Diegetic sound: Definition and explanation

Die-what? [di-a-JE-tic]. Video editors are often mired in the details of their audio production and many of them aren’t familiar with the term diegetic.

The term works on a micro level of audio in your projects, as opposed to a macro view. Maybe a broad, conceptual overview of the is just the thing to take your most recent project to the next level. 

What is Diegetic Sound?

Diegesis has its roots in literature and theater. The other side of the coin is called mimesis. Basically it’s the difference between telling how a story unfolds or seeing the story unfold. The term diegetic sound comes from film techniques and sound design. Diegetic sounds are those sounds that the on-screen characters experience.

For instance, in Star Wars, during the cantina scene, we’re treated to a Bith band playing a catchy tune. It takes place in the cantina and the characters can hear it, so it qualifies as diegetic sound. In fact, as the action progresses and moves to the booth table with Han Solo and Greedo, the diegetic sound even drops in volume and clarity, just as it would in real life. As to who shot first, we’ll leave that up to you.

Wayne's World Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody sceen used as an example of diegetic
Questionable singing. Non-diegetic sound is sometimes the easiest to digest. It’s why soundtracks affect our mood so easily.

Another great example is the opening scene of Wayne’s World, where the boys pop in a cassette tape of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. We hear the music play through the car stereo along with some questionable singing. The characters hear it, so it’s diegetic.

This type of sound is in nearly every movie and TV show you’ve ever seen. Although, it’s hard to imagine a meeting of sound designers sitting around a monitor and calling out “that scene needs some diegetic sound,” it is the correct term.

Conversely, there are non-diegetic or extra-diegetic sounds in movies, TV shows and other videos. In The Wonder Years a narrator – an adult version of the main character – sets up each episode and scene. Since the characters can’t hear him, this is non-diegetic sound. Soundtracks are another example, since the audience members are the only ones to hear the music.

Crossing the Diegetic Line

Sometimes, an audio element serves as both diegetic and non-diegetic, or even transforms from one to the other. For example, a movie character presses the play button on an MP3 player. We hear the song as well as the character but, as the camera pulls back to show them jogging away, the music becomes a part of the soundtrack.

As a more complex example, consider the TV show Glee. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a show about a high school glee club or show choir. Each episode is filled with music built around a central theme or artist. Throughout the show, it’s common to see a character sing a song in class. Over the course of the song, it becomes part of the soundtrack to other events happening in the show. Toward the end, the song transforms back into a diegetic part of class.

One of the most interwoven illustrations of diegetic and non-diegetic sound is a scene from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. In this scene, Pippin is asked by Lord Denethor to sing a song while the ruler eats. As Pippin sings his mournful song, we see Denethor eating, intercut with scenes and sounds from a battle that is happening at the same time, many miles away.

The song is diegetic to Pippin and Denethor, yet non-diegetic to those in the battle. The battle sounds are diegetic to those on the field, but non-diegetic to Pippin and Denethor. To top it all off, there is a layer of orchestral accompaniment that is non-diegetic to both camps. It’s a complicated, masterful piece of moviemaking.

Why would you do that?

Diegetic sound is simply another tool to help tell your story, although how you use it is up to you. The transformation technique is a common method – shifting from diegetic to non-diegetic or vice versa – that helps draw in the viewer. By changing the role of music in the piece, you engage the viewer and subtly involve them in the action. On the other hand, you can also pull the viewer out of a scene to separate them from the story.

More traditional sound effects and Foley are another way to leverage diegetic sound. Let’s say you’re creating a dance club scene for your current project. Unfortunately, you don’t have access to an actual club for shooting. What you do have is a big room, a DJ, some flashing lights and a handful of extras. A small Halloween fog machine helps obscure the emptiness of the room and emphasizes the lighting. You shoot tight and reuse your extras as much as possible, but the final edit still falls flat. Using sound effects as a substitute for real diegetic sound, it’s possible to add laughing, talking, clapping and other realistic sounds to imply a much larger, active environment.

Finally, you can use diegetic and non-diegetic sound to toy with your viewers. Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen are famous directors who have used narration as a tool to mislead the viewer, making them think one thing when something else was actually happening. It’s your choice, but the next time you watch a movie or TV show, think about how the director leverages these techniques.

A cell phone ringing and keyboard representing diegetic sound
Recording a cell phone ringing and keyboard tapping can represent diegetic sound, and allow you to pick from a much wider array of ringtones.

Diegetic DIY

Using the following DIY sound effects techniques won’t require any special production tricks, just some forethought and planning. Imagine this scene: in a wide shot of a dimly lit apartment, a science fiction writer is pounding out a story on his laptop. Suddenly, his cell phone rings and vibrates on the coffee table.

The keyboard tapping and phone are all diegetic, since he’s aware of them. But did they really happen during the shoot? If you have a live phone and cell coverage, by all means, record the real sound with the scene. But if it’s a prop phone or cell service is sketchy, you can record them later as sound effects and insert them during editing. Diegesis is maintained even though the sounds didn’t actually occur in the shot.

Or how about this: a couple discusses their plans over lunch at a sidewalk café. The talent is miked for dialog and you’ve done your best to minimize the traffic sound and other background noises. But now, the scene sounds sterile. By simply recording the ambience and inserting the missing background sound, you’ve created a whole environment. The scene is complete, even though it never happened that way.

Wrap It Up

Diegetic sound is a pretty broad concept – especially if you’re just making quick videos for the Internet. But if you want to tell a story and make viewers care, diegetic sound helps seal the deal. Don’t over think this, but do think about how the sound in your project impacts the viewer. Does it draw them in or push them away? Will the audio sell the scene or just sound like you tossed in a few effects because you needed them? Sound is, after all, at least half of the picture.