Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic and Comedy vs. Drama

I know I’ve mentioned in an older post (funny, I’ve only been at this around 3 months but I’m already forgetting exactly what I wrote at the beginning), but it bears repeating.  We can divide music in visual media into the diegetic and non-diegetc sphere: diegetic being music that has an identifiable source in film world (a record playing, a radio, band, etc.) and non-diegetic is the musical score that the characters in the movie cannot hear.  But what’s interesting is that, as rigid as those definitions are, there can be rather fluid movement between the spaces.

As I discussed in my recent Watchmen review, in the opening scene the song ‘Unforgettable’ begins in the diegetic space, but, as the sound mix indicates, moves into the non-diegetic.  This is clearly used for dramatic effect and is one example of this movement between the two aural spaces.  As a guideline (but not a hard and fast rule), it seems that movement from diegetic to non-diegetic is used for dramatic effect and non-diegetic to diegetic is used for comedic effect.  Some examples should illustrate this nicely.

First is from what is possibly my favorite moment in an episode of Family Guy.  In the recent Star Wars parody episode (entitled ‘Blue Harvest’), we have the classic scene on Tatooine where Luke (played by Chris) is standing dramatically as the binary suns of the planet set and we hear the Force theme being played for (what I think) is the first time in the series.  The mournful french horn solo as Luke expresses his desire to leave his desert planet home.  What happens next in ‘Blue Harvest’ (as the music swells), is that Chris/Luke turns to the camera and says “John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra, everybody!” and the camera sweeps left and reveals John Williams and the orchestra there, in the middle of the desert, playing.  Chris then asks them to play the theme to the People’s Court, which they kindly oblige.

The comedy of the moment is obviously derived from the sheer absurdity of the orchestra playing in the desert.  But it is also a commentary on orchestral scores in general.  One of the functions of a musical score, as pointed out by Royals S. Brown in Overtones and Undertones (probably also said elsewhere, but that’s the one I’ve read) is that the music “mythologizes” the images.  This is exactly the function of the music in this scene.  We have Luke, the loner, fighting against the simple life of his parents, but also fighting against his, then, unknown history as the child of Anakin Skywalker, and it is accompanied by the music that becomes “The Force Theme,” the very birthright he has but doesn’t know about.  And all this complex symbolism is undone by a simple comedic turn of a musical shift from the non-deigetic to the diegetic.

Second is a scene from the pilot episode of a show we (the royal we) all love here at ‘The Temp Track’…Chuck.  At the end of the pilot episode, Chuck turns in his applicator for the Assistant Manager position to Big Mike, and as he walking to the office, we have a dramatic slow walk set to a Morricone Once Upon a Time in the West sounding cue (it could in fact be Morricone, but I didn’t recognize it off-hand, maybe one of you loyal readers recognized it.  As he is walking, he passes his friend Morgan who is standing next to a home stereo display.  Chuck looks at him and he turns down the stereo and the music fades, implying that Morgan had been playing the music all along as added dramatic effect within the store.  Much the same effect as before, the music was mythologizing the image, making Chuck like the hero of the Old West about to stare down the gunslinger in single combat (in this case, rival for the Asst. Manager job Harry Tang).  But it was also meant to be comedic to begin with because Chuck is not Clint Eastwood and the Buy More is not the Old West.  By having the music slide between the non-diegetic and diegetic adds one more layer to the comedic effect.

The last nD-D shift I want to discuss is one that starts out as absurd and moves to a whole new level of absurdity, and who else is the sublime master of the absurd by the man himself…Mel Brooks.  In the seminal comedy film, Blazing Saddles, we are greeted with our first image of Bart as the sheriff and he is dressed in runway fashion clothes complete with Gucci saddle bags and accompanied by the Count Basie Orchestra’s “April in Paris.”  The sheer absurdity of the entire scene (frontier lawman in fancy clothes) is heightened by the anachronistic song.  This effect is taken to a higher level as the camera pans left, as Bart rides by on his horse, and reveals…Count Basie and his Orchestra.  It is annoying that the music and musicians are not perfectly synced, but the implication that they are supposed to be playing live is clear.

The D-nD move for dramatic effect is, in my mind at least, the more common of the two shifts, and as such I am having a hard time recollecting good examples of it.  It is so common that the instances don’t stand out in my mind.  Besides the Watchmen example, the next best one I can think of is Pippin’s song in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.  He starts out just singing to Denethor solo, but the song then begin to be accompanied by orchestra as the scene starts to cut back and forth between Pippin/Denethor and Faramir leading a fruitless change against the orcs at Osgiliath.  While it’s not a true complete shift from one space to another-since the scene always returns to Pippin singing-the song is used as a dramatic lament to underscore to Faramir’s assault.

I’m sure there are numerous other examples of both aural shifts, and even some that go against the general trend that I laid out (nD-D as comedy, D-nD as drama).  But the usage as I laid out here do tend to be the general rule of thumb in visual media.

3 thoughts on “Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic and Comedy vs. Drama

  1. I’m probably remembering it wrong, but there’s a point in Shaun of the Dead near the beginning where Shaun is accompanied non-diegetically to Night of the Living Dead types of atmospheric drones and then enters the shop to purchase his breakfast. As he enters the shop the music abruptly changes to cheesy muzak clearly emanating from the store’s speakers. As soon as he leaves the shop the music returns to the previous, non-diegetic threatening atmospheric music. I can’t remember if it is, in fact, the same musical material, but it’s still a funny and clever juxtaposition of the two within a small space.

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