Diegetic music and non diegetic sound

Diegetic music vs non diegetic sound

If you enjoy both cinema and music, or if you’ve ever listened to critics or music experts discussing diegetic music and non diegetic sound, you might have encountered the following three interconnected questions:

  1. What is diegetic music?
  2. What is non diegetic sound or incidental music?
  3. What’s the difference between diegetic and non diegetic sound?

In this post, we will carefully explain both the meanings of these types of music and their direct application in cinema with some clear examples. Have you ever read about the difference between a soundtrack and a score? Well, this is different but just as easy to understand, as it takes both into account.

Here’s a not overly long article explaining what these types of music entail. Following the theory of a film’s narrative soundtrack, we can distinguish two sound categories based on their role in the filmed work.

What is Diegetic Music?

Diegetic or intradiegetic music is, for example, a song hummed by the main character or music performed by a band during a party or dance within the movie.

An example of diegetic music, at least initially, would be the melody Elle Driver is whistling in the hospital in Kill Bill Volume 1. Despite being nondiegetic music in the British horror film Fractured Nerves (1968), in that moment of Quentin Tarantino’s film, it would count as diegetic. We could also consider diegetic the fanfare passing by beneath a character’s window, or a musical instrument played or seen by a character, and so on.

But of course, there’s a distinction between diegetic music and diegetic sound, which goes further. In this case, it’s any sound whose source is physically present in the shots composing the sequence. This includes dialogues, as long as they are part of the action being filmed (including, for example, the sound of phone calls received by characters or a change in focus on a character listening to headphones), as well as anything characters could hear within the sequence.

Other examples are the sound of the engine of the machine a filmed character is piloting, the murmur of the crowd in front of a hero, shots fired by their attackers.

What is Non Diegetic Sound?

Non diegetic or incidental music is the original soundtrack composed by the composer and used to emphasize specific events occurring on screen. In other words, it’s the background music composed and recorded before or after filming the movie, and it’s a part of the so-called film score.

However, while this definition might seem all-encompassing, we could expand it further, returning to the definitions of soundtrack and score, but as part of the same concept here. In this sense, extradiegetic sound originates externally to the shots comprising the given sequence. This would encompass any sound beyond the soundtrack, such as those used in silent films or sound effects lasting less than a second.

The best example of this non diegetic or incidental definition is a voice that doesn’t come from any of the characters appearing in the sequence, whether it’s the voice of an omniscient narrator or of a character absent from the sequence in question.

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