Archive for the ‘Sound design’ Category

Takemitsu Tôru


The composer Tôru Takemitsu (1930 – 1996) took composing for film as seriously as composing for the concert hall – and he was very successful in both fields. Takemitsu created more than 100 film scores, e.g. for directors Akira Kurosawa, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Nagisa Ôshima or Mitsuo Yanagimachi.

The pianist and academic Noriko Ohtake succinctly sums up Takemitsu’s approach to film music:

Composing for film scores satisfies Takemitsu’s goal to become anonymous and let music speak for itself. While the composer’s name is not always visible to the cinema-goer, his music plays its role in supporting the totality of a film. Takemitsu feels that music in film has social meaning for two basic reasons. First, films obviously reach a wider audience than classical music concerts. Also in working with collaborators, Takemitsu avoids limiting his own means of expression, since perceptive directors tend to bring out hidden aspects of his talent.

My favourite is Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film The Woman in the Dunes (1964 D; H. Teshigahara), where music and sound design seamlessly blend into each other.

This links to my own approach to composing for documentary film: I feel my way into the world of the film; I try to understand the director’s intention; I listen carefully to the location sounds and sonic atmospheres and generally treat music as just another sound in the soundtrack. Takemitsu’s music leaves much space for other filmic elements to be and to expand.

In 2002 the Journal Contemporary Music Review dedicated a special issue to Takemitsu.


  • Contemporary Music Review, Vol. 21, issue 4 (London, 2002).
  • Ohtake, Noriko. Creative Sources for the Music of Toru Takemitsu. Ashgate, Aldershot, 1993.
  • Richie, Donald, “Notes on the Film Music of Takemitsu Tōru”, Contemporary Music Review, vol. 21, iss. 4, 5–16 (London, 2002).
  • Takemitsu, Tôru, Yoshiko Kakudo, and Glenn Glasow. Confronting Silence : Selected Writings. Fallen Leaf, Berkeley, Calif., 1995. (specifically on film music: “Conversation on Seeing” p. 36 – 45)

Two Cultures of Film Music: Leitmotif and sound design


Composing music and sound design for films poses specific challenges. The raison d’être for any music and sound design, in fact for the soundtrack as a whole is the narrative and the image track of the film. This poses constraints for the timebased art of music. Film music can never follow its own logic freely developing themes or sound textures as long as it takes. It is limited by the duration of a scene which it supports or comments.

In my analyses of films I observed that film composers adopt two fundamental musical approaches: on the one hand the thematic concept of music using Leitmotifs and harmonic tonality. On the other hand composers practice a timbral or spectral aesthetic which expresses itself through complex textures and drones that blend in seamlessly with environmental sounds and the dialogue. It is closely linked to sound design, which emerged from the electroacoustic music tradition and the 20th Century aesthetic of musicalising environmental, indeed any recorded sound or noise. I argue that leitmotivic sound design is a new, original creative tool specific to film. Film music by contrast is mostly extraneous, i.e. nondiegetic to the sound track and derived from the model of classical-romantic music, i.e. pastiche.


Films with leitmotivic sound design

Terminator 2 (James Cameron, 1991)

The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933)

The Hurtlocker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)

Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, 2009)

The Woman in the Dunes (Sunna no Onna, Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)


Films with a leitmotivic music score

Jaws (Stephen Spielberg, 1975)

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)

King Kong (Cooper & Schoedsack, 1933)

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)



Rainer Werner Fassbinder focused in some of his films on the emerging media world.

  • World on Wire (Die Welt am Draht, 1973)
  • The Third Generation (Die Dritte Generation, 1979)

From a sound perspective these films are particularly interesting anticipating our current media torrent. World on Wire has been restored in 2010. See a review in The New Yorker by Richard Brody.


Film sound film list


Films with an explicit focus on sound or with sound as the main protagonist

  1. Berberian Sound Studio (2012, Peter Strickland)
  2. Blow Out (1981, Brian de Palma)
  3. The Conversation (1974, Francis Coppola)
  4. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
  5. Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933, Fritz Lang)
  6. No Country for Old Men (2007, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)


re 6. An article in the New York Times (Exploiting Sound, Exploring Silence, by Dennis Limjan. 6, 2008)

Berberian Sound Studio


This is the second film by Peter Strickland. In his first film Katalin Varga, Strickland used subtle sound design combining electroacoustic music, voices and augmented environmental sounds to create a haunting soundtrack for this moving film. In Berberian Sound Studio he went even further, making the creation of the soundtrack for a B-Horror movie the topic of the film. Whereas in Katalin Varga the electroacoustic techniques served as a means to create and enhance emotions, in Berberian Sound Studion Strickland has a tendency to overinduldge in the sounds themselves. It is a dark film, partly because electroacoustic sound worlds seem to end in dark timbres, as one can hear in many electroacoustic music pieces.

This film is a celebration of the power of sound to create emotions.

Although modern sound designers use mostly digital techniques to create their sounds Strickland shows mostly analogue effects machines and tape recorders (e.g. a Nagra) with long tape loops. This is obviously visually more interesting than showing a computer screen.

Sound design and orchestration


The two concepts are often used as if they are the same. When a composer uses metallic sounding instruments (e.g. cymbals, chimes, metal gongs etc. as Brad Fiedel did in Terminator 2 for the terminator) a listener might associate this with something mechanical, whereas wooden sounds can relate more to the human world. This relates musically to the Leitmotif-technique, which assigns a distinct melodic phrase to a character of the drama. In modern films this can be a timbre instead of a melodic motive. In this sense it can become sound design.

In 20th century music the composition of timbre itself has become increasingly the focus of many composers:  Debussy and the French spectralists Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail,  from Pierre Schaeffer’s Musique Concrete to Stockhausen and numerous composers of electroacoustic music.


  • Once upon a time in the West (1968, D: Sergio Leone, M: Ennio Morricone)
  • Crash (2004, D: Paul Haggis, M: Mark Isham)