Well, today we are going to go to that crossroads where the narrative and the sound of a story intersect. We’ll talk about a fundamental concept of narrative fiction that helps us understand the use of music as well as other sounds in certain audiovisual productions and that, above all, can be tremendously useful in yours.
Let’s talk about diegesis.
Diegesis is the Greek word for ‘narration’ (διήγησις), but it can also mean ‘story,’ ‘exposition,’ or ‘explanation.’ From Ancient Greek times, this term is used as a counterposition to ‘mimesis’ (μίμησις), which means ‘imitation;’ a concept advocated by Aristotle’s teacher Plato. When Aristotle was laying the theoretical foundations of Western narrative in his treatise Poetics, he asserted that stories were diegetic in nature and not mimetic. This means that stories do not necessarily constitute an imitation of reality (Plato disdained narrative art, by the way,) but that, through the figure of a narrator, they can develop a fictional, though plausible, a world whose conventions may differ from, or even contradict, those of the real world. In short: diegesis is an artificial reality, governed by its own rules, and constructed to be observed. In cinema — although we could also speak of television here — this artificial reality is technically known as ‘filmic space.’ In theater, it corresponds to what happens on stage: the conflicts between the characters in the play and the world in which they are immersed.
Let’s imagine that a diegesis is a dimension that we can see from the outside. As spectators, we are in another plane of reality, in a non-diegetic or extra-diegetic plane (outside the diegesis), and everything happening within that dimension observed by us from the outside will be intra-diegetic.
Now, this is where things get a bit complicated. In the more classical stories — for instance, the cinema of the first half of the 20th century — music was a mere accompaniment to the narrative; and, looking closely at such films, we realize that the characters are not listening to it. The music doesn’t affect them in any way. The music, the sound effects, or the voice-over narration, are additions by the director to complement the narrative events and, in this way, arouse the emotions of the audience (one of the objectives of fiction as a communication tool, it is worth clarifying). However, as cinema became a little more experimental, directors began to break “the fourth wall” that separates both worlds; that is, they sought to build bridges between the diegesis and what was beyond: our plane of reality (non-diegetic) as spectators. This is called ‘metafiction.’
When Shakespeare’s characters stop and monologue (almost always, facing the public,) that fourth wall is broken, as happens when characters played by actors leave the stage and interact with the audience. We have also seen it on television (remember Frank Underwood talking to the camera in House of Cards) and in the cinema as well. So, one of those metafictional resources has been possible with music, thanks to what we call trans-diegetic sound.
The Latin term ‘trans-’ means ‘behind,’ ‘on the other side of,’ or ‘through.’ To pass from one place to another: transportation, translation, translucent, and so on. To this extent, trans-diegetic sound is that which passes from one plane of reality to another, in any sense. Let’s look at two examples with the same music — Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water — in The Sopranos and Better Call Saul (SPOILER ALERTS!)
In this chapter, Tony is listening to a song in his car, the CD fails (oh, the old times…) and, because of this, he has an accident. Here, the sound is diegetic. It comes from his car’s stereo. Now, let’s see what happens in Better Call Saul:
Here, Jimmy McGill finally decides to embrace his dark side, and, remembering the song that his partner-in-crime Marco Pasternak liked, he starts humming it (in the diegesis;) then, the song becomes the soundtrack (in the non-diegesis.)
Other examples are the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (playing The Waltz №2 by Dmitri Shostakovich) and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, in which the characters are listening to music and turn off the radio. We can see another example in Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction when Harold freaks out when he hears the narrator’s voice (a voice-over narration) and then begins to suspect that he is a literary character. Also, in Stranger Things, Max escapes from the upside down thanks to her favorite song: Kate Bush’ Running Up That Hill, which their friends play to save her from Vecna.
But, back to The Sopranos, perhaps one of the most representative examples of this is the final scene of the series (again SPOILER ALERT,) in which Tony plays Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ on the restaurant’s jukebox. A fragment of the song’s chorus (saying ‘don’t stop’) syncs perfectly with the end of the episode, the end of the series, and the end of Anthony Soprano as the main character. We assume that Tony dies right there, and, from that point on, only a fade to black follows, suggesting that there is nothing beyond death:
This example is quite representative since it teaches us when and how to use trans-diegetic sound in a project: when the music is not simply cool or catchy but really closes the idea that is sought to convey through fiction, complementing the rest of the elements that make up the diegesis.
We hope it helps.
If you need advice for your audiovisual or musical projects, do not hesitate to contact Enhanced Media Sound Studio. We will be eager to contribute to your creation and take it to the next level.