top of page
  • Writer's pictureToby Ellis

Crossing the Sound Barrier. The Blurred Lines Between Music and Sound Design: Diegetic & Non Die

Updated: Jul 18, 2019

Atonement (2007)

In this blog post, following on from the theme of one of my previous ventures where I explored the ‘fantastical gap’ between music and sound design, I wanted to look today into the prominent industry concept turned phenomena of blurring the lines between music and sound in narrative film. In particular, referencing the example composer Dario Marianelli sets in Joe Wright’s captivating english drama Atonement (2007).

Both I and peer related author Catrin Watts both feel the same about this film on a few sonic ideas and I wanted to with her aid, explore this matter further on paper. 

Blurring the Lines..

Catrin Watts establishes in her paper “Blurred lines: the use of diegetic and nondiegetic sound in Atonement (2007)” within Music and the Moving Image, vol. XI, no. 2.  how Marianelli’s achieves this type of technique at an Oscar winning level of intinuity and creativity by using the function of the sound recording and manipulation of a typewriter within the score. In her writing, she comments on the effectiveness of its overall contribution to the film right from the get go, and how its presence and significance here at the beginning of the film helps to carry ‘unusually strong thematic resonances’ (2018. P.23) throughout. 

I took a moment to reflect on what she has said about one of my clear favourites in cinematic drama, and take that information into my own work for our semsester B assignment ‘Intruders’ by where we have to score a short 4 minute film which is to encapsulate the idea of music and sound design as one entity. 

Atonement – The Opening Scene Analysis:

Atonement (2007) – Opening Scene

  1. Titles – Sound in the titles are not pinpointed visually until we see the character Briony’s room seconds later. They apply an area of ambiguous space with the type writer and accompaniment of the birds (which create a sense of time of year i.e. summer as opposed to winter).

  2. Sound of the typewriter could be interpreted as the result of older Briony beginning to write her manuscript (at the end of the film).

  3. Retrospectively removes the typewriter from its simultaneous functions within the diegesis.

  4. Sound of the typewriter is dually significant:

  5. 1. Part of the film world presented to us immediately in the moment (Briony writing ‘The Trails of Arabella’) 2. Part of the narrative Briony will fashion at a much later time (Briony writing ‘Atonement’). 

  6. Opening – Suspicions stated above are aroused after the typewriter begins to drift over into nondiegetic space. After when Briony removes her paper from the writer and places it neatly in its folder the typewriter sound keeps going. 

  7. Typewriter becomes part of the musical score.

  8. Accompanies her walk to her mother’s room, possibly to show signs of Briony’s overactive imagination. 

  9. Music – The music attached to Briony’s imagination can be associated with repeated note, the type writer, triplets and melodic figures. 

  10. Triplets creating urgency – Positioned slightly ahead of the beat.

  11. High frequencies in the composition of the music allows for more space for the lower frequencies of the typewriter to come through prominently in the mix. 

  12. Upper register in the music – Linking to a soft and sweet Briony in her youth.

  13. Lower register in the typewriter – in reaction adds bass to takes the side of the matureness of older Briony when involved in non-diegetic sound space.

Also due to my extensive research on music vitality in the Mission: Impossible franchise, I wanted to using the example of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) to inspect and analyse Christopher McQuarrie’s ingenious twist on the use of opera direction in orchestrating and re-orchestrating music in diegesis for a set-piece in film. How it uses the iconic score of nessun dorma to enhance characters and further inform the action  taking place. i wanted to look into this concept for the purpose of  music synchronisation with visuals, sound design and music which could easily be applied in my coursework mentioned briefly above.

Elevating a Set-piece- Re-orchestrating Music in Diegesis

An evening at the opera…   

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) 10 Minute Exclusive Preview.

This particular set of scenes I believe showcases a range of techniques for creating a cinematic diegetic atmosphere which is something I’m thinking about conveying to the audience for assignment ‘Intruders’. The set piece begins with our hero Ethan who has moved to the backstage area in order to further investigate a hitman esc. figure who as they have already deduced, will be lurking at this location to most likely assassinate a certain diplomatic chancellor who is being hosted in a private box above. So, as the orchestral operatic version of Nessun Dorma begins to play and in the first few shots of the video I have linked above, the soft and sweetly performed orchestral melody in the music perfectly reveals the interpretation of this mysterious woman in yellow who we later learn to be MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). The melody also acting as a set up using a love at first sight type moment in solidifying the definition of the later innocent and blossoming relationship between her and Ethan throughout the entirety of the movie and franchise. As the music continues on, the music accompanies Ilsa in a series of close up shots revealing her true nature/intentions within the moment of the movie as another obstacle Ethan will instead have to prevail over.

Music is also used dietetically as a weapon in this scene with the assassin in the next part of the clip carrying a alto flute sniper rifle. Both rifles and their sound effects are then satisfyingly synchronised in time with the operatic music which can also be seen in various combat choke hold scenarios thereafter. The final and unmentionable use of where elevation and re-orchestration are used in the case of diegesis would be the foreshadowing and/or of the climax of the piece. Where the note that is circled by the assassin within the score marks the means of death by gunfire on that specific note, the ‘O’ of Vincerò.  


  1. Movie PLUS. (2015). Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation 10 Minute Exclusive Preview. [Online Video]. 15 November 2015. Available from:–E6OE. [Accessed: 1 November 2018].

  2. Tintagel Cheyenne. (2014). Atonement – Joe Wright – opening scene. [Online Video]. 14 August 2014. Available from: [Accessed: 28 October 2018].

  3. Watts, C. 2018, “Blurred lines: the use of diegetic and nondiegetic sound in Atonement (2007)”, Music and the Moving Image, vol. XI, no. 2, pp. 23. 

27 views0 comments


bottom of page