Sound in Television: Music, Sound Effects, & Proximity

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In Karen Lury’s Interpreting Television, she states that television is “often seen and not heard…In bars, cafés, urinals, in shopping malls and on large screens in city centers, television is often visible without being audible (although it can be both)” (Lury, 96).  Can television’s images stand on their own though?  And if so, what exactly is sound’s role in television?

In both the pilot episode of Mad Men and in Breaking Bad’s episode “Peekaboo,” sound is absolutely necessary and is depicted in very different, yet distinct ways that should be examined.  In “Peekaboo” the episode opens with Jesse intently watching a house-sized beetle crawl around on the sidewalk.  Jesse goes to far as to let the beetle crawl on his hand, and consequently the viewer is subject to listening to all of the insect’s legs clanking about as it moves from one finger to the next.  However, when one of Jesse’s drug dealers comes by, the dealer squishes it the making a disgusting squirting noise as he drags the bug’s debris across the sidewalk.  This sound is echoed later on in the episode when the addict husband is squished like a bug as his wife drops the ATM machine onto him.  Thus, by having such nauseating sound effects, the visceral impact is able to “generate an audible proximity…Sound’s ability to suggest touch can make the programme thrilling in a way that visual spectacle alone might not: for while we can see the hyenas eating, we will ‘feel’ the sound of a slurp or a squelch in a much more intimate manner” (Lury, 82).  Thus, by having such sound effects in Breaking Bad we are able to foster a closer relationship with Jesse, for even though the sounds might make us cringe they also make us feel like we too experienced the same events.

In Mad Men sound is portrayed very differently, for the chosen musical ballads depict the complexities in the characters’ personalities.  For example in the closing scene of the pilot episode, Don Draper comes home to his wife and child.  While sitting on the edge of his child’s bed with tears in his eyes, one can see how empty this character really feels.  His melancholic actions are put to the sound of a romantic show tune ballad in which the singer boldly proclaims that he has, “often walked on this street before, but the pavement has always stayed beneath my feet before.”  Thus, the song that is pregnant with fervently felt emotions contrasts to Don Draper’s character who believes love is a mere product of the ad world created and used to sell nylons to women.  As a result, the irony in the music portrays Draper’s jaded character as one that has everything by societal standards, yet has nothing by his own.

Thus, sound is used very differently in these two episodes, but in both instances sound fosters a closer relationship between the characters and viewers.

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