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Audio Storytelling Trick #457

In the last post, I spoke a bit about how sound is an undetected source of satiation for the audience on which developers don’t spend enough time or money. It focused on the notion that we pair sound with visual action in such a ubiquitous manner that it’s caused us to ignore sound as its own source of powerful storytelling wonder.


This article will be about the opposite of that idea: when we’re presented with sounds that have no visuals.


It’s pretty powerful stuff. In Jaws, we’re terrified of the shark for almost an hour before we see it, simply because of a cello playing two notes. That is GENIUS if you think about it, for a lot of different reasons. Cost of creating a realistic animatronic shark in the 70’s? Staggering. Cost of recording a few cello notes, BEFORE John Williams got huge? Exponentially lower. Also though, psychologically, it allows us to create the shark in our mind, and the mind’s eye is always much more intense than reality. 


The same technique is used in Silence of the Lambs. Spoiler alert: (it came out 27 years ago, when do you no longer have to say spoiler alert?) Near the end of the film, police are streaming into a large room from which Hannibal has escaped. We hear gulping, squishing noises, and the officers slowly and cautiously enter the room. About a minute or two later, we learn those gulping noises were a policemen, hung up near the ceiling in a very gorey state which I will not describe. The sounds were him dying.


Gross? Yes. Powerful? HECK YES. We already heard and processed those sounds, and that information sat in our minds for a while. When we can suddenly pair it with horrible visuals, it becomes so much more powerful of a moment.


In the Left 4 Dead games, you will hear zombie hordes coming for you long before you see them. You will even hear specific zombies with special abilities and special sound effects, causing you to change your gameplay style momentarily despite the fact that your visuals haven’t changed. This is absolutely genius sound design. Dread and fear created through game and sound design.


It’s a common technique in horror and psychological thriller films: disembodied voices are terrifying to us. Why? Sound should have a source! When it blatantly, boldly does NOT, we really get put on edge.


I guess the point of this post is, if you’re going to break the rules of always pairing sound with visuals, break them spectacularly! Sound design is an entirely separate toolbox for you to use, it’s not simply the thing that is glued to visuals. People will remember you forever if you can find a way to heighten their perception and awareness by presenting them with a sound without a source.