Stuff that occurs to me

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Science in London: The 2016 scientific society talks in London blog post

Friday, 14 July 2017

My favourite examples of (what I think is) diegetic switching in film music

As far as I can tell, and feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, diegetic sound refers to anything 'in-story' - so in a film it's sound that comes from the on-screen environment, eg music coming from the radio that a character is listening to is diegetic but the film's score is non-diegetic.

Sometimes a film uses what TV Tropes calls the "Left the background music on" trope in which what seems to be film score or external source music (non-diegetic) for a film suddenly switches to being in the film (diegetic). This is, as I understand it, a diegetic switch. An example is the start of Shawshank Redemption where the music starts off as being external to the film, and then at about 50s into this clip, internal - as in coming from Andy's car radio.



I've no idea how they achieved this - perhaps it's beautifully edited from two playings of the same song, one through a gramophone and the other through a radio speaker. Perhaps they just manipulated the graphics equaliser to make them sound different - if you know tell me :)

Next up is a scene from Woody Allen's film Bananas in which he is invited to have dinner with the President, an offer which almost overwhelms him and his imagination. As he lies back on his bed in reverie the dreamy harp music that plays over the scene, at 28 seconds, is not as it seems...



In the Shawshank example it's the same song that is rendered slightly differently as the diegetic switch happens but in Bananas the music doesn't change but our understanding of it does. In the next two examples something slightly different takes place. As in Shawshank the music in both these clips does change but the switch seems to have more of an emotional resonance than the one in Shawshank (that's not a criticism of it!). First up is a clip from the West Wing, episode Noel, in which Josh is being taken to hospital by Donna after having a bit of a breakdown and injuring himself.

The segment begins around 1m 40 as Donna shepherds Josh out of the West Wing whereupon he hears a choir in the street outside singing and performing the Carol of the Bells on voice and handbells. At 2m 46 the switch shows him zoning out briefly - accompanied by the music taking on a richer sound with additional instruments - before  Donna's "Josh!" at 3 minutes in brings both him and the now diegetic-again music back to 'normal'. At the end of the clip the music is again 'augmented', and it's gorgeous, though it doesn't have the same emotional punch as the segment in which Josh is briefly caught up in himself. I think there might be a tiny diegetic switch at 1m 57 too when the music starts being audible but we're still in the White House with Leo McGarry, though presumably the music wouldn't be audible for him.



Another example is from the 1996 film Emma in which the protagonist is enjoying a dance but distressed that her friend isn't, having been snubbed by someone she'd liked to have danced with - the main scene starts at 27s in to the clip. In the background you can hear what sounds like a small group of musicians playing the dance piece as the story unfolds. Then the hero of the hour, Mr Knightley, steps up and invites Emma's friend to join him on the dancefloor and at 2m 15s the music swells and is presumably being played by a much larger group of musicians. Again I'm not quite sure how they managed to switch from one to the other and keep the pitch and timing so perfect. I'd love to see it performed live as a 'live to picture' event (where the score is performed live while the film is screened).



The use of the diegetic switch in both the West Wing and Emma clips seems to be doing something else in addition to just switching the locus of the music, certainly changing the way the audience might feel about the story and its protagonists.




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