Sound Design Theory – Sound Classifications

   By Sarah C   Categories: GeneralMastering Audio


Michel Chion (a noted sound theorist) classifies listening in three modes: causal, semantic, and reduced. Chion’s typology provides a useful design framework for discussing sounds function in a soundtrack. Causal sound is aptly named, as it reinforces cause and effect (see a cow, hear a cow).

Sound editors often refer to these as hard effects, especially when they are used in a literal fashion. The saying “we don’t have to see everything we hear, but we need to hear most of what we see” describes the practical role that causal sounds play in the soundtrack. The term semantic is used to categorize sound in which literal meaning is the primary emphasis. Speech, whether in a native or foreign tongue, is a form of semantic sound. Morse code is also semantic and, like foreign languages, requires a mechanism for translation (e.g. subtitles) when used to deliver story points. Even the beeps placed over curse words imply a semantic message. The term reduced refers to sounds that are broken down, or reduced, to their fundamental elements and paired with new objects to create new meanings. Animation provides many opportunities for this nonliteral use of sound.











The term diegetic denotes sound that is perceived by the characters in the film. Though unbeknownst to the characters, diegetic sound is also perceived by the audience. This use of sound establishes a voyeuristic relationship between the characters and their audience. Non-diegetic sound is heard exclusively by the audience, often providing them with more information than is provided to the characters. When discussing music cues, the terms source and underscore are used in place of diegetic and non-diegetic. Diegetic sound promotes the implied reality of a scene. Principle dialogue, hard effects, and source music are all examples of diegetic sound. In contrast, non-diegetic components of a soundtrack promote a sense of fantasy. Examples of non-diegetic sound include narration, laugh tracks, and underscore. The cinematic boundaries of diegesis are often broken or combined to meet the narrative intent at any given moment.

Excerpt from Designing Sound for Animation, 2nd Edition by Robin Beauchamp © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.







About the Author

Robin Scott Beauchamp is a professor of sound design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. As a founding member of the department, Mr. Beauchamp was instrumental in designing the curriculum for the first Undergraduate Program in Sound Design in the World. There he teaches courses in design, music editing and supervision, mixing, and Foley recording. He is expert certified in Pro Tools Post Production and teaches certification courses. Mr. Beauchamp continues to work as a freelance sound designer and composer for independent animations.


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