Blurring the Line between Sound Effect and Music

In the world of sound for film, TV and theatre the line between the composer and sound designer is getting increasingly blurry. In theatre, and especially lower budget productions, in many cases there is one person doing both jobs. With the upsurge of technological advancement within sound design and contemporary music there are many instances in which sound effects are used as part of the musical score and where score writing does the same job as a sound effect would. I also believe there is a more fundamental similarity between music and sound effect.

What is music? That’s one of life’s toughest questions if you ask me. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as such:

Music n. 1. Vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.”

At first glance this definition comes across as slightly too prescriptive for my liking. But after another look, breaking down the components of the phrase, you see that the meaning is open to a lot of interpretation. Firstly, ‘Vocal or instrumental sounds.’ This could mean pretty much any sound, in the world. I mean, what defines an ‘instrument’? Just yesterday I watched a video of a busker playing the ‘spade’ and I myself, a few Christmases ago, received a book entitled ‘The Musical Ruler: A Guide to Ruler Playing’. Anything that makes a noise can be called an instrument of sorts. Then we come to ‘beauty’ which, as we all know, is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. In a shorter definition, IsaacLusherSound’s English dictionary (only one entry so far) describes it as:

Music n. 1. Organised sound.”

There we are, simple, concise, and with a large margin for personal taste.

So if music is, in its simplest terms, organised sound then where is the distinction between composer and sound designer? They are both, in effect, organising sound; they’re both creating music. It could be said that the job of the composer requires more creative skill and the sound designer needs more technical nous. This may ring true for the largest and most expensive productions on the stage. However, there are hundreds of smaller shows that would love to pay one person’s wage instead of two. And, as it transpires, they’re both doing the same job anyway.

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