Michel Chion Audio-Vision -- Sound on Screen
Edited and translated by Claudia Gorbman, with foreword by Walter Murch. (1994, New York: Columbia University Press). ISBN 0-231-07898-6, 0-231-07899-4
by Nicola Phillips
Although discourse on film music and film sound has at times appeared a neglected field, Michel Chion's Audio-Vision -- Sound on Screen in fact contributes to a thriving literature. This is the first English translation of Chion's theoretical work on film sound, making available to a wider readership theories of film-sound perception which have been current in French-speaking countries throughout the 1980s. It reveals the potent influence of Chion's earlier work on film sound, specifically as it impacts on American accounts of film-music, such as the semiotic account of Claudia Gorbman (1987), who is also the translator of the current book.
Chion's account deals with the functions of film sound in all its manifestations, including music. Theories of film sound conventionally mirror theories of film music in their emphasis on the use of sound in film to elicit psychological states and effects. Chion's theory is no exception: it aspires to provide insights into the perceptual processes underlying "audio-vision" and its effects.
Drawing on concepts developed in three earlier volumes, La Voix au cinéma (1982), Le Son au cinéma (1985), and La Toile trouée (1988), Chion presents a framework for articulation of a theory of film sound analysis.
The text of Audio-Vision is in two sections.
The first section is concerned with elucidating how sound and image transform one another in the filmgoer's perception. According to Chion, this transformation occurs not because of any "natural harmony" between image and sound, but owing to the "audio-visual contract", wherein, "the two perceptions mutually influence each other...lending each other their respective properties by contamination and projection." (9) Chion's notion is that sound, for example, music, "adds value" to the image. The nature of the synchronous sound causes the filmgoer to construe the image differently, and hence the relationship of sound and image in film should not be described simply as "associationist", but as "synergetic"; they enter into a "contract" in the filmgoer's perception.
Chion's work presents a regrettably superficial discussion of how music
specifically, as distinct from other sources of sound in film, may impact
upon perception of filmic meaning, and how filmic context may impact upon
perception and cognition of music. "Value added by music"(8) is characterised
simply as generation of "empathetic" or "anempathetic" effects. In this
section, Chion reverts to the traditional "associationist" folk-theoretic
view of the psychological function of music in film, wherein, "music can
directly express its participation in the feeling of the scene, by taking
on the scene's rhythm, tone, and phrasing; obviously such music
This assertion appears to contradict Chion's theory of synchresis and the synch point; if Chion is exempting music from the "processes" attributed to other auditory phenomena, he does not make this explicit. Chion highlights a set of functions that sound may serve via the phenomenon of added value. These functions are termed temporalization, sleight-of hand, unification and punctuation. In its synergetic relationship with image, sound can "temporalize" the image by animation, linearization, or vectorization. These phenomena are discussed in terms of sound rather than in terms of music. The minimal discussion of the specific role of music appears to exist in a void of music-theoretic insight, and results in a relatively superficial account of the function of music. This lack may be partially attributable to the onerous task of accounting for the perception of sound in film in its entirety, or it may indicate Chion's difficulty in integrating a theory of musical function in the account of added value.
The concept Chion employs to unify claims for the functional interaction of image and sound delineated above is synchresis. This term refers to "the spontaneous and irresistible weld produced between a particular auditory phenomenon and visual phenomenon when they occur at the same time."(63) According to the principles of "added value" and of "synchresis", any sound (and hence any music) in film will do something, will have an impact on meaning. This stance is adopted by Gorbman in her film-theoretic discussion film-music perception seven years earlier (1987: 15). Chion claims that such a phenomenon "is not automatic. It is also a function of meaning, and is organized according to gestaltist laws and contextual determinations. Play a stream of random audio and visual event, and you will find that certain ones will come together through synchresis and other combinations will not."(63). This phenomenon of synchresis and marking of accents is compatible with the theories of Lipscomb and Kendall (1994). The theory of synchresis is expanded with an account of perceptual "marking" by "points of synchronization".
According to Chion, "A point of synchronization, or synch point, is a salient moment of an audiovisual sequence during which a sound event and a visual event meet in synchrony." It is claimed that the perception of a synch point is connected with gestaltist phenomena. This area of the theory requires detailed elaboration (which Chion does not provide) if it is to accepted as providing a persuasive account of how this process may function specifically in the different aural modalities.
A significant difficulty in previous accounts of film music has been the discussion of audio-visual phenomena, given the lack of sufficiently specific terms to characterise those phenomena. Chion's account surmounts these difficulties through creation of a terminology and a framework for articulation of analytical accounts of sound in film.
Ultimately, this is a frustrating book for the cognitive scientist. Whilst it appears to carry a degree of cognitive-psychological insight, it constitutes in fact a set of introspective rationalizations that are not grounded in an understanding of current cognitive-psychological issues and methods. Many of addition, Chion's theory is littered with tenuous claims purportedly based in psychoacoustical phenomena; such claims weaken his discussion of, for example, "modes of listening". Concepts such as the "acousmatic" listening situation (71) appear to derive from a commitment to the theories of Pierre Schaeffer rather than to concepts of contemporary psychoacoustics.
Despite the flourishing of film-music discourse, cognitive-scientific
exploration of film soundtrack phenomena stands as a relatively
Chion, M. (1982). La Voix au cinéma. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma.
Chion, M. (1985). Le son au cinéma. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma.
Chion, M. (1988). La Toile trouée, la parole au cinéma. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma.
Cohen, A.J. (1993). Associationism and musical soundtrack phenomena. Contemporary Music Review, 9(1-2), 163-178.
Gorbman, C. (1987). Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Lipscomb, S.D., and Kendall, R.A. (1994). Sources of accent in musical
sound and visual motion. Proceedings of the 4th ICMPC,
Original URL: http://www.mus.cam.ac.uk/ESCOM/E/NL9E/PhillipsE.html
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