6

Human speech (including dialogue in movies) has a certain pitch.

The harmony between the film dialogue and the film score can be influenced by the filmmakers. For example, the score can be composed such that there is little dissonance between score and dialogue. Or the actors can control the "key changes" etc. in their speech. (Some actors have musical training.)

Are there reports about such a process, where composers or actors or sound editors mention their efforts in this regard? Or is there retrospective analysis of movies in this regard (for example where a certain movie has an unusually small amount of dissonance between score and dialogue)?

7
  • 2
    Your first sentence isn't alway true. Not all human voices have a well-defined pitch when speaking. Apr 15 at 2:53
  • 2
    Note that asking if this has ever been done before is practically an identification question, which would be off-topic on this stack. Apr 15 at 3:14
  • In musicals, yes. Apr 15 at 15:19
  • 1
    There is one place where this sort of thing is taken into consideration. In Vegas (and likely other) casinos, there is a general mandate that all of the sounds made by the various slot machines and any other electronic noise-makers in the room be pitched such that they form only major chords against each other. And if there's music playing in the room, this would also be pitched up or down a smidge if needed in order to avoid any dissonance with the slots. They've determined that psychologically, hearing minor or dissonant chords makes people uneasy, and be less keen on gambling. Apr 15 at 20:04
  • 1
    @user45266 If you mean a scientific study, no, but a quick google search for "casino major chord" turns up dozens of results. Apparently they mostly play C's and G's, except when there's a payout, in which case they add in the E. I did a little (programming) work years ago for a small slot-machine company, just enough to get some basic exposure to the "rules", you'd be surprised how strictly regulated it is, industry-wide. Arcade game manufacturers apparently had similar rules - became less relevant when the video game market moved mostly to home machines. Apr 15 at 21:10
9

Human speech (including dialogue in movies) has a certain pitch.

Well, this is true MOST of the time. As counterexamples, whispers wouldn't have defined pitch, and neither would certain other ways to vocalize dialogue (vocal fry in a delivery tends to obscure the fundamental, for example). Breathing sounds like sighs don't have strong observable fundamentals. But I'll answer this recognizing that those types of speech dialogue are a minority of lines spoken in film and have no impact on the premise of the question:


My initial thought is that this would make little sense. For one, (and I am not experienced with the film industry, but) if I were in charge of a movie, I might possibly even have written the score to match the scenes before filming them, and that would in this case end up putting the responsibility on either the dialogue team to write dialogue that also corresponds with the score, or else on the actors to deliver their lines in accordance with the score.

But either way you slice it, you're either asking composers to account for actors' random speech pitch in their music or you're asking actors to learn to deliver lines in musically-dictated ways. Both options force the two teams to work together in ways that would have little to no precedent, and that sounds like a good reason not to do this to me.

Also, what effect would this have on the scene anyway? It seems to me like this would even have some potential downsides - the notes of speech could even blend into the score too well and make it harder to understand. And this would also be a very unnatural way to hear dialogue.


What other audio-visual medium matches up music to dialogue? If you've ever seen videos of someone like Charles Cornell adding piano harmonization to a video clip of someone talking, you may have noticed that the music added is fairly involved - it can't sit still in one key, since the speech frequencies won't naturally stay in one scale pattern for very long. Or if the actors were matching the score, it seems to me like it would be very clumsy for them to try to hit specific target frequencies while delivering lines in a realistic manner. I mean, what, would they be autotuned or something? And either way, dialogue matching music is not normally a subtle effect. Audiences will notice this, and that could take them out of the scene and spoil the sense of immersion in the narrative.

Execution would also be a massive problem. Composing around seemingly random notes would be a very tough task, and if the music is being performed and recorded to match the scenes, then oh boy, you better have a good conductor to lead the orchestra through the freely human timing of dialogue. If it's the actors with the tough job, remember that not all actors would have extensive musical ability. This could reduce the potential pool of acting talent significantly since there would probably be some musical ability required for them to deliver lines at the correct pitches - imagine delivering a monologue while syncing up to a piece of music? How will the studio find workers who are willing to even attempt such an unproven novelty concept as this? Editing also seems like a nightmare and a half - pitch editing could help, but it changes the timbre of the voice (and putting an entire movie's worth of dialogue through music production technology sounds atrocious). The logistics of this undertaking are quite intimidating.

Why not have the actors sing instead, like in musical theatre? Or take more inspiration from opera, where this is an established thing for the genre? In those cases, there is plenty of precedent for the actors and composers to be tied together. Simply trying to play off as coincidental the intentional correspondence between music and speech just seems like such an awkward idea to me - it shouldn't stick out too much, but it's a noticeable effect that takes lots of planning and coordination; it should seem natural, but it's a phenomenon that never occurs extensively in the wild; it should heighten the experience of the scene, but it risks disrupting suspension of belief. Contradictions abound!

And consider this: human audiences are used to actors' dialogue not matching up with music. In fact, there's probably some psychology behind the reason why audiences perceive pitch in singing but tend to ignore it in voice-over. Here's an exercise if anyone wants to prove this to themselves:

Take a movie that you know really well, and look at a transcript of the dialogue of that movie. Find a line from that movie in the transcript that is delivered underneath a song, and then listen to just that background song without the dialogue line in it. While listening to the song, take a guess at the pitch of the movie line from memory. Record that guess or write it down, then go listen to the actual scene. Did you guess exactly what note the line begins on? More than likely, you were wrong. You may have been in the ballpark, but odds are you weren't very confident about the exact note the line begins on.

Run this experiment again, but this time instead of a dialogue line, do it with a lyric from a song (find an instrumental of the song this time so you can guess at arbitrary pitches). This time, assuming you're confident in your ability to carry a tune, you probably got it right (give or take an octave or two)!

If you're stuck struggling to think of a good example for the experiment, here's an example/suggestion: what's the highest note that Mark Hamill hits during his scream from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back? (Note that the video clip below ends a few seconds before the scream itself, but not before it establishes D minor very clearly as the key for reference). The scream is "Nooooooooooooooooo, noooooooo...":

Now try guessing the first sung note of this verse from "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen (the lyric is "Mama, just killed a man" and the key is Bb major) based off of this instrumental:

Here's the example answers, if you want to check to see if you got it right:

The Empire Strikes Back scream peaks out at a B natural(!), then slides downwards.

and

The Bohemian Rhapsody first note is a D natural.


To sum up, I believe that if this effect were ever to be used in film, it would be for a very small-scope usage. Maybe a scream lines up with the underlying chord. Maybe the roar of the crowd sets a specific pitch, and then the background music uses that pedal tone. But for entire scenes to be built around this gimmick, there are a lot of obstacles in the way and there are a lot of alternatives that look much more appealing. Fun question to explore, but in my opinion a long ways away from a reality in today's world.

2
  • 2
    In addition to us being used to things not matching up, it is part of the art of scoring that you can't make the score match the picture too closely, or else it will seem very strange and distracting. Apr 15 at 3:03
  • 2
    The score and the visuals matching too closely (on purpose) is known as "Mickey Mousing".
    – Dekkadeci
    Apr 15 at 12:37
4

It's an interesting thesis, but I don't think that vocal pitching in speech is either harmonic or melodic. In short-- I don't think it will really be a very meaningful matchup

That being said, I can think of two examples where a movie tried to coordinate speaking and singing explicitly. The first is from the movie Amadeus, which is an absolute MUST watch for anyone interested in music. (example starts at 0:30)

The second comes from the old Leslie Howard movie, Pygmalion, in which he's a vocal coach trying to turn a street urchin into a passable lady. The xylophone sample is turned into a motif that runs for the next several minutes. You can hear right away that it doesn't work at all, though!

3
  • 1
    Thanks! I mean general movies whose topic is not pitch and music. Even though speech pitch doesn't perfectly match some scale, still some choices of keys or melodies in the score are less dissonant "towards" some given speech than others.
    – root
    Apr 14 at 23:15
  • 1
    Understood. It's not a trivial question. If you look at classical operas, they have free speech, recitatives, and arias. So even back then, they were very aware of that issue, and looking for ways to bridge music and normal speech! Apr 15 at 2:13
  • I reckon it happens a few times in the Sound of Music.
    – Tim
    Apr 15 at 7:23
4

In short, definitely not.

For several reasons:

  • Human speech is more often weakly pitched or unpitched, and when it is pitched, the pitches or partial pitches do not progress in a musical way, but instead in a way that serves speech. Music that followed verbal pitch patterns (at least those of English speakers) would be very jarring.
  • As noted elsewhere, even with modern production techniques and timelines, it's just not practical. Productions today involve the score composition starting before filming is complete, so the composer and the rest of the music team usually do not have knowledge of any spoken pitches in the film when they are composing. It is true that some composers are given dailies to work from to tighten up their score and be able to score to picture, but the dailies are preliminary. Also composers may be given rough cuts to work with, but again, those are not the final cuts and edits may happen at almost any time up until the release date, with music editors scrambling to cut a measure or add a beat of music when an edit to the film is made. Trying to also take into account changes of vocal pitch would make the process take far too long.
  • It's important that a film score does not match the film too closely, or it will become distracting. Certainly in the history of film, there are many, many moments where the music arrives at a certain point synchronized with the visual elements, but even in a score where there are many such moments, the total amount of music that is synchronized is a small fraction of the total running time of the film score. An entire cue (segment of music) that hits the same beats as the film would be very distracting unless that moment in the film is specifically crafted for that. To somehow line up any verbal pitches would make the music stand out too much and distract from the story.
  • Generally music that is happening at the same time as dialog in a film must be quiet and/or simple to preserve the intelligibility of the dialog. There are some very rare exceptions to this (Chris Nolan apparently wanted some of the dialog of Tenet to be barely audible), but as a rule, when someone on screen is talking, the music, if any, should be sparse and quiet.

One technique that might be used by some composers involving the dialog is taking rhythmic inspiration from the dialog. This is possible to do because the rhythm of speech (unlike) is available from the written form - meaning the shooting script that a composer would have access to could be inspirational in this way when no footage is yet available. Also because the musical rhythm can easily be made to not actually line up with the spoken rhythm, it would be less distracting. And again, it wouldn't be used for more than initial inspiration, if that.

1
  • An excellent answer, and covers the realities of modern filmmaking quite well! My one question is at the first bullet point, and it's more of a curiosity than a critique: "Human speech is more often weakly pitched or unpitched" what exactly does that mean? :)
    – user45266
    Apr 15 at 6:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.