The Beginner’s Guide to Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound Design

Hey did you hear that? If you're a character in a movie, it's probably diegetic.
Diagetic Sound Design Quiet Place

3Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay that explains the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sound design in movies.

Diegetic sound” is one of those film terms that gets tossed around every now and then. And if you’re not already familiar with the term, you’re kind of left scratching your head if there isn’t enough context for you to piece things together yourself.

To cut to the chase, diegetic sound refers to audio that originates from within the world of the movie. In Blood Simple, when the Coen Brothers show us a jukebox in Marty’s bar and “It’s The Same Old Song’ starts blasting, that’s diegetic sound. When Luke’s lightsaber first goes bzzzzzzzzzzkkkkshhhhh in “A New Hope,” that’s diegetic sound. On the other hand, non-diegetic sound describes noises, music, etc., that do not originate from within the world of the movie, such as voice-over narration or a film’s score.

As the video essay below brushes over, the Greek word diegesis (“tell, don’t show”) is closely associated with its sister term mimesis (“show, don’t tell”). Together, diegesis and mimesis form the bulk of the push-pull between how famous dead white guys Plato and Aristotle wrote about art. Long story very, very short: Plato thought mimesis, a shadow of a shadow of a thing, was morally suspect. Later, in his Poetics (which is a lot more accessible than The Republic), Aristotle rehabilitated imitative (rather than descriptive) art on the basis that there was moral instruction to be gained in the public viewing enacted art.

Much like the above tangent, diegetic and non-diegetic sound are a lot more complicated than I’ve made them out to be. What are we to make of narrators that characters can hear and engage with? What about expressionistic sound design that isn’t literally but emotionally true for the world of the film? Much to consider, so listen in:

Watch “Ultimate Guide to Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Sound”

Who made this?

This video essay on the difference between dietetic and non-diegetic sound design is created by StudioBinder. This production management software creator also happens to produce wildly informative video essays. They tend to focus on the mechanics of filmmaking itself, from staging to pitches and directorial techniques. You can check out their YouTube account here.

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Meg Shields: Meg has been writing professionally about all things film-related since 2016. She is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects as well as a Curator for One Perfect Shot. She has attended international film festivals such as TIFF, Hot Docs, and the Nitrate Picture Show as a member of the press. In her day job as an archivist and records manager, she regularly works with physical media and is committed to ensuring ongoing physical media accessibility in the digital age. You can find more of Meg's work at Cinema Scope, Dead Central, and Nonfics. She has also appeared on a number of film-related podcasts, including All the President's Minutes, Zodiac: Chronicle, Cannes I Kick It?, and Junk Filter. Her work has been shared on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, Business Insider, and CherryPicks. Meg has a B.A. from the University of King's College and a Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto.