In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Film Sound

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Anthologies
  • Classic Essays on Film Sound
  • Sound History after the Conversion
  • Theorizing Film Sound
  • Sound and Sound Recording beyond the Cinema

Cinema and Media Studies Film Sound
Paul Young
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0100


Prior to the groundbreaking work by Rick Altman, John Belton, Michel Chion, Mary Ann Doane, Claudia Gorbman, Kaja Silverman, Elisabeth Weis, and Alan Williams beginning in the early 1980s, the richest moment of film sound criticism occurred during the Hollywood-led conversion to mechanized sync sound (1926–1933). At that time, critics worldwide, including filmmakers such as René Clair and Sergei Eisenstein, rushed to weigh in on what was gained, and lost, for the art of film with the introduction of “all-talking, all-singing” shorts and features. When Altman and his students began combing the Hollywood archives for historical documentation of the sound transition, the results of their research made clear that the development of synchronized sound filmmaking, far from being merely the result of a felt need for greater realism, was itself highly theorized; its practices, in other words, were neither obvious nor straightforward to anyone involved. Engineers from sound media industries (phonography, radio, telephony), hired by the major studios to make the pictures talk and sing, imagined sync sound variously as complement or supplement to, and even the referent for, the image track, and they imported theories of sonic realism from their own fields in ways that are both fascinating and extremely difficult to reconstruct. The emergence of multichannel film sound, first (briefly) in the 1950s as a complement to widescreen exhibition technologies, and again in the 1970s when rock music films (Tommy) and high-concept blockbusters (Star Wars) conjured up stunning feats of sound playback to match their spectacular images, helped bring sound studies into the consciousness of the field. Indeed, Hollywood’s permanent establishment of multichannel recording and exhibition by the early 1980s may be partly responsible for film studies’ new attention to sound, in general, and to world cinema’s conversion to sync sound, in particular. John Belton and Michel Chion, for example, regularly bridge the early sound era and the age of Dolby multichannel stereo in their discussions of sound space: how films develop diegetic space through sounds, dynamics, directionality, and reverberation, and how stereo processes expand diegetic space into spaces of exhibition—or better, to make exhibition space an extension of diegetic space. I am indebted to Claudia Gorbman’s excellent annotated bibliography in Weis and Belton 1984, pp. 427–445 (cited under Overviews and Anthologies), which provided both information and taxonomic inspiration for this bibliography, and to the anonymous readers of this bibliography for their incisive suggestions and recommendations.

Overviews and Anthologies

Since film sound is a relatively youthful dimension of film studies, several of the anthologies listed below provide broad, international overviews, connected primarily by their intensive critical and historical interest in sound. Weis and Belton 1985 reprints both classic arguments and more contemporary responses, while Altman 1992 and Altman 1999 offer entryways to the key theoretical debates of the past twenty-five years. Abel and Altman 2001 centers on the history of sound accompaniment for films during the period before sync sound, a rich and still relatively uncharted era. Hilmes 1990 approaches sound history indirectly, in terms of the competition between the film industry and other media industries. Sider, et al. 2003 includes contemporary filmmakers’ accounts of the state of sound filmmaking.

  • Abel, Richard, and Rick Altman, eds. The Sounds of Early Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

    This collection expands a special issue of Film History (11.4, 1999) to cast an even wider net, namely, musical accompaniment, sound effects, lecturing, song slides, and “talkers” (live actors) speaking for filmed actors prior to 1930, by which time sync sound films and theaters wired for sound predominated.

  • Altman, Rick. “The State of Sound Studies.” Iris 27 (1999): 3–4.

    Introductory article in a special Altman-edited issue devoted to the “fourth generation of Sound Studies,” which he dates to the 1980 issue of Yale French Studies that he edited; here he takes account of the growth and sophistication of the field at the end of the 20th century.

  • Altman, Rick, ed. Sound Theory/Sound Practice. London: Routledge, 1992.

    A key intervention in the field of sound studies for both its broad set of topics (ranging from the Hollywood conversion era to cartoons and Third World sound filmmaking) and its unity of purpose: to explore how sound volume, reverberation, and mixing construct fictional spaces for viewer-auditors. Altman’s “Sound Space” (pp. 46–64) has been particularly influential.

  • Hilmes, Michele. Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

    The history of the US film industry’s attempts to exploit and compete with radio and television, even to purchase stations or even networks, long before the mergers of Disney/ABC and NBC/Universal. Debunks long-standing myths about Hollywood barring its stars from television and radio appearances because of concerns about intermedia competition.

  • Sider, Larry, Diane Freeman, and Jerry Sider, eds. Soundscape: The School of Sound Lectures, 1998–2001. London and New York: Wallflower, 2003.

    Essays by filmmakers Mike Figgis, David Lynch, Walter Murch, and Randy Thom (as well as the scholars Michel Chion and Shoma Chatterji), first delivered as lectures at the National Film and Television School (UK).

  • Weis, Elisabeth, and John Belton, eds. Film Sound: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

    The first academic anthology on film sound. Contains many of the classic essays in the field, from Eisenstein, et al. 1988 and Clair 1985 (cited under Classic Essays on Film Sound) through psychoanalytic “apparatus” theories of sound in Metz 1985 and Doane 1985 (cited under Theorizing Film Sound).

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