Can you think of films where the distinction between score and sound design is creatively or accidentally undermined?

In a lot of films the distinction is really clear: score is orchestral music, electronic atmospheres or rock songs, and it comments on emotion or drama or something. Sound design is usually recordings of non-musical things, and acts to anchor the image and make everything convincing. (I'm simplifying a lot, but you know what I mean.) Sometimes in a film, however, it's much harder to draw a clear distinction between score and sound design, and I always find it interesting when I come across this kind of blurring.

Here's a couple of different examples of what I mean:

  1. In the electronic score for Forbidden Planet, the sounds are often ambiguous enough to blur the distinction between score and sound design. Check out this clip of a spaceship landing: is the sound that accompanies it a sound effect — is it meant to represent the sound of the spaceship — or is it 'spaceship landing music'? In Star Wars, for example, the distinction between the sound of a spaceship landing and the music which might accompany it is totally clear; here it's a much stranger and more ambiguous thing, which I quite like.
  2. Can't find a clip online, but in the Gus Van Sant film Elephant, there's a scene where a female character walks through the gym. The score at that point is (Canadian soundscape composer) Hildegard Westerkamp's Beneath The Forest Floor, a piece built from field recordings of a forest. So the character is walking through the gym and we hear music made from forest birds. Again, there's no clear way to distinguish score or sound design here, it's just an example of creative organised sound (which is what score and sound design both are fundamentally anyway).
  3. I guess mickeymousing is also an example of this, because it's using score to do what foley can do: a character falls over and a cymbal crashes, for example. It gets a bad name but I kind of like it because it builds an audiovisual language instead of treating sound and image as distinct.

Anyway: I'm sure there's a whole bunch of other ways it can be done (deliberately or accidentally), can you think of any?


15 Answers 15


I can think of a masterpiece by Andrey Tarkovsky called Stalker. Totally love how the sound design and score blend into each other in this railroad to the zone sequence:

  • That's great! I haven't seen this film since I was a teenager and really should watch it again.
    – Mikey P
    Mar 22, 2010 at 0:00
  • I was thinking about Tarkovsky too! You can also watch "Solaris" to find this type of sound design/score.
    – alansende
    Aug 9, 2010 at 17:46

On a master class, Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey described how they've treated the wind tracks as music cues throughout No Country For Old Men, as the directors didn't want to have a score in a traditional way.

Not quite the same thing, but I thought it was a cool idea anyway.

  • No, I think that's a good example: it uses something from the sound design world to do what score is usually used for.
    – Mikey P
    Mar 22, 2010 at 0:03

Anything other than the original Russian mono version of Stalker has extra sound overdubbed that the Director never intended!

Kwaidan (1964) and Zatoichi (2003) are other good examples of the blurring of the lines. Japanese sensibilities in particular are very suited to this style, David Toop talks about this kind of thing in Japanese Cinema and Sound Art in his wonderful book 'Haunted Weather'.

Also another response to the original question (perhaps less sexy or exotic) is Walter Murch's use of Worldizing in American Grafitti, how music from Car and Cafe/Diner radios constantly glide between diegetic and non-diegetic, foreground and background.

  • Thanks a lot for mentioning Haunted Weather, i have never heard of it before and looks pretty interesting! And for mentioning Zatoichi, now i have to see it again! Mar 22, 2010 at 23:13

In terms of blurring the distinction between score and sound design I'm reminded of Hitchcock's The Birds: Bernard Hermann, ordinarily tasked with writing a convention score, is given the role of supervising an electronic soundtrack of bird sounds. There is also a publicity photograph of Hitchcock listening, in mock (?) agony to the sounds on headphones. There is no non-diegetic music in the film, yet the bird sounds were being presented in terms of music, I believe. So I suppose the question, in this instance, is whether the soundtrack is a score or sound effects, or a new category. I like to think it's a new category that offers the potential for a creative marriage of sound and image; one that answers the concerns that purists held when the soundtrack was introduced to the film medium in the late '20s.


"THX 1138" for me this whole movie is surely the best example of a movie which blurs the distinction between score and sound design.


Pretty much every horror film

  • Yeah, maybe this kind of blurring is more common in horror and comedy than it is in dramas? I remember talking to a film curator about my question and he spent a while telling me about Texas Chainsaw Massacre as an example of Musique Concrete. I haven't watched the film again since that discussion, I should.
    – Mikey P
    Mar 21, 2010 at 23:58

The opening sequence to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West comes to mind. Like some other examples mentioned here, there is no music. Instead, there is a kind of orchestration of natural sound elements. A fly, dripping water, and, oh man, that windmill! Fun stuff.

  • Great movie to analize character leit-motifs too!!
    – alansende
    Aug 9, 2010 at 20:28

If you listen to some of the score from the original Pirates of the Caribbean, it almost seems like there are are few sound effects in the score, and if you are aware of them, then watch the movie, you'll notice that they are essentially functioning as sound effects as well. There are even some vocalizations (almost something I would consider dialogue) in there. I didn't even know they were part of the score until I listened to the score separately some time after the movie.

Not quite as ambiguous as your example, but still interesting.

I am also reminded of old Sci Fi movies such as 3rd Encounter, 2001, THX1138, etc... where many to most of the sound design was done on Arps and Synclaviers. The sound design, especially related to the "Space" elements (aliens, ships, etc...) were so musical - since they came from a synth - that they often blended right in with the score. Even the Ark scene from Raiders (Indiana Jones) reminds me of that. That scene relied heavily on an Arp 2600.

  • Yeah, I really love John Carpenter's score/sound design for Dark Star for this. I think all the bleeps and bloops the ship equipment makes were made on the same equipment as the synth score. Not sure what he used..
    – Mikey P
    Mar 22, 2010 at 0:22

Is that a remastered scene from Stalker? I remember that scene very, very well, and it's absolutely hypnotic, though I don't remember the sound to be quite as distinct as it is in the Youtube clip above - and I don't remember the snare sound! Hmm.

Another example of the blurring between sound and music is the bathroom scene in Punch Drunk Love, where Adam Sandler smashes parts of it to pieces. The sounds sound like both effects and snippets of music, and it's fantastically well executed. Can't find it on YouTube, but the movie is so good you should watch the entire length of it anyways. :)


Eraserhead - I believe David Lynch created/recorded the industrial soundscapes and machine noises himself. The first example of a sound design score I've seen...except for the occasional 50's organ riff.

The Jacket - Partially scored with non-musical (and musical) FM synthesis. Brian Eno...

Last night I watched The Shining again and it is sometimes difficult to tell what is an instrument and what is a harsh piece of audio. Often a blur between I think.

Interesting question!

  • re Eraserhead, sound designer was Alan Splet imdb.com/name/nm0819263 substation.co.nz/nzsndata/DUNEFX.html
    – user49
    Mar 21, 2010 at 20:32
  • I know Alan Splet was responsible for the foley and location sound on Eraserhead...but not the industrial soundscapes (seems these were regarded & credited as sound fx at the time). For most of the following movies, D.L. is credited as 'sound designer'; imdb.com/name/nm0000186 as well as Alan Splet. Also, in the documentary ( imdb.com/title/tt1032207 ), we can see how Lynch made his soundscapes for Inland Empire.
    – Peter
    Mar 22, 2010 at 8:00
  • Alan Splet and David Lynch did a lot of their recordings and work together. But the industrial soundscapes were indeed the work of Splet as well - his work is legendary. Check out the Sounds of a Different Realm-cds with work by Splet and his widow, Ann Kroeber. Wonderful sounds: hollywoodedge.com/Sounds-of-a-Different-Realm-P42.aspx Apr 3, 2010 at 23:10
  • In some of the bonus interview footage on the Eraserhead 2000 box set thingy Lynch mentions something about them finding a bunch of old stock tape reels in a dumpster on a film lot. Could have sworn that's what was the source for the industrial ambience sounds but could mistaken, or they could have treated them further. He spends a fair amount of time talking about the sound and music in those interviews, fun watch either way. Jul 7, 2010 at 3:40

I think Lynch does fantastic stuff in his films, merging sound and music into the subconscious of the film- archytypal Lynch. The low tones and rumbles in Lost Highway are both ambient and musical- gets under the skin and crawls through you.

Also in Black Hawk Down when the helicopters are flying in for the mission- it is all propellor whirling, wind and engine- but as we fly over the Red Sea, the FX slowly fade ou and music, in the same tone and Rhythm come in dissecting the emotional amgiguity of the soldiers. Great stuff.


Gasper Noe's 2002 cult classic Irreversible features two very shocking scenes that gained the film notoriety. One of these is in a nightclub where the main character is looking for someone who he ends up killing with a fire extinguisher (very gruesome scene). The whole scene was incredibly intensified by Thomas Bangalter's score mixed with the intense camera work.

Overall, the audience is left with a feeling of nausea, largely due to the well-designed soundtrack. It is really just a repetitive drone but it has an incredible effect of intensifying the gravity of the scene.


There were at least 5 composers working on Michael Clayton who listed themselves as "Musical Sound Designers" and there are no other sound designers credited. That movie is driven by its dialogue and that dialogue was accented by several musical cues to heighten or highlight the impact of what was being said. At first glance, one might assume there's no score. On the contrary, that sound design is heavily influenced by the musical ideas of those composers. As a result, the events in the movie are brought into a real and more palpable dimension for the viewer to experience because of this blurring between sound design and score.


There are some scenes in There Will Be Blood where the score is spawned from an on screen sound effect, and it slowly morphs into music. Some pretty intense music in that picture.


There's a movie that came out a couple years ago called In The City Of Sylvia.

There wasn't much dialogue... but sound was used hand in hand with the image to create settings that drew you in. Many scenes are simply a static camera and a sound field almost meant to simulate a moving painting with audio.

In one of the scenes where there's actual music, a group of violinists wander around an outdoor cafe, becoming part of the ambience, but the music isn't part of the space... really hypnotic.

It's a really amazing film, one in which sound design was the focus, and I'd love to get anyone else's take who's seen it. If you haven't, you can get a good idea from the trailer.

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