Sound and voice are terms for a broad range of different media, which can themselves be mediated by other physical (such as air), mechanical (such as radio and phonograph), and psychological (such as interpreter, editor) media. These intermediate media have influenced the use and meaning of sound and voice throughout history.
From the perspective of acoustics, we think of sound as a periodic disturbance from a state of equilibrium propagated through some elastic material medium. (Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Sound) From a more subjective standpoint, we might only speak of sound, if a sensation reaches the ear and can be perceived by it, a definition which excludes all events that are beyond the frequencies audible to human beings. (See ear) The Britannica Student Encyclopedia summarizes as follows: “Sound, then, depends on three things. There must be a vibrating source to set up sound waves, a medium (such as air) to carry the waves, and a receiver to detect them.” (Student Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Sound)
The Oxford English Dictionary further describes sound as “the particular auditory effect produced by a special cause” as well as “a particular cause of auditory effect.” (OED Online, Sound) These descriptions let us draw a connection between sound and its source. In accordance with the OED’s definition of sound as “Music, melody,” “musical tone” and “utterance, speech,” sources of sound can include musical instruments and the human voice. In a more general sense, anything producing some kind of sound can be a source, which renders problematic the differentiation of sound from noise. (See noise)
In regard to the inclusion of voice under the heading of sound, the OED describes voice as the “Sound, or the whole body of sounds, made or produced by the vocal organs of man or animals in their natural action” as well as “the organs by which it is produced.” (OED Online, Voice) Besides the phonological explanation, we also think of voice as “The vocal capacity of one person in respect of its employment for musical purposes,” as well as a voice as a vocal or instrumental part in music. (OED Online, Voice) Acoustics differentiates between voiced and voiceless sounds. (New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Online, Acoustics)
According to Saussure’s definition of language, voice and sound become media for language. (Saussure, 7ff) The vocal organs produce sound, which can mediate speech, if it is combined with thought. Saussure’s audition-phonation circle illustrates his model of speech as a combination of physiological sound-images and psychological concepts. Saussure describes the the conventional sign-system of language as “the social side of speech”. (Saussure, 14) (See language and speech)
Moreover, the OED defines sound as “The music, speech, etc., accompanying film, television broadcasting, or other forms of visual presentation,” OED Online, Sound) suggesting the technical advances in the synchronisation of sound and image starting with Edison’s phonograph at the end of the 19th century. Besides attempts to record sound on discs, the technique of optical sound recording, the photographing of an optical sound track on the film itself, became more and more prevalent. During the 1950s, the stereophonic recording of sound on magnetic tape became the preferred technology. The development of digital sound recording meant an increase in the quality of recording and therefore authenticity as well as the flexibility of manipulating and mixing recorded sounds. Combined terms such as sound crew, sound cutter, or sound editor reflect the variety of technical advances in this field. The inclusion of sound in film leads further to the medium of voice as one special type of sound in film, for example, if we think of the appearance of sound dialogue in the first so-called ‘talkies’ such as The Jazz Singer in 1927. (Konigsberg, 372)
The distinction between diegetic and nondiegetic sound, as examined by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in Film Art, refers to the connection of sound and its source in the realm of the filmic space. (Bordwell/Thompson, 254) In the convention of film viewing, a sound coming from a source within the story space, such as a voice coming from one of the characters, is called diegetic sound. Nondiegetic sound on the contrary, cannot be referred to a certain character or object in the film, and therefore has its source outside the story space, such as most of the music included in a film. The possibilities to use diegetic and nondiegetic sound are various and also allow different ways of manipulation, especially in the relation between sound and time, such as terms like asynchronous, nonsimultaneous or displaced diegetic sound refer to. (Bordwell/Thompson, 258)
Ideas and theories about the role of sound and voice in cinema have been pointed out by a number of influential film theorists and artists. Classical film theorists, such as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Arnheim, as well as modern theorists including Robert Bresson and Christian Metz, have been focusing on the relationship between sound and image in terms of their dependence on each other as well as arguing whether image or sound is dominant in film. (Film Sound, 75ff) (See Image) Authors such as Mary Ann Doane and Michel Chion especially focus on the voice as a dominant agent in film.
In having a look at the technical invention of gramophone, film, and typewriter, Friedrich Kittler focuses on how machines or media seem to acquire a kind of life on their own as well as the impact their development has on human beings, such as when they substitute for functions of the central nervous system. (Kittler, 16) With the invention of the phonograph, voice as well as sound in general can be separated from its source which is represented by the anonymous machine. Kittler states it as follows: “Ever since the invention of the phonograph, there has been writing without a subject. It is no longer necessary to assign an author to every trace, not even God.” (Kittler, 44) Through the gramophone, sound is thought to get closer to the human being as the receiver, who might feel it as being produced inside his brain similar to a hallucination. The opening of the connection between a voice and a body as its source reminds us of the voice as a partial object in the writing of Lacan. (Lacan) Freud refers to the breast, the mouth, and the feces, because they can be separated from the body and they evoke desires which are prior to sexual differentiation. Lacan, writing after telephone and cinema disembodied the voice and the gaze, adds them to Freud’s list of partial objects. (Kittler, 57) Because the voice can be separated from its source, the editor, through various manipulations such as cutting and dubbing, assumes a position of power over the ‘authorial’ origin of the voice. Kittler stresses furthermore that according to the ‘nature’ of the phonograph every acoustic event is recorded equally in contrast to human hearing: “The phonograph does not hear as do ears that have been trained immediately to filter voices, words, and sounds out of noise; it registers acoustic events as such.” (Kittler, 23) This statement brings Kittler closer to the association of the phonograph with the Lacanian ‘Real,’ as it records sound and voice itself, or to the unconscious as Freud makes use of it in the talking cure. (Kittler, 16) (See Symbolic/Real/Imaginary)
In terms of the impact media or technology have on the human body and the consciousness, Marshall McLuhan offers a similar approach, when he compares the voice with a radio transmitter. (McLuhan, 80) Thinking of the ear as a radio receiver, which transforms electromagnetic waves to sound, he regards the voice as a medium which translates sound into sound waves. In the context of his basic idea that media function as extensions of human beings as summarized in the thesis “The medium is the message,” McLuhan describes media solely delivering the aural sense, such as the telephone or the phonograph, as extensions or amplifications of the voice, whereas film is predominantly examined in terms of its relation to the written word or the book.
The concept of voice is related to questions of power, when we think of it as “The right or privilege of speaking or voting in a legislative assembly, or of taking part in, or exercising control or influence over, some particular matter,” as well as voice as “The expressed opinion, judgement, will, or wish of the people, a number of persons, a corporate body, etc.” (OED Online, Voice) Questions of power are also crucial in the concept of voice as critique of anthropological representation, which became influential during the 1970s, accusing anthropologists of taking a position of power towards informants. (The Dictionary of Anthropology, 486)
The problem of the mediation of a voice, or even the unmediated voice as mentioned in the preceding paragraph, is already implied in Plato’s Phaedrus on the written word as opposed to the spoken one. (Plato, 233-282) (see writing) Socrates explains Phaedrus that words, “when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.” (Plato, 278f) In the same way as Socrates regards words as defenceless and possible objects of manipulation as soon as they are written down, a voice recorded and mediated through a technological apparatus can stay unmediated or even be manipulated by the recording person or the apparatus. This example shows how the development of a new medium always threatens an older medium, such as the invention of the phonograph and the gramophone threatened the meaning and use of sound and voice.
Diana Brenscheidt gen. Jost
Bordwell, David & Thompson, Kristin. Film Art. An Introduction. McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1990.
Chion, Michael.The Voice in Cinema. Ed. and trans. Claudia Gorbman. Columbia University Press: NY, 1999.
The Dictionary of Anthropology. Ed. Thomas Barfield. Blackwell: Oxford & Malden, 1997.
Doane, Mary Ann. “The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space.” In Film Sound: Theory and Practice. Ed. by Elisabeth Weis and John Belton. Columbia University Press: NY, 1985. p.162-176.
Film Sound: Theory and Practice. Ed. Elisabeth Weis and John Belton. Columbia University Press: NY, 1985.
Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. Norton: NY, 1978.
Kittler, Friedrich, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans., Intro. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young & Michael Wutz. Stanford University Press: California, 1999.
Konigsberg, Ira. The Complete Film Dictionary. Penguin Reference: NY, 1997.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. The Extension of Man. The MIT Press: Cambridge & London, 2001.
Plato. The Dialogues of Plato. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Vol. 1. Random House: NY.