Sound as a Narrative Builder

For many years, a film’s soundtrack has been an integral part of its screenplay, helping to further the narrative of the film’s story through various means. Prior to the widespread adoption of synchronized soundtracks, silent films would make use of pianos, organs, and even actors reading dialogue to provide an audio experience for the audience. With the advent of “talkies”, films’ soundtracks took the supporting role in furthering the story, even occasionally taking the lead role in furthering a story.


An auditory masterpiece, the Death Star assault sequence from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977) showcases the impact a soundtrack can have on a film. John Williams’s orchestral score perfectly underscores the tense mood of the trench run sequence, giving narrative cues of action, danger, and building up the climax. Williams’s score makes use of numerous stingers, audio cues that tell the audience of significance of the events on screen, particularly as the characters engage in dogfights, begin strafing runs, or are shot down. The tension built by the score is aided by the dialogue, with the Red and Gold squadrons’ radio chatter constantly layered over the events unfolding on screen, with the dialogue getting louder and more nervous in tone as more of their numbers fall to the empire. A deep and loud voice-off from Obi-Wan Kenobi as volume and pace of the score lowers after a period of immense tension provides an excellent narrative cue to the audience, providing a sense of relief as the film hits its darkest moment. The sound effects layered over the score and dialogue further build on the aesthetic of the film. The rebels’ ships humming engines, reminiscent of turbofans, and hydraulic noises compliment the relatively familiar designs with prominent wings, engines, and cockpits. This contrasts with the eerie screeching of the empire’s fighters, complementing their alien designs.

While the soundtracks for both A New Hope and the Star Wars franchise as whole help convey its alien environment, the soundtrack for Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994), provides a wonderful example of a film’s soundtrack being used to orient the viewer and listener in a realistic time. The score to the film made extensive use of popular music from the decades during which the film takes place, giving the film scenic realism and building on the visual atmosphere of the film and properly orienting the viewer and listener. Forrest’s voiceovers of the scenes are heavily used by the director to forward the nested narrative structure of the film.

What are some films where the soundtrack has played the leading role in furthering the story? How can audio effects be used to contrast imagery on screen?

1 comment
  1. I love the Star Wars soundtrack so much. One of the most interesting aspects of the score is its integration into the films. As Dr. Zinman showed us in class, some scenes are completely empty without it, but I think the score is at its best when it goes hand in hand with occurrences on screen. John Williams works main themes, like “The Force Theme” or “The Imperial March”, into other songs. These “leitmotifs” key us into on screen happenings, frequently before they actually happen. Rey’s Theme contains the key measures of The Force Theme backwards, long before it is ever hinted she might be the next Jedi. It also combines extremely smoothly with Luke’s theme (AKA The Main Theme). When a score is at its best, it doesn’t just support what is ongoing onscreen but actually enhances and adds on to it.

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