This week at The Avid Listener, we bring you an essay by composer Stephan Prock about “diagetic” and “nondiagetic” music in film scores. Diagetic music is the music film characters make or hear as part of the film’s plot. Nondiagetic music is the background music, the underscore, the music that only the audience hears, the music that manipulates our emotions as we watch the characters work through their narrative arc. Film music buffs will find old friends in this essay, including Casablanca. Novices will find clear examples of how diagetic and nondiagetic music works.
Here’s an excerpt: “Music in film has the power to make audible the emotions, thoughts, and desires of characters on screen. During the silent film era, music was often continuously performed to convey the feeling of a scene because, though their words might be displayed on the screen, characters could not color speech with their tone of voice. The ability to synchronize recorded sound with images changed the way films communicated with audiences. Though the addition of speech was the most obvious transformation, the move to sound film in the late 1920s also established a clear distinction between what has come to be called diegetic, or “source,” music and nondiegetic music (also commonly referred to as the “underscore”).”