Creating Emotions with Sound


Sound has long been a tool to convey emotion, be it in theatre or cinema. Now with the advent of video games and super powerful consoles {PS4 FTW!}, games have so much more content. For games like Call of Duty, the background scores last for as long as 50 hours+ and there are endless effects and backgrounds that keep on evolving and are very dynamic throughout the game. Sound has come about to become an equal part of media making, forming half of the storytelling process.

I remember first time watching Apocalypse Now, never knowing that in the coming years it’s going to be such a big part of my life and career. Now I have seen it more than a hundred times and I still can’t help admiring the sound design plus I always notice something new in the sound scape. It was in 1979 when Walter Murch had devised the term ‘Sound Design’, and later with colleagues went on with the development of the standard 5.1 film format, the 5.1 channel array, which took the role of sound in cinema to new heights, changing the way it impacts the audience.

5.1 channel array

An example of a 5.1 Channel Setup.

Picture and sound have distinct characteristics. Pictures are more physical, whereas sounds are more emotional. Sounds can affect the human being on subconscious levels and invoke emotions. Sound is the second most important sense used to invoke memory and at its core, is also used as a tool of manipulation. Whenever we go to a theatre we know we are there for a movie and we are going to go through a lot of emotions. We let our emotions flow knowing fully well that all of this is created by man and not in real life. Human beings are very good at interpreting sound. If you really think about it, it’s rather odd that a background score is playing in an intense scene in a movie or a game, there’s nothing like that in real life but even then, we let it flow over us. The music making its intended impact. It is possible to portray the superimposed emotional realism of sound over the physical aspect of the scene.  These qualities of sound and video can be merged together by sound designers to highlight and improve the emotional and physical aspects of an object, character or situation in a scene. This approach works best when an active effort is taken to merge the picture with sound by creating a sound scape that depicts, on a subconscious level, our perception of the media.

When it comes down to the bare bones, the sound, much like the visuals, should be a combination of the several elements that, when put together, mean more than the sum of the parts.

– Filipe F.Coutinho

Sound Designers like Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, David Lynch, Randy Thom… and the list goes on, are the masters of their craft and their work portrays how films are 50% sound. Their work has inspired me in this direction to a great extent. Earlier seeing a movie because I found it nice and now, to critically evaluate and learn. It’s always a good idea to observe other people’s work to learn from it. You also sometimes learn from their mistakes which are always better than making one yourself.

There are numerous examples throughout history and recent past, which show how important sound and music have been to invoke emotion and provoke thought.

In 1939, Bette Davis starred in Dark Victory. In the finale, her character’s vision begins to falter and she moves slowly up a grand staircase. Max Steiner was scoring the music at that time. Upon knowing that such a talented musician like Max Steiner was scoring for the movie and that could potentially downplay her performance, she refused to do the scene saying that it’s either her or the background score that’s going up the stairs! Such was the power of sound and this was in 1939. Later on, the Director ignored the opinion of Bette Davis and continued schedule and the movie went on to be nominated for the Oscars. Two Oscar nominations were created in that scene, one for her and one for Steiner. In films like Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, straining strings and overblowing brass are mimicking the noise of panic in nature. Lets turn to a short article in which the Sound Designer for Star Wars, Ben Burtt, was interviewed. The article was entitled The Emotional Sounds of Star Wars. Within it, he had this to say…

When I initially started on star wars, I asked George Lucas “Are we going to do a movie which is that 2001 style, because I am a physics graduate and I can give you that kind of soundtrack or I can forget all that and we can put in anything that we want.

George said: “Well we are going to have music and if you are not going to justify where the orchestra comes from, I guess we can have any kind of sound we want.” We sort of nodded and said “Let’s go for what is emotionally right.” We will put in a sound if we feel we need it for impact or for dramatic value. So we threw out the physic ideas and went with sound in space, which turned out to be a lot more fun.

star wars

By the ‘2001 Style’ mentioned in the above quote, it means treating the sound in a realistic sense, something like Gravity that we just had recently. People can be startled by the sudden sound of a door slamming or a thunder in a storm, annoyed by the noise of cars in the street or feel pleased by the sound of a water stream in the forest, they all invoke emotion and have to be used in tight conjunction with the story line.

In the Indian film, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), a fantastic approach to emotional sound design is observed where the sound designer Baylon Fonseca, has merged the physical aspects of the scenes and transitions with the emotional aspect associated to them. In Apocalypse Now, Lynch heightens certain specific sounds that typically produce eerie feelings (scissors, tires peeling rubber, etc) to create a bigger impact on the viewer, further enhancing the bizarre nature of the storyline. In Silence of the Lambs, in buffalo bills basement, where Catherine is caught in the well, Skip Lievsay takes a rather creative approach of using pitched screams of animals to heighten a sense of fear among the viewers. In situations like this, juxtaposition or contrasting sounds work to a new level. Anyone who’s seen the Dark Knight might remember the sonic identity of the Joker. The way the cello is used, I would argue, isn’t typically musical but instead an example of Sound Design in music.


Not just through defined sound, emotional characteristics of a scene can also be conveyed though the use of correct frequencies of sound. There are examples, which are very common and then there are some that are not. The use of high frequency can be used to heighten a sense of anxiety, feelings of anticipation of what is coming ahead. The use of maybe a car passing with only the highs associated to it or a helicopter running with its distinct whine in the background during an emotional or action scene maybe used as an example to create tension and can be observed in a lot of movies, both recent and in the past.

Another technique that is not so common but is catching on is, Infrasound. Taken from Wikipedia..

Infrasound, sometimes referred to as low-frequency sound, is sound that is lower in frequency than 20 Hz (Hertz) or cycles per second, the “normal” limit of human hearing. Hearing becomes gradually less sensitive as frequency decreases, so for humans to perceive infrasound, the sound pressure must be sufficiently high. The ear is the primary organ for sensing infrasound, but at higher intensities it is possible to feel infrasound vibrations in various parts of the body. The study of such sound waves is referred to sometimes as infrasonics, covering sounds beneath 20 Hz down to 0.001 Hz. This frequency range is utilized for monitoring earthquakes, charting rock and petroleum formations below the earth, and also in ballistocardiography and seismocardiography to study the mechanics of the heart. Infrasound is characterized by an ability to cover long distances and get around obstacles with little dissipation.


Naturally occurring infrasound has been associated with areas of ‘supernatural activity’. Producers of the 2002 French psychological thriller Irreversible, admitted to using this technique. Audience members reported feeling disoriented and physically ill after just half an hour of infrasound, leaving before the most shocking visual sequence on-screen. In the 2007 horror Paranormal Activity, audiences also reported towering high fear levels despite a lack of action on-screen. It is believed this was caused by the use of low-frequency sound waves, possibly infrasound.

Our eyes are not easily fooled because we are used to seeing the worlds since a very long time and we have been trained in such a way through our ancestors. But our ears can be fooled easily. Great Sound Designers know this and exploit this to make us feel one with the story and be involved both physically and emotionally with the storyline.


Places to further explore:

Cinema Is my Life

Research Gate

BBC Arts

Audio Black Holes

Like Film Sound Review on Facebook!



  1. Can someone let me know who wrote this article? It takes about some of the most famous designers across the world and also in the same articles pays tribute to my work done in ZNMD. I am humbled and thrilled.


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