The Relationship between Metaphor and Ambiguity in the Film Soundtrack

Metaphors are the most important linguistic tools at our disposal. They play a huge part in helping us to make sense of the world around us. Described in the Oxford English dictionary as “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else”, metaphors have the potential to debase or to transcend, depending on who’s using them. Within the context of the film soundtrack, the metaphor is grossly underused. Its potential was illustrated in the 1970s by Walter Murch who, with his work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather and The Conversation, re-wrote the book on sound design for film. In fact, the role of sound designer didn’t even exist until Murch himself invented it. Along with some colleagues, Murch devised the Dolby 5.1 surround sound system that is still prevalent in cinema today. While Walter Murch wasn’t the first person to experiment with metaphoric sound in film (Jean Luc Godard experimented plenty with sound during the 1960s), he was the first to bring it into mainstream cinema. In this essay, I will argue that what Murch, and perhaps to an even greater extent Stanley Kubrick, were striving for was the creation of a certain level of ambiguity in their work.

Matching sound to image had been the dominant technique in Hollywood cinema since its genesis. It’s easy to invoke an emotional response from any audience; just ask the advertising industry. It’s the reason politicians go around kissing babies on the campaign trail. Emotional responses are not difficult to obtain. However, the ambiguity that arises from effective metaphoric sound appeals to the intellect. It asks more of the viewer than to simply be a passive observer but instead to take part in the experience and to attempt to interpret meaning from what is on screen. Vsevolod Pudovkin described how the human mind is perfectly poised to experience film in this way. According to him “the course of man’s perceptions is like editing, the arrangement of which can make corresponding variations in speed, with sound just as with image. It is possible therefore for sound film to be made correspondent to the objective world and man’s perception of it together. The image may retain the tempo of the world, while the sound strip follows the changing rhythm of the course of man’s perceptions, or vice versa.”[1] I will discuss, using examples mainly from Walter Murch’s work with Francis Ford Coppola and from the films of Stanley Kubrick, what I believe to be the three main aspects of the film soundtrack that can been used to generate ambiguity: sound design, silence and compilation scoring.

Murch’s metaphorical model

“I always try to be metaphoric as much as I can and not to be literal. When you’re presented with something that doesn’t quite resolve on a normal level, that’s what makes the audience go deeper.”[2]

Even when Murch is explaining his sound design techniques during a talk or in an interview, he’s using extremely evocative metaphors to get the point across in interesting ways. When describing the immensity of the task of mixing Apocalypse Now, he says “our job in post-production was to recreate everything after the fact, and yet make it seem authentic. It was like assembling a beach one grain of sand at a time…just sprinkling it here and there, until finally it accumulates and begins to look like a beach”.[3] In his next breath, he changes tack and compares the vastness of the soundtrack to the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. This is how his mind works. The fact that he is such a clear communicator is surely what makes Murch such an effective sound designer.

During the restaurant scene in The Godfather – before Michael shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey – the loud squeaking and pop of the cork as the waiter opens the wine are, according to Murch, a microcosm for the scene as a whole.[4] The waiter seems to take forever to open the bottle, the squeaking is far too loud and then POP! Later in the scene it is the screeching sound of a high-speed train that represents Michael’s state of mind before carrying out the hit. The sound of the train builds throughout the scene, subtly identifying with Michael’s turmoil, and reaches a crescendo right before he commits the murders. This is a great example of Murch’s approach to metaphoric sound. Since there is no direct correlation between the abnormally-loud train sounds and what is happening on screen, there is enough ambiguity for the meaning of the scene to be open to the interpretation of the viewer. It also compliments the ambiguity generated by Coppola’s decision not to include subtitles over the conversation in Italian. In this case, I think it is important to make the distinction that it is the sound of the train that works as a metaphor rather than the idea that the train necessarily represents some aspect of Michael’s character. There are many more obvious ways that Murch could have hinted at Michael’s inner turmoil yet he chose to subtly use sound to create a feeling, rather than whack the audience over the head with the meaning of the scene. It is especially effective since the sound of the train is introduced into the scene as diegetic sound. Often, this same effect is attempted using metadiegetic sound to represent the characters subjectivity. By using diegetic sound – but emphasising it at certain points – Murch taps into the subconscious subjectivity of the viewer, as well as of the character on screen. In his own words: “the metaphoric use of sound is one of the most fruitful, flexible and inexpensive means: by choosing carefully what to eliminate, and then adding back sounds that seem at first hearing to be somewhat at odds with the accompanying image, the filmmaker can open up a perceptual vacuum into which the mind of the audience must inevitably rush”.[5]

In The Conversation murder scene, Murch’s nuanced approach to sound design is demonstrated in his use of silence as a means to create suspense. Murch doubles down on Coppola’s decision not to actually show the murders but to simply use the protagonist – surveillance expert Harry Caul – and his recording equipment as the only source we have to find out what’s going on in the adjoining hotel room. Harry strains to hear their fraught conversation through the bathroom wall and the audience frets for the dreaded fate of the young couple. There is the sound of muffled arguing and then – juxtaposed with a bland mural on the wall – a deafening silence. Harry walks out on to the balcony and immediately glimpses the ensuing struggle through the frosted window. Suddenly, with the appearance of a bloody hand on the glass, we hear a high-pitched scream that instantly but seamlessly transforms from diegetic to non-diegetic sound and rings out over David Shire’s distorted piano score. Juan Chattah – in his guide to Shire’s score – argues that this unusual quirk in the sound design underlines Harry’s point of view and “as a result, while the film’s plot portrays the transgression of private (sonic) space, the soundtrack maps this transgression onto the cognitive boundaries that define the music, the dialogue and even the diegesis”.[6] This is another example of Murch’s use of metaphoric sound to generate ambiguity and present the viewer with what he would surely describe as an “incomplete” version of the event. Once again, the protagonist’s subjectivity is represented subtly and in ways that are central to his character and the plot of the film.

Silence: The Ultimate Metaphoric Sound

Silence is another important aspect when considering the ambiguity generated by metaphoric sound. According to Murch “the ultimate metaphoric sound is silence”. He says “if you can get the film to a place with no sound where there should be sound, the audience will crowd that silence with sounds and feelings of their own making, and they will, individually, answer the question of, “Why is it quiet?” If the slope to silence is at the right angle, you will get the audience to a strange and wonderful place where the film becomes their own creation in a way that is deeper than any other.[7] Robert Bresson’s pithy turn of phrase on the soundtrack inventing silence is after all a paradoxical truth. Before the power of silence in film could be fully realised, film sound had to first find its place within the medium. Truthfully, silent cinema never really was silent. In fact, the common style of live musical accompaniment at the time was such that music was an ever-present feature. This is not to suggest that this music was necessarily obtrusive or lacking in nuance. On the contrary, many complex and ambitious scores were undertaken during the silent era, for example, Joseph Carl Breil’s score for The Birth of a Nation. [8] After all, it was the only method filmmakers really had to convey mood or to produce sound effects in their work. This also says something interesting about the embryonic – yet already critical – relationship of the sonic to the visual in early cinema; in hindsight the clues were there.

According to Michel Chion, the true art lies in finding the right space for the silence to inhabit. In Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, Chion argues that effective silence in film does not just come from an absence of noise, but “can only be produced as a result of context and preparation. The simplest of cases consists in preceding it with a noise-filled sequence. So silence is never a neutral emptiness. It is the negative of sound we’ve heard beforehand or imagined; it is the product of a contrast.”[9] This is similar to what Walter Murch said about the importance of the slope. During the mixing of Apocalypse Now, Murch took particular care to make sure this ‘slope’ was always at the perfect angle. In the scene during which the tiger jumps out of the jungle, silence is used to great effect to build tension. Captain Willard hears something unusual among the trees and, being an experienced jungle fighter, instinctively becomes more wary and deliberate in his movement. As he moves closer to the source of the sound, the soundtrack gradually and slowly gets more and more minimal. Murch says that they gradually faded down all the sounds from the ‘orchestra’ of jungle sound effects apart from one, which he identified as the sound of a glass insect – a creature native to Southeast Asia.[10] This almost-silence draws the audience in. Just like the characters on screen, the viewer listens more and more intently, searching for the source of the sound. Because of this, the roar of the tiger as it appears from the long grass is all the more effective without overly exploiting the emotions of the audience.

Kubrick’s Compilation Scores

Often, ambiguity is created by the use of compilation scoring; when a film contains pre-existing music to help tell the story as opposed to originally-composed material. Since the 1960s this type of score has become commonplace in Hollywood and often consists of popular music that is well known to the audience. However, some directors have used pre-existing, obscure classical music in their soundtracks. Mike Cormack, contributing to the book Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film, says that this use of classical music within the compilation score context has a multi-faceted effect on the audience and increases ambiguity. He argues that because the music is being experienced out of its original context, and since the original meaning may be indeterminate, the audience’s interpretation of the meaning becomes less straightforward. He claims that classical music can “add complexity and ambiguity to film scores, rather than simply limiting the range of meaning”.[11] Stanley Kubrick’s compiled score for 2001: A Space Odyssey established an entirely new style of film music that has been described as postclassical. [12] For it, Kubrick used 19th Century Romantic music in a way that Michel Chion would perhaps describe as anempathetic; meaning that the music, rather than complimenting the visuals, is indifferent towards them. But Kubrick has also used popular music in this way. In Full Metal Jacket, a lengthy scene involving heavy fire, no dialogue and at least two people being shot dead ends with the Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird – possibly the most offensively light-hearted and detached pop song of all time – blaring out. At the end of the same film, the troops march and sing along to the Mickey Mouse March as Vietnam burns behind them. Claudia Gorbman suggests that Kubrick’s use of music in this way is rather more complex than simply being a binary contrast with the visual and that his deployments of pre-existing music have a tendency to assume an iconic status: [13] “What all these set pieces have in common is not any one function of music, or its narrative status as diegetic or non-diegetic, or its historical provenance or form. Rather, once heard they are all choices that seem ineluctable, at once wittily detached and emotionally appropriate and poignant. Welding themselves to visual rhythms onscreen, they become the music of the specific movie scene rather than the piece one may have known before.” [14]

This brings us nicely on to Nicholas Cook’s metaphoric model as outlined in his book Analysing Musical Multimedia. In it, Cook describes how when sound and image are used as two terms in a metaphor – even if on the surface they seem to only have a single feature in common – all of the attributes from one term are transferred to the other, and vice versa. According to Cook, the effect of this process is that metaphor, rather than simply representing or reproducing an existing meaning, plays a part in the generation of an entirely new one.[15] Once the two terms are bound together in the metaphor, a whole host of new attributes begin to emerge. And the word “emerge” is important here. The most interesting idea in Cook’s model is his identification of the “emergent interpretation”[16] that occurs during this process; a conclusion that cannot be drawn from the separate elements but only from the fruit of the metaphor itself. If we apply this model to our example of the Mickey Mouse March at the end of Full Metal Jacket, what new ideas begin to emerge from this juxtaposition? The tune is from a 1950s children’s TV show that would certainly have been watched by these young men growing up. But against the backdrop of the Vietnam War it paints an undeniably ambiguous picture. The mood is triumphant – after all, to paraphrase Joker, they’re in a world of shit but they’re alive – but the burning Vietnamese village in the background adds a sinister tone to the scene. Have these soldiers been through so much trauma that they don’t care anymore? It could certainly be read as a nod to the lost innocence of these young men, perhaps even of the American people as a whole, after a bloody war that played out right before their very eyes. There are countless anti-war interpretations that would fit here. In this sense, Cook’s model comes closest to defining the effect metaphoric sound has on the creation of ambiguity and, more importantly, the power of ambiguity to empower and inspire a film audience.

There’s something almost indefinable about how the use of anempathetic music – especially when it is of the kitsch variety – creates ambiguity in film. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera described kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” When presented with an image of the world that is completely lacking in the harsh truth of existence, our minds immediately rush to fill in the blanks. Perhaps this could be offered as an explanation to the end of Kubrick’s The Shining. Al Bowlly’s ‘Midnight, The Stars and You’ is textbook kitsch but after the horror that has just unfolded, it feels different. The song has suddenly taken on the eerie attributes of the empty ballroom, the ghostly figures in the picture frame and all of the horrific events that may have taken place in that hotel. Coupled with the unavoidable nostalgia and emotional response that the music has evoked, the meaning is extremely ambiguous. As the shot slowly looms in on the photograph and the face of Jack Torrance smiling back – suggesting that he has always been there – the ambiguity is ratcheted up again so that when the credits roll, the audience is left to speculate about the meaning for themselves. Kubrick, like Murch, understood the power of metaphor in creating a sense of ineffability that can lift an otherwise workaday scene towards much greater heights. To borrow from Ludwig Wittgenstein: a metaphor is “a ladder of cognitive ascent which can be kicked away after the vista it has exposed is revealed”.[17]


[1] V.I. Pudovkin, “Asynchronism as a Principle of Sound Film”, Film Sound: Theory and Practice, New York, Columbia University Press, 1985, p.89.

[2] M. Jarrett, “Sound Doctrine: An Interview with Walter Murch”, FILM QUART, Vol. 53 No. 3, Spring, 2000, p. 2-11

[3] Walter Murch, “Touch of Silence,” in Soundscape: The School of Sound Lectures, 1998-2001 p.93

[4] L. Greene, “Ambiguity: Walter Murch and the Metaphoric use of sound in The Godfather, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now”, [website], accessed 21st April 2016.

[5] W. Murch “Sound Design: The Dancing Shadow.” Eds. Boorman, Luddy, Thomson and Donohue Projections 4: Film-makers on film-making, London, Faber & Faber, 1995, 247.

[6] J. Chattah, David Shire’s The Conversation: A Film Score Guide, United States, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, p.151

[7] Walter Murch, “Touch of Silence,” in Soundscape: The School of Sound Lectures, 1998-2001 p.96

[8] M. Miller Marks, Music and the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies 1895-1924, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p.109.

[9] M. Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, New York, Columbia University Press, 1990 p.57.

[10] Walter Murch, “Touch of Silence,” in Soundscape: The School of Sound Lectures, 1998-2001 p.96

[11] M. Cormack, “The Pleasures of Ambiguity: Using Classical Music in Film” in R. Stilwell & P. Powrie (ed.) Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film, Ashgate, 2006, p.29.

[12] R. Stilwell & P.Powrie, “Introduction” in R. Stilwell & P. Powrie (ed.) Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film, Ashgate, 2006, p.xiv.

[13] C. Gorbman, “Ears Wide Open: Kubrick’s Music” in R. Stilwell & P. Powrie (ed.) Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film, Ashgate, 2006, p.4.

[14] Ibid.

[15] N. Cook, Analysing Musical Multimedia, Oxford, University Press, 1998, p. 70-71

[16] Cook p.73

[17] L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. (trans) D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuiness. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1961.