Rhetorical Answer

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A response to the question never asked

What is Sound Design?

My first Sound Design class began with an overview of sound, which brought me back to my days in Psychoacoustics Lab in college. I would have never thought any of that course would have come in handy in the future besides providing me with great stories of sitting outside the testing rooms listening to experiment subjects scream in agony as they endured listening to a series of ear-splitting beeps through heavy-duty headphones. Ah, memories. Anyway, I looked over the diagrams of sound waves in the lecture notes and realized I understood what they meant. Score one nerd point!

The instructor then went on to talk a little about polar patterns and frequency response curves of microphones, followed by a few examples of ambient sound. We went through a brief case study analyzing the use of sound effects and music in a clip from the movie Behind Enemy Lines, which made me listen much more carefully than I normally do while watching a film, and concluded that the audio component really does drive the emotion in a scene far more than the visual component. If you don’t believe me, try watching some heart-wrenching movie scene with the sound muted. Then watch it again with sound. In terms of emotional impact, the version with sound will win hands-down, and the effect is even more pronounced if the scene is scored. Think of any scene with a swelling choral chant at the dramatic turning point, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The instructor summed up the use of music in film in a thought-provoking way. He said that the film-maker uses music to cue the audience to the appropriate emotional response. As an audience member, I was initially bothered by the idea that I was being cued to feel anything. Where do filmmakers get the right to manipulate me emotionally? But then he pointed out that aim of art is to put the audience into a state of suspended disbelief. Once in that state, we are able to go on a journey with the artist and see the world through that artist’s unique lens.

I can see the merit in his argument, but so much of today’s media is designed to manipulate consumers for commercial purposes that it still makes me uncomfortable to realize how much of that manipulation has been honed to an art. As it’s largely unavoidable in this technology-saturated environment in which we live, I suppose I’m better off being able to recognize the techniques. And perhaps, after mastering them myself, take over the world? *Dr. Evil pinkie smile*

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