges. 

(Silent vs. sound) 
Blackmail (1929): The first reel of this early Alfred Hitchcock film is silent (with orchestral score and a very few scattered sound effects). Compare the first reel with the second. Another remarkable feature of this film is that the female lead's voice is dubbed throughout. Actress Joan Barry spoke the lines standing just offscreen, as was necessary at the time because of the limited capabilities of the single microphone, while Anny Ondra lip-synched onscreen. Sometimes this method works reasonably well, other times not so well. What effect does this have on our sense of the physical space and sound realism?

(Comparative sound track analysis)  Choose a short scene or segment of a scene—no more than two minutes long—in two films, one from Hollywood between 1935 and 1945 and one from either Hollywood or another national tradition in any later decade. Analyze each according to some sound track parameter—volume, frequency [high or low pitches], amount of echo or reverberation in the sound, tempo (or speed), or texture (density or liveliness). Then, describe the balance of the sound track elements, evaluate their interplay in terms of narrative, and then compare the scenes. 

(Sound bridge)   Choose a film from the last 15 years and analyze it specifically for its treatment of the sound bridge. If you chose the film at random, watch it once or twice in order to grasp its narrative and its overall form, then pay close attention to the transitions between formal units. If you already know the film well, you can go directly to the analysis of the transitions and the (potential) use of sound bridges.

(Sound perspective)  Choose a scene from a Hollywood film between 1938 and 1945 and analyze it in detail for sound perspective. In particular focus on how sound levels and apparent direction are manipulated to draw the viewer's ears "into the picture," so to speak (an effect Rick Altman calls "for-me-ness")—giving priority in sound design to positioning the viewer where framing and distance suggest that the camera stands. 

(Sound perspective)   Choose scenes from several films from the 1950s and 1960s, such as 
Ben Hur, Rebel Without a Cause, Written on the Wind, or The Good, Bad, and Ugly, and analyze them for sound perspective. Or, watch one of these films and ask yourself: To what extent do these films maintain or depart from the earlier tradition of placing the viewer at the camera? And, where they do depart, what are the effects—and the possible reasons? (Films in the 1950s and 1960s, especially those intended for wide-screen presentation, often seem to settle for a much cruder sense of sound perspective than did films before that time.) 

(Sound perspective)   Choose similar scenes from a film in the 1940s and one in the 1960s and compare their treatment of sound perspective. 

(Sound perspective)   Analyze the opening scene from 
East of Eden (1954)—beginning as soon as the main titles and prologue are finished and continuing until Cal (James Dean) hops a train to return to Salinas—for its distortions of sound perspective. 

(Voice-over and music)   The voice-over is a significant element in 
Citizen Kane (1941). How do music and the voice-over narration relate to one another in the sound track—do they keep strictly apart or are they sometimes joined in the sound track? And, for either circumstance, what is the effect achieved with the respect to the narration at that moment? 

(Performance scenes)  Choose any film musical before 1965 and analyze each of its performances for its transitions into and out of the performance. You should expect to find the audio dissolve, but what other techniques (if any) are used? 

(Performance scenes)  Choose a film musical from the past twenty years and study its performances. Do these more recent films also make use of the audio dissolve? And, if so, in similar or different ways than the "classical" musical of the 1930s to 1950s?

(Commutation test)    Commutation tests are easily made for any film by simply playing music on a CD player while the film runs without sound. The disadvantage, of course, is that you lose the dialogue and effects, so that the overall character of the sound track is altered. You might try an experiment with main titles, which are often accompanied by music only. For scenes without music, on the other hand, you can judge what music does by playing both CD track and film audio simultaneously. More frequently nowadays, DVDs are released with alternate tracks, for example, Dracula (1931) with a new string quartet score by Philip Glass. 

("Playing against the image")     Bernard Herrmann’s music in the 1950s is by no means always so clearly attuned to the image track as it is in the "money" scene from Psycho. Watch North by Northwest (1959), which has several musical cues that clash obviously with their scenes. Start with the main title sequence and the Chicago airport sequence. 

Chapter 5:


Fred Karlin's Listening to Movies has eight detailed descriptions of films and their music that are similar to the ones in this chapter. The films are The Adventures of Robin Hood, Dark Victory, Spellbound, The Spirit of St. Louis, North by Northwest, The Magnificent Seven, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Untouchables.


For a collection of compact descriptions for a worldwide repertoire of films, many of them recent, see Philip Brophy's 100 Modern Soundtracks. As the title suggests, Brophy discusses the sound track, not music in particular.


A good comparison exercise is to locate another film from the same year as one of those discussed in this chapter, work out a description of its music uses, and then compare the two films. If the films are from different genres, do they treat music differently (as one might expect) or similarly, despite the genre disparity? Do action scenes (love scenes, etc.) have music in both? And if so, how similar (or different) is the music? If there are scenes where we might expect music but there is none, do other sound track elements serve any of the conventional functions we would expect of music?


Bordwell & Thompson do a narrative and stylistic analysis of Stagecoach (1939) in an essay from the 4th edition of FIlm Art: An Introduction. They mention a comment they make elsewhere on offscreen sound (during a climactic moment in the chase scene) and they invite the student to explore uses of sound elsewhere in the film. A pdf file is available on the Film Art website



Chapter 6: 


La Cage aux Folles (1978): The Birdcage is closely based on this famous French film. Compare the first sequence in both films for their sound and formal treatment of music. The club owner's son arrives at 15:00, the cut to the next morning at 21:50. Any number of other scenes throughout the two films can be compared, as well, but we recommend looking at the endings: in The Birdcage, the final scene is made to mirror the opening, complete with a refrain of "We are Family," but in La Cage aux Folles the design is more complex and music plays less of a role.


1. Establishing Sequence


The Young Lions (1958): See The Art of Film Music, 49ff, for a partial music score.


Don Juan (1926) is a silent film with a recorded orchestral score. It offers an easily accessible example of silent-film era practices. Another Vitaphone film is The Jazz Singer (1927), which is also silent with a recorded orchestral score, except for Al Jolson's (famous) songs and two brief instances of speech.


For the following films, entire or partial reduced scores of the main title music may be found in Karlin & Wright, On the Track (2d. edition): Agnes Of God (1985), Basic Instinct (1992), Braveheart (1995) , Crash (1996), Edward Scissorhands (1990), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Glory (1989), Patton (1970), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), The Silence Of The Lambs (1991), Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982).


The main-title sequence (opening credits up to the beginning of the first scene) is traditionally dominated by music, without anything else in the sound track (the beginnings of Psycho or North by Northwest are typical examples). Watch five openings of films released in the past twenty five years and analyze how music and sound are used in them—the odds are that the relationship will be much more complex than the classical model.


2. End credit music


The Man Without a Past (2002): In contrast to films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, here one original pop song, "Stay," is played throughout the end credits. This song was not used during the film proper, but its text and musical style have obvious and strong connections to the narrative. The significance of the song is highlighted by its final moments, which are heard against a blackened screen after the credits have finished.



Chapter 7:


1. Performance Scene

Compare Lauren Bacall's performance of "Am I Blue?" with her performance of "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" during the casino scene in The Big Sleep.  Compare with one or more of Elizabeth Scott's performances: "Either It's Love or It Isn't" in Dead Reckoning (1947), "Don't Call It Love" in I Walk Alone (1948), or one of five songs in Dark City (1950). 


Compare the famous performances by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927) with any solo song performance in a film from the 1940s (those by Bacall or Scott listed above would be appropriate).


Analyze performances in Elvis Presley musicals such as Love Me Tender (1957) or Jailhouse Rock (1957), including the way they are prepared in narrative and the way they are staged (lighting, speed of cutting, and so on).


Analyze the first dance in Urban Cowboy (1980) (just after Bud and Sissy meet at Gilley's) and compare it with the dancehall scene in Hope Floats.


Wings of Desire (1987): compare two hard rock performances, one in a club about two-thirds through the film (1:20:26), the other in a hotel very near the end (1:50:34; the scene begins a few seconds earlier as Damiel (Bruno Ganz) notices a poster announcing the performance). A more complex example is the trapeze performance by Marion (Solveig Dommartin), accompanied by a small band of saxophones (1:13:10; the scene begins about thirty seconds earlier with a disappearance trick, from which Marion emerges).


(Music performances and sound design)  Listen to one or more of the popular songs performed non-diegetically in The Graduate (1967) and describe the smoothness or clumsiness with which the music enters and exits. 

(Music performances and sound design)  Do a similar exercise with the jazz performances in Robert Altman's film Kansas City (1996).

(Performances vs. underscore)     Watch a film musical (generally those after about 1945, such as The Pirate, The Bandwagon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and On the Town) and notice the balance between, and the different roles played by, performances and background orchestral music. In particular, ask how the performance itself either temporarily stops ("steps outside") the narrative or moves it forward somehow. To study the balance between foreground and background more closely, you can take any performance (song or production number) and add two to three minutes 
before and after. All the titles listed above were produced by MGM's famous "Freed Unit," which specialized in musicals. Some titles from other sources: How to Marry a Millionaire, White Christmas, Jailhouse Rock, Mary Poppins, and Dr. Doolittle. Or, among very recent films: Moulin Rouge, Dancer in the Dark, De-Lovely, and High School Musical (this last is a movie made for television). 

(Peformances and narrative)    Another possibility is to watch several performances (whether in one film or several from roughly the same time period) to see how much narrative is stalled or moved forward during the performance (the musical performances in Casablanca are benchmarks for this latter technique). 

(Peformances and narrative)   Instead of film musicals, you might use an alternative repertoire of non-musical films where performances play an important role, such as The Birdcage (establishing sequence and the final scene), The Blues Brothers or O Brother, Where Art Thou? Still another possibility for study is films where recordings of popular songs or standards are used prominently as non-diegetic music, a common practice in the 1980s and early 1990s, as in films produced or directed by Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, This is My Life, You've Got Mail). 

2. Montage/Fantasy Scene

In Chapter 7, we mention the Training Montage" (35:00-39:00) from Million Dollar Baby (2006). List the segments of this four-minute montage, and analyze the roles of music and voice-over narration. Contrary to formal expectations, this montage also uses dissolves. What effect do they have here? Finally, go back about a minute and a half before the montage starts and the same distance after it ends. How are the transitions made, in narrative, shot editing, and sound?


Chapter 8: see separate page.


Chapter 9: 


1. Dialogue Scene


Virtually all narrative feature films have dialogue scenes. Given that most such scenes either focus on imparting information through speech or on the psychological and emotional interactions of the conversants, and given music's presence or absence, we then have four basic functional categories: information with music; information without music; interactions with music; interactions without music. Of course, these categories are not absolute: a love scene, for example, is strong on emotional interactions and frequently involves music, but narrative information is being imparted, too, as the couple is formed or they become physically intimate.


Watch To Have and Have Not and categorize each of the conversations between Bogart and Bacall's characters according to the four types given above. Then interpret the narrative roles for the design of each scene. (Two famous scenes are erotically charged, for example, but have no musical background. What effect does that have in each case?)


Choose any film from the past fifteen years and study its dialogue scenes (or a selection of scenes if the film contains a large number) in the same way (that is, categorize each according to the four types given above and interpret the narrative roles of the design choices).


2. Action Scene


The Usual Suspects (1995), Ambush at the Boat (beginning about 74' (DVD chs. 26-29): several scenes alternating with cuts back to the police sergeant's office): note particularly the shifting dominance—and the intermingling -- of music and effects sounds.


3. Love Scene


The Young Lions (1958): an unusual and sharply contrasting pair of (potentially) sexual encounters follow closely on one another, beginning at about 34:00. For those who read music notation, see George Burt, The Art of Film Music, 19-25, for partial music scores. 


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