Sonic Cinema

Aural Excitement on the Modern Soundtrack


Sonic Cinema is a complex and thought-provoking overview of that most neglected component of cinema: the soundtrack. Everything from a nuclear bomb blast to a single water drop, from a symphonic overture to a last dying breath – this is the beautiful noise of cinema that is half music, half sound, all soundtrack. Forget the arcana of filmdom – its literary origins, theatrical staging and photographic allure. Become conscious of the extremities of audio-visual effect. Be born into the sound of cinema.

Sonic Cinema is not solely an intellectual text, introductory history, or technical production manual. Nor is its scope restricted by the dry aim to be curriculum support material. The information & critical insight it contains result from many moist years of author Philip Brophy's intellectual and material analysis of film scores, sound design and sound post-production, plus his experience in composing and sound designing for films, videos and installations. The incisive text voices theoretical and practical concerns, and is aimed at: (i) those with a voracious media appetite (movie goers, music collectors, cinephiles, amateurs); and (ii) those with keen and developing aural sensibilities (composers, producers, mixers, musicians, DJs). Exploiting the undying hipness of movie soundtracks, the book targets celebrated films to expand the reader's perceptual awareness of the cine-listening experience. A key strategy of the book is to then introduce a range of radical, bizarre & unconventional movies to demonstrate the inventiveness which can mark film sound as a truly awesome multi-media phenomenon. The book's ultimate aim is to posit an entirely new critical view: that the more interesting & engrossing films are not those with weighty themes, social relevance, psychoanalytic complexity or sumptuous cinematography, but those whose soundtracks psychologically excite the auditory membrane.

Words 162,000
Format text only
54 films analyzed (6 films per chapter)
9 chapters @ 27,000 (average 3,000 words per film)
Categories cinema, music, sound, media, technology.


Sonic beings at our deepest & most unconscious level, we are shaped by sonar and aquatic sensations well before we hit the piercing dryness of air and the blaze of light that accompanies the doctor's slap on our behind. The sensorium of the womb is our primary induction into the nature of sound – its encompassing & multi-directional matrix of acoustic events, its liquefying ambience. The curvaceous film theatre returns us directly to a psycho-physical zone of uterine impressions: deep rumbles, pink noise, shifting timbres, spatial reflections, swelling rhythms. Much has been made of the cinema as some sort of primordial social cave for storytelling. Wrong. The cinema is a womb where the sonic prevails.

We say we watch movies - but the cinesonic experience is far more than a mere optical event. Try watching a film with no sound. Gone is its power, emotion, drama, vitality. Shut your eyes & listen to the soundtrack, and through the blackness one can be aurally excited by the fundamentality of sound. Sudden gunshots, soaring violins, distant footsteps, cracked bones, howling winds, fuzzed guitars, baby gurgles, screaming synthesizers and the burst of a single saliva bubble. Through the orchestration of voices, atmospheres, effects and music, the sonic engulfs us, massaging our liver, rattling our skull, stinging our temples. Nerves, muscles, bones and speeding bodily fluids dance in a frenzy to the unfolding audio visual carnival that is the cinema. Yet like a mysterious hieroglyphic stream, those squiggly white lines to the left of the celluloid film strip lay silent even to the inquiring the eye. Once decoded and replayed in the auditorium, time & space are sculptured and realigned into a dimensional, tactile, electric realm. This is the transformative power of the film soundtrack. Under-theorised, presumed unimportant, yet vital to the contemporary audio-visual experience and integral to technological advances in the entertainment industries over the past twenty-five years.

You know this without realizing it. Thanks to years of optical eye-washing and literal indoctrination, you articulate experience through words which use visual metaphors, as if the world is solely comprised of data beamed at those round reflective discs you call eyes. But after a few simple pointers about how sound works – how it immerses you in its density, how it manipulates your sense of time & space, how it entrains & seduces you – the most complex issues of aural dispersion & psychoacoustic entrancement can become remarkably evident when one is guided through the audio-visual layering of a film. From Albert Einstein's assertion of music being the purest art, to Fritz Lang's regret of thinking primarily in images, to George Lucas' obsessive pursuit of hi-fidelity in the making of movies, the sonic has long been acknowledged as a key factor which shapes our experience of the world and its myriad reproductive technologies. Night clubs, the ocean, tunnels, elevator muzak, stadium concerts, shopping malls, Walkmans, home theatres, subway PAs, forests, freeways, televisions in the next room while we eat breakfast - we are surrounded by sonic spaces. You have experienced all this - but so little has been said about it; so little has been written about how cinema touches upon these temperate aural realities which direct your everyday momentum.

Now more than ever, a book is needed that reveals this core meld of the outside aural world with the internal sonic dimension of the cinema. Sonic Cinema is the first book to put into evocative and illustrative prose the scintillating mechanisms of film sound & the means by which music, voice & noise communicate dense narrative meaning. Grouped into 9 non-sequential chapters – each containing detailed essays on 6 key films – expert, novice & innocent alike can select the films with which they are already familiar. Readers can then map their own explorative trail through the titles, discovering different aspects & issues of sound reproduction & how they contribute to one's understanding & enjoyment of a film. An informative journey through films from USA, UK, Canada, India, Australia, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan & Hungary, spreading from the early 40s to the late 90s. Sonic Cinema is geared to mentally stimulate & aurally excite.

Pedagogical anxiety? Some might infer there is no apparent purpose, motive or point in Sonic Cinema’s trawl through the 20th Century soundtrack. I claim there is a key methodological approach used through the book’s fragmented and concatenated folds. This approach disavows structural models of meaning in favour of flow charts of effects. Following the liquefied and voluminous ways in which sound and music become manifest – born into the thickness of invisible air yet entirely present and accountable – every film covered in the book is treated primarily as a spatio-temporal event whose movement, denouement and performance is cited and noted for its audiovisual impact. Films are thus encountered as ‘played recordings’ enlivening the loungeroom in one's head, rather than excavated as architectural forms anchoring the classroom of the mind. Fundamentally, this requires a mode of writing whose ‘flow’ is more important in its capture, replay and rendering of a film’s momentum, than it is in summarizing, reducing or even encapsulating a film’s signifying skeleton. As if literature never happened? Precisely. As if photography was not our grand metaphor for the cinema? Exactly. As if we had to wake up to the totally debilitating reliance on visual language which novelizes cinema as mirror to our selves and a window to the world? Yes. In its avoidance of the many sanctioned ways of pedagogically analyzing film, Sonic Cinema cannot but embrace a critical miscegenation which crossbreeds psychoacoustic rumination with musicological mapping with semiotic schema with textual analysis. Boldly stated, the ultimate aim of Sonic Cinema is to alter the reader’s critical perception by inducing a consciousness of how the soundtrack operates on what we presume to be our perceptual facilities for comprehending film.


  • Part 1: The Rapture of Melody

    song, dance, pulsation

    FANTASIA (1941) - the production of music for animation and its symbiotic effects; relations between architectural progression and harmonic logic; notions of fluidity, channeling and flow in musical discourse; Disney's project of Romantic idyllicism in pre-war America.
    (A partial analysis of this film's soundtrack. is included in The Animation of Sound.)
    WEST SIDE STORY (1961) - the street as stage; the non-space of music in musicals; physical energy and its effect upon body movement and choreography; territory, demarcation and isolation in the mapping of musical zones; the influence of Robert Wise's transposition from Broadway stage to Manhattan locales.
    THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1966) - the effect of absenting prose dialogue in the cinematic text; theatricalization of the cine-photographic world and its ramifications for production design; musical motifs and their role as memory triggers; Jacques Demy's Euro-reworking of the classical Hollywood musical.
    MOSES & AARON (1976) - synchronous sound and the documentary effect upon location musical staging; the dilemma of the simulacra and its bearing on musical visualization; religious dogma of iconography and governing factors in image/music relationships; Jean Marie Straub's approach to recording sound & music.
    ONE FROM THE HEART (1983) - coding operatic style under frontier principles of Las Vegas architecture; generating narrative momentum through voice-over chorus singing; artifice, simulation and restaging of the staged; Francis Ford Coppola's predilection toward operatic excessiveness.
    BLACK RIVER (1988) - the political collision between Australian indigenous themes & European High Art orchestration; terrain, colonialism & the space of musical occupation; vocalising oppression and the instrumentality of the law.
    (A partial analysis of this film's soundtrack is included in How Sound Floats On Land.)

    Other possibilities:

  • Part 2: The Mania of Music

    composers, musicians, demons

    HANGOVER SQUARE (1948) - psychoses, neuroses and their sonic triggers; the tyranny of harmony and the obsession of composers; the descent from music into noise; harmonic resonance and the internal tones of bells; the atonal legacy of Bernard Herrmann.
    THE WRONG MAN (1959) - bass, depression and fatalism; Bernard Herrmann’s dissolution of jazz; subjective viewpoints & aural impressions through timbrel modification; working relationships between Herrmann & Alfred Hitchcock.
    SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL (1971) - exposing the recording studio apparatus; deconstructing the composition and production of music; microphone placement, multi-tracking and fold back, and their effect upon filmic narrative; Jean Luc Godard's collaging of direct sound.
    A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) - the subversion of romanticism through alienation; misreading musical content; the result of employing an eclectic, polyglottic and contradictory range of music tracks; fascism and the orchestral academy; the dialogue between Wendy Carlos & Stanley Kubrick.
    FINGERS (1977) - the viral properties of pop music and their seepage into social environments; schizophrenia and cultural difference in music styles; melding the consumption & production of music; the duality of hands in the making of music.
    GEORGIA (1992) - soul, heart, spirit and other specious myths about music; the terror of beauty and the passion of the dispossessed; character contrast through vocal abilities; the fine line between singing badly and acting it.
    (A partial analysis of this film's soundtrack is included in I Scream in Silence.)

    Other possibilities:

  • Part 3: The Nature of Sound

    technology, reproduction, fidelity

    PLAYTIME (1970) - order, precision & the controlling power of sono-industrial design; the role of sound in the suburban techno-topia; lack in the interfacing between acoustic design and urban planning; the fetishism of sound effects and other erotic moments; Jacques Tati's perspective on the role of sound post-production.
    THE EXORCIST (1971) - innocence, virginity and untampered vocal chords; the body as vessel and voice as instrument; possession, rape and corporeal invasion; the powers of written and spoken words; terror through sound editing.
    THE CONVERSATION (1972) - alienation, existentialism and the shaping of one's self through sound; personal space and private aural zones; the drive to comprehend the unheard; recording processes and their attendant doctoring; frequency separation and noise suppression; the microphone as instrument of death.
    BLOW OUT (1978) - the truth of sound and the lie of image; audio-visual instability in perverse narratives; the focal perspectives of sound recordists, post-dubbers and audio engineers; multiplicity of meaning in the abstraction of sound effects.
    TALK RADIO (1987) - the ether sphere of broadcast space and the zoning of radio; telephones, communication and the forming of live interplay; the power of the media voice and its microphonic aura; personal loss and public persona.
    FACE OFF (1997) - Peking Opera, Chinese fireworks and other sonic aspects of Hong Kong cinema; the void between jump-cuts and the aural stretching of real time sound; spatial orchestration and pyrotechnic kinetics.

    Additional possibilities:

  • Part 4: The Bombast of Effects

    animism, resonance, bodily presence

    Warner Bros. cartoons (1945-55) - cacophony as an apposite to symphony; postwar metallica and the love of machine noise; quantum physics and the warping of space through speed; the obliteration of music in the name of noise; working relationships between Tregg Brown and Carl Stalling.
    (A partial analysis of this film's soundtrack. is included in The Animation of Sound.)
    THE BIRDS (1963) - the revenge of animal clusters against human order; the impenetrability of non-human vocal communication; sheets of noise and their signifying presence; musique concrete and its interference of sound/music distinctions; multiple layers of mimetic codes on the film soundtrack.
    WAY OF THE DRAGON (1972) - bodily perspectives and the sound of exertion; energy, mass, weight and scale, and their aural direction on the and decay.
    BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA VIXEN (1979) - unreality in sonic accompaniment; grotesqueries and vagaries in the depiction of sound; the noise of the human engine; stylization of sound and the ensuing depiction of the world; the influence of cartoon sound on live action cinema.
    APOCALYPSE NOW (1980) - complexity in sonic construction; levels of realism, reality and realization in the design of film sound; disorientation through non-urban soundscapes; hallucination and quadraphonic sound; the importance of Walter Murch.
    HAIL MARY (1985) - savagery, violence and chaos in the montage of sound; the sonorum of nature and the space of its aura; multiple dimensions of mystical energy and the networking of sonic realms; the contrapuntal continuum of sound against image.

    Additional possibilities:

  • Part 5: The Marvel of Space

    atmospheres, environments, aural zones

    COLORS (1987) - the dimension of bass as the film soundtrack's final frontier; deep space, threatening foregrounds and the spectre of off-screen sound; music as territorial marker; acoustic zones as governed by playback systems; the urban jungle and its sonar logic; the sonic assault of Hip Hop.
    HOUSE BY THE RIVER (1954) - memory, guilt and the inescapability of sonic occurrences; on-screen rendering of invisible actions through the presence of sound; the phonograph as symbolic narrative device; the effect of silence.
    CONTACT (1997) - hyperspace and surround sound activity; dimensional transgression and the transformation of the auditorium; radar and sonar activity, and their narratological import; the hidden talents of Randy Thom. (A review of this film's sound design has been published in REAL TIME & is available.)
    TRON (1982) - problematics in sounding the virtual world; markers of distinction through pitch, timbre & effect; the textual morphing between orchestra and synthesizer, and their indented replication of the other; matching sound to computer generated imagery.
    FIELD OF DREAMS (1989) - angels, ghosts & other ethereal voices; spatial recreation & auditory superimposition; sensurround tactility and the floating of space.
    LOST HIGHWAY (1997) - rumbles, sub-sonic swells and densely timbrel atmospheres; the defunctioning of music in the face of sound; emotional removal through the horizontal planing of aural textures; the psychoacoustic precision of frequency arrangement; David Lynch and Alan Splet's love of noise.

    Additional possibilities:

  • Part 6: The Collapse of the Orchestra

    accompaniment, synaesthesia, interiorization

    PSYCHO (1960) - ulteriority, psychic displacement and auditory transference; atonality and its figuring of the Other; voicing aberrant behaviour and morbid fixation; inverting the paradigm of nature/beauty/truth in the design of the violin; Bernard Herrmann’s application and interrogation of the orchestra as a semantic and textual machine.
    KWAIDAN (1963) - the sound of the western soundtrack turned inside out; asynchronism and its siding with psychological displacement; the corruption of musicality and the sublime presence of sound; the alien perspective of Toru Takemitsu.
    (A partial analysis of this film's sound design is included in How Sound Floats On Land.)
    TAXI DRIVER (1976) - the orchestra as organism and the city as living entity; more on Herrmann’s dissolution of jazz; the musicalization of ambience and the orchestration of pressure; syncing voice-over rhythms to the breathing of an orchestra.
    THE SHINING (1980) - first degree sourcing of 20th century avant garde music for the cinema; the shrinking of consciousness, the dissolving of rationalism and the disappearance of harmony; the sound of music as abject terror; Stanley Kubrick's musicological sense.
    ONIMARU (1992) - inverting atmosphere recordings and orchestral scoring; the sound of inside versus the sound of outside; walls of paper, volcanic mountains and other containers of sound; the tonality of land and the tuning of wind.
    HEAT (1994) - Hovering chords, impressions of instruments & transparent sonic textures; fusing musical styles in a single score; monolithicism and the engineering of orchestral energy; Michael Mann and the dialectic of Pop music.

    Additional possibilities:

  • Part 7: The Rise of Electricity

    guitars, synthesizers, volume

    FORBIDDEN PLANET (1954) - geotextual and aquasonic aspects of interplanetary acoustics; electronica and its voicing of the repressed; the disappearance of the orchestra; absenting sonic realism.
    ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) - rewriting the western through the sound of electricity; obsession, memory & haunting melodies; instruments of death and instruments of song; the song craft of Ennio Morricone and the aural sensitivity of Sergio Leone.
    SUSPIRIA (1977) - the violence of volume and the terror of music; visceral sound and bodily noise; hysterical forms of audio-visual narration; hyper-opera and the acidic shared vision of Dario Argento with Goblin.
    ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) - the pulse of the dying urban metropolis; tension through drones and monophonic ambience; the grain of analogue synthesis; underground and overground sonics; acknowledging the electro-minimalist style of John Carpenter.
    KOYANISQUAATSI (1983) - hysteria, apocalyptica and choral overload; the end of the world and the death of European High Art; singing angels of conscious and the demonic sound of progress; imperialist and colonialist film scoring; minimalism and its oppositional recourse to drama.
    METROPOLIS (1983) - questioning the sanctity of the ontological status of silent cinema; reconstructing narrative through musical rescoring; simultaneity in subtitles, title cards and song lyrics; the MTV effect and Giorgio Moroder's pop scoring.

    Additional possibilities:

  • Part 8: The Fabric of Song

    rhizomes, radio, pop

    AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1972) - the advent of 'worldizing' sound for on-screen spatial environments; radio broadcast and its role in establishing real-time narration; multiple locations and narrative continuity through song.
    SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL (1985) - the energy of youth & the consumption of song; drumming , passion & emotional release; the notoriety of teen movies and John Hughes' musical sensibility.
    STAND BY ME (1987) - nostalgia, memory, allegory and their evocation through songs from the past; re-orchestrating songs as a form of voice-over narration; the role of a theme song and its framing effect on cinematic narrative; radio as textual construct.
    DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) - the aesthetics and politics of blackness on the film soundtrack; reclaiming blues idioms in New World Americana scores; racial tension through invading space with radio; the texture of Hip Hop and the sound of the street; Spike Lee's musicological agenda.
    AN INDEPENDENT LIFE (1991) - transience, ephemera and the rhyzomatic drift of European folk music; musical journeys & mapped narratives; mythological weaving and oral tradition.
    (A partial analysis of this film's sound design is included in How Sound Floats On Land.)
    GOOD FELLAS (1992) - hyper ellipsis & radical sound editing; the voice as orchestrator and conductor of narrative rhythm; incorporating musical recording space into on-screen spaces; the mania for song in Martin Scorsese’s cinema.

    Additional possibilities:

  • Part 9: The Grain of The Voice

    screams, breaths, silence

    CITIZEN KANE (1941) - the power of the mediated voice & the amplification of the media; control through oral dominance; character, identity and persona in vocal performance; the act of speaking; gender dynamics & gendered voices; Orson Welles' radio textuality.
    A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949) - multiplicity in voice over narration; narrative and narrational overlapping in melodrama; the closure of feminine discourse through voicing the unspoken and silencing the written.
    LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD (1960) - the hysterical symbiosis of sound and image; voices from nowhere and texts form elsewhere; harmonic improvization, chromatic chord progressions and the generation of vertiginous narratives; truth, documentation and the lie of photography.
    CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) - loquaciousness, garrulity and vocal type in star personae; deafening silence and talking about nothing; psychological tropes in vocal activity; the vociferous revolution of Robert Altman's live multi-track recording of improvised dialogue.
    I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1981) - the abjection of sound and the absence of music; the silent forest and the erasure of social norms; the unheard cry of rape and the silencing of women; breathing, screaming, gasping and other bodily expulsions.
    (A partial analysis of this film's sound design is included in I Scream in Silence.)
    CRASH (1996) - separating vocal presence from emotional projection; post-dubbing and the alienation effect; pornographic texturing through close-mic voices; the erotic sigh and its poetic lineage.

    Additional possibilities:
    DOCTOR DOLITTLE (remake)