Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Sound: What's the Difference?



Jun 14, 2022

Diegetic and non-diegetic sounds are important aspects of sound design in film and TV. Both types are used to help tell the story and make scenes more immersive.

They make up the variety of noises we hear in film, from the sound of high heels strutting against the concrete, to epic orchestral scores. 

While both diegetic and non-diegetic sounds are used to enhance storytelling, they do this in very different ways. 

We break down the main differences between diegetic and non-diegetic sound in this article. Let’s take a look.

What is diegetic sound?

Diegetic sound is any sound from the film’s setting and world. This refers to sounds that occur within the direct context of the scene being played on-screen

Essentially, diegetic sounds are sounds that the characters can hear. For instance, diegetic sounds can include speech and background noise, whereby characters can react to these instances of sound.

Diegetic sounds can also include music, though music would only be considered diegetic if the character can hear it. For example, if a character is listening to music through headphones, or is coming from a musical instrument.

The easiest way to distinguish diegetic sounds is to recognise whether a sound can be heard by both the character and the audience. 

How is diegetic sound made?

The way diegetic sounds are made depend entirely on the scene. It might seem surprising that not all audio is captured during filming, which is why diegetic sounds are recorded to help fill in any missing gaps and bring it to life.

Diegetic sounds are recorded in a studio by sound engineers. These are recorded for several reasons:

  • Recording dialogue that wasn’t captured on set
  • Re-recording lines that weren’t recorded clearly during filming
  • To make scenes sound more realistic
  • To enhance the atmosphere of on-screen scenes

Many kinds of diegetic sound are created in the film’s foley sound design process, which works by creating realistic everyday sounds that match the on-screen visuals. 

For example, if a scene was filmed in a busy kitchen, the foley art designers would recreate and record the sound of background utensils to make the scene more audibly immersive. 

Foley sounds are diegetic, since these occur within the setting of the scene and can be heard by characters.

Diegetic sounds are also used to enhance the ambiance of scenes. Many party scenes are filmed without music to avoid disturbing the dialogue recordings. This is added during post-production to make the scene more authentic and lively.

Diegetic sound examples

  • Character dialogue is the most obvious example of diegetic sound. Character speech comes from within the film setting, and can be heard by other characters around them.
  • Natural world and object sounds that add to the film’s realism are diegetic. For example, the sound of a phone ringing - both the audience and characters can hear this.
  • Music sounds emanating from the story world are also diegetic. Music is a common diegetic sound in film, used in almost every bar, club or party scene to make it more realistic for the audience.

What is non-diegetic sound?

Non-diegetic sounds are sounds that occur outside of the film's world. Characters are not able to hear non-diegetic sounds, they exist off-screen for the audience’s benefit. 

For example, the use of music scores, sound effects, or external narrators. Non-diegetic sounds are also referred to as commentary or nonliteral sounds. The source of non-diegetic sounds is neither visible nor implied on screen.

Non-diegetic sound examples

  • Music scores are common non-diegetic sounds used in film and TV. The main purpose of film scores is to add emotion and depth to the story, rather than emulate sounds from the story setting.
  • Sound effects are sometimes used non-diegetically to portray a particular emotion. For example, horror sound effects are used to create fear or tension.
  • Story narrators help tell the story using monologues. Though, unlike diegetic character speech, the narrator’s voice is only audible to the off-screen audience.

Diegetic sound vs. non-diegetic sounds

The main difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sounds is that diegetic sounds are audible elements that occur within the story setting, whereas non-diegetic sounds can only be heard by the off-screen audience. For instance, on-screen character voices vs. the off-screen film score.

What is trans-diegetic sound?

Diegetic and non-diegetic sounds are not entirely dichotomous. They can actually be combined to create what’s called a trans-diegetic sound.

Trans-diegetic sounds refer to sounds that transition between a diegetic and non-diegetic state, or vice versa.

This can help transition film scenes together with sound bridging, making the change from one scene to another much smoother. Trans-diegetic sound can also be used to immerse the audience in the film experience, and other creative effects.

Trans-diegetic sound examples

  • Character headphone music turns to non-diegetic music - this is a creative use of trans-diegetic sounds used commonly in film. Take a look at this scene from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 below, which shows a scene that transitions the same piece of music from diegetic to non-diegetic.
  • Non-diegetic opening music to diegetic scene music - in contrast to the above example, films also transition sounds from non-diegetic to diegetic. This technique is commonly used during opening credit scenes, where the opening music continues playing on the character’s speakers or headphones.

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