Movies and Film: Bring on Da Noise: Synchronous and Nonsynchronous Sound

Bring on Da Noise: Synchronous and Nonsynchronous Sound

There are two large categories of sound: synchronous and nonsynchronous. These two categories define all possible film sounds.

Synchronous sound can be either ambient (sound recorded during the filming of a sequence and retained in the final cut) or a sound effect, the product of a Foley or ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement) technicians. In other words, that dialogue you hear could have been live, or it could have been dubbed if the filmmakers were not satisfied with the sound on-screen. For example, in one sequence of Spartacus (1960), Los Angeles traffic noise could be heard in the background. Filmmakers had the dialogue dubbed over the ambient soundtrack so that audiences would not wonder what the purr of a '57 Chevy was doing in ancient Rome.

Nonsynchronous sound can also be ambient: While we watch children at play, a mother calls them home just offscreen. While the camera captures the exterior of Fort Anxiety, we hear the pony-soldier captain ask for a parlay as we see the white truce flag go up. More frequently, however, nonsynchronous sound is the product of postproduction technicians determining the emotional and intellectual impact of a certain scene through sound. At the simplest level, music is used to determine how the audience's response to a particular moment. The violins swell as the two leads pucker up for the climactic kiss.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Synchronous sound: Synchronous sound includes all noises whose origins can be seen on-screen: in a "two-shot" conversation between two lovers you simultaneously see their lips flapping and hear the words they speak. In a barroom brawl you see and hear the chair crash over the cowboy's head.

Nonsynchronous sound: Nonsynchronous sound is any noise whose origin you can't see: that gunshot in the dark that almost hits the hero; the train whistle offscreen signifying that the two lovers must break their embrace as one leaves; the anvil whose rush of air we hear just before we see it hit the Coyote; and the love song that swells as the lovers kiss. (This last is often lampooned, as in Last Tango in Paris [1973], when the romantic background music is suddenly extinguished, and we realize that it has come from a tape player; or in Bananas [1971], when Woody Allen opens a closet door to find the orchestral accompaniment hiding within.)

Filmophile's Lexicon

This matching of music to mood is called mickeymousing. The term probably derives from Walt Disney's early sound cartoons, whose soundtracks were almost completely indexed to the characters' and the audiences' emotional states from sequence to sequence. The term is a little contemptuous because it describes a rather easy sound technique, and because it manipulates the audience too visibly.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order the e-book book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website. You can also purchase this book at