Sound and Silence: Shaping the Mood

Someone shrieks. A parent scoops up a child and flees. Gazes swivel skyward as a sudden crashing sound shatters the brittle quiet. The thumps and thuds of hurrying feet sound a timpani beat on the stairs.

What is this? The aftermath of a horrible crime? Fear engendered by a natural disaster?

No. This is a three-year-old’s birthday party that I recently attended. Taken out of context, the sights and sounds above have a veneer of tension and horror. (Perhaps the notion of a three-year-old’s birthday party fills you with horror now.)

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When a bunch of small children congregate in one space, you might imagine you’re in a war zone when you catalogue the amount of spillage, breakage, and yell-age (not a real word, but appropriate) taking place. Somehow seven small children can seem like 30, especially when they’re sugared up.

Actually, the most eerie sound at the party was the sudden onslaught of quiet. All of the children were upstairs in one child’s bedroom being very quiet. The silence sent every parent rushing up the stairs to see what was going on.

Since I was in charge of games at this party, I was privy to the most sounds: shrieks, protests (“I didn’t get a turrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn”), and questions. (“Where’s my baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalllllll?”) I wondered what the neighbors thought of all of the sounds coming from this place.

Expectations factor into how sounds are received. Because we expect a bunch of kids ranging in age from 2 to 7 to be loud when they congregate, screams aren’t as ominous as they would seem coming from a crowd of adults at a non-sporting event. Therefore, our heart rates remain even when we hear them, unless we recognize the switch in a child’s tone (from excited to upset).

violin1The birthday party reminds me of something to which I need to pay more attention in my writing: sounds and their effect on a listener. Consider the way sounds shape our reaction to scenes in films and shows. We’ve all seen horror movies where high- or low-pitched instruments are the signal that something awful is going to happen. At the Moving Image Education website, I found a quote that encapsulates this experience:

Pitch can greatly affect audience response: a low rumbling sound might imply menace, while a high, sustained note might create tension.

If you’ve got time and don’t scare easily, you can watch one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history—the shower scene from Psycho (1960), one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films. (Seems a lot tamer than movies today.) Listen to the music and how it affects the mood of the scene.

If you watched the scene or remember it from the past, did you notice the quiet at the beginning? That aspect makes the murder all the more jarring.

In a book, an author has to work hard to help a reader correctly interpret the mood. For descriptions of sounds, we have to rely on figurative language and other well-chosen words to create a frame of reference for the reader, since he or she can only “hear” through his/her imagination. (For example: “I said, no!” Jessica’s “no” sliced the air like a knife.)

I usually look at the behind-the-scenes documentaries of shows like Clone Wars or movies like The Lord of the Rings to learn what sound engineers do to create sounds that add to our experience of the media. A great online resource for the use of sounds to convey mood is the article, “Change The Sound, Change The Mood,” at NHPR (New Hampshire Public Radio). Click here for that article. If you have time, check out the videos that show how the mood of well-known movie trailers drastically changed as the music used in them changed. (The revised Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory trailer made me laugh out loud. The boat ride is key.)

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The boat ride from Willy Wonka

How has a sound affected your mood lately? How do you use sound in your writing to heighten the mood? What book or poem have you read recently where the descriptions of sounds made the text even more vivid?

Birthday hats from trendymods.com. Violin from bibleconversation.wordpress.com. Willy Wonka boat ride gif from pandawhale.com.