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The History Of Sound Design Part: I

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History Is Fun

When it came to history in school, I had a bit of an up and down relationship with it. I really enjoyed learning about the past but, soon it became too much of the same thing. I felt as though I was constantly learning about World War II or events close to it.  I’ve since learned history actually is fun…when it’s presented in an interesting fashion. 

In university, there were several times I wrote about the history of music. I also did some writing on sound in games. Unfortunately,  these were cut out of my dissertation and masters thesis. This all lead here. 

So, let’s start at the very beginning…

Origins Of Film

First, let’s explore the origins of the film. In the early to mid-1830’s, three inventors produced a moving image using a revolving drum. Interestingly these three inventors achieved this independent of each other, even while living in different countries. Simon von Stampfer (Stroboscope) in Austria, Joseph Plateau (Phenakistoscope) in Belgium and William Horner (zoetrope) in Britain. In 1867 William Lincoln, from the United States patented the “wheel of life” or “zoopraxiscope”. This device created the illusion of moving images when viewed through a slit.

In 1878 British photographer, Eadweard Muybridge took the first photographs of humans and animals in motion.

Skipping ahead slightly…

in 1893, Thomas Edison showed his movie viewing device, the Kinetoscope at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. The Kinetoscope allowed people to view projected moving images one person at a time. In 1984, the first Kinetoscope parlor was built. This marked the first commercial exhibition of film. Edison also invented a camera capable of capturing motion. This was called the Kinetograph. 

In 1985 The Lumiere brothers, Louis and August patent a combination of a movie camera and projector. This device allowed them to project a moving image that could be seen by an audience. In doing this, the brothers became the first people that projected moving photographic images to an audience of more than one person.

By 1909, there were about 9000 movie theatres in the United States. The films were very short, typically ten to 12 minutes and the actors were anonymous. The next year, the actors began to get film credits and film stars were born.

The Sounds of Silent Film

Now, this is where it all ties in. The origins of film are closely involved with sound design. While these films were played to an audience, they were accompanied by musicians. Often the silent films were released with cheat sheets that told musicians what to play the music for the visuals. Some films had an original score, others used pre-existing music. All of the music was designed to complement the film.

This shows the importance of sound in a visual medium. Even before the technology existed to marry sound and picture together, music was involved. Live musicians, sometimes even full orchestras punctuated the visuals via music for the audience. 

The Auditory Picture

Score and sound design are two different areas of the overall auditory picture. Together they create the emotional and immersive resonance for the audience. The inclusion of music with silent film really shows us the importance of that overall auditory experience. 

Cinema then changed forever, with the invention of the ‘talkie’ – and with that invention, the beginnings of sound design started to take shape.