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Propaganda in the Classroom

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Like images, sound can be used to manipulate people's behavior and beliefs.  In some ways it might be even more effective.  For while most of us fail to critically examine the images that bombard us incessantly; I suspect that even fewer examine the sound that often accompanies them.  The sound files on this page should begin to open your ears to a new world.  To hear them, you'll need software that can play MP3 files.  You may already have it on your system.  Recent versions of the Real Player, Microsoft's Media Player and Apple's Quicktime all include the ability to play MP3 files.  If your system is  not yet MP3 capable, and you use the Microsoft Windows operating system, try Winamp.  It is available free of charge at

The hidden power of sound in film

On Sunday, September 6, 1981, I heard the radio documentary Sound in Film broadcast from KALW-FM in San Francisco.  It was a 30 minute program from a long gone radio series called California Close-up, a production of California Public Radio.  The producer and interviewer was Kathy McAnally.  In the program, McAnally talked with three academy award winning sound designers; Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), Ben Burtt (Star Wars), and Allen Splett (The Black Stallion).  They described (with marvelous and illustrative sound effects) the manner in which sound is created for contemporary film. I found that what often appears mundane is carefully crafted to create emotional responses in the audience. The three said that very little of what might be recorded on the set is actually used in the final mix; most of what we hear is re-recorded or created from scratch to achieve exactly the desired effect while remaining hidden from consciousness.

I recorded the program off the air onto an audio cassette, and all but the first 2 minutes or so of my recording survives.  Recently, I digitized it.  Below is a link to six and one half minutes of that recording in a 5.5 megabyte MP3 file.  The excerpt begins with Ben Burtt describing the manner in which, using the same initial sound, he created two different light sabers; one for Ben Kanobi and another, more menacing, for Darth Vader.  Next, Walter Murch explains how sound has historically been used to create a sense of good and evil in film.  The two go on to explain why authentic sound is usually not desirable, and the sorts of considerations made by sound designers as they create the audio experience we'll have.

The fact that authenticity is not a filmmaker's top priority bothers some people.  In this article, bird watcher Robert Winkler catalogs the types of egregious errors he notices all to often.

The web site is a valuable resource for those of you wanting more information on film sound design.  The site contains a section devoted to the writings of Walter Murch.  You'll also find a section devoted to Ben Burtt's Star Wars work.

I must say that I do not believe McAnally's guests are propagandists.  While they clearly want to create a predictable experience, I see no evidence that they are out to manipulate behavior or belief (my definition of propaganda).  However, the techniques they describe can be (and I believe most certainly are) used by propagandists.  So, like the altered album cover created by Ethan Russell, we need to use their work and commentary as a key to understanding a much less open world.

In one section of the program, not included in the excerpt below, Ben Burtt describes how he gathered some of the sounds that he eventually adapted and mixed to become the Star Wars light sabers by taping mundane sounds in his apartment.  Hearing this, it occurred to me that I could do the same thing.  However, instead of creating a Star Wars light saber, I'd use them as an audio quiz to see how well my students were able to identify everyday sounds without the visual cues that put them in context.  Sad to say, they didn't do very well.  In fact, I don't remember that they could identify any of them.  Listening to them again after all this time, I was unable to identify them either, until I reread the key that I'd made for myself at the time.  I've never had an opportunity to present them to a group of blind students, but my guess is that they would do much better. 

If you choose to use these mystery sounds with your students, consider this process.  Play one (they run from 10-20 seconds each), then allow the students to discuss what it might be.  After they have reached a consensus, or failed to do so, share my identification of it with them.  If they failed to make a correct ID, discuss what led them to an erroneous conclusion, and what they could have done differently that might have led them to a correct ID.  Proceed to play another sound, then have the class attempt to reach a consensus ID for it.  If the discussions are productive, and your students attentive, each sound should be easier for them to correctly ID than the previous ones.

If you want, record your own set of mystery sounds and play them for your students.  All you need is a portable tape recorder, a blank audio cassette, and a microphone.  You could also have your students record and bring in their own mystery sounds to share with the class.  Each day a different student could present, for discussion, a sound s/he has recorded.

If you choose to present mystery sounds, you may find that students are easily confused by similar sounds.  For example, after listening to the recording I made of water running from a bathroom tap, students might be convinced that it is water from a shower head.  They may feel it unfair if they are not given credit for recognizing the sound.  Perhaps recognizing running water is sufficient; but the sound of water from a tap, and the sound of water from a showerhead will be different, even if subtly so.  To prove it, record the two, then compare and discuss them.  My mystery sounds 1, 4 and 7 are similar.  Are your students able to distinguish among them?  If so, how?

Aaron Copeland, The Heiress, and the power of sound

I believe that it was also in 1981 that I saw a PBS documentary on Aaron Copeland (if memory serves, it was titled Copeland at 80).  In it, among many other things, Copeland was interviewed about his work writing motion picture scores in the 1930s and 1940s.  In one film (The Heiress), he explains how he’d written one segment for a scene in which the heroine (Olivia DeHavilland) repeatedly walks from her house to the street looking for the man who is to come pick her up to elope. There is very little dialog. Copeland recounts that at the first preview, the audience laughed when DeHavilland went into the house for the last time, dropping her bag, very dejected. An upset director, William Wyler, told Copeland to rewrite the score for that part of the film in an effort to keep people from laughing. Following instructions, Copeland wrote an irritating score in an effort to put people on edge and create a serious mood. He said that it worked beautifully. Subsequent audiences reacted to the scene just as Wyler wanted.  Since the only change made to the scene was to Copeland's score, he said that, for the first time, he realized the true power of sound in film.

If you're interested in movie music, you'll want to hear NPR's Performance Today's 30 minute program on Great Film Music.  To do so, you'll need Real Play software installed for your system.  (Thanks to Frank Baker of The Media Literacy Clearinghouse for referring me to the Performance Today program.)

MP3 files

Clicking on any one of the files linked below should begin a download to your computer.  Once it finishes, your MP3 software may open and begin playing it.  If not, you can manually start your MP3 software, then find and open the file.  If clicking on the link does not initiate the download, right-click on the link, then choose to Save Target As (or whatever equivalent option your browser presents).

6.5 minute excerpt from the 1981 radio documentary, Sound in Film (sound.mp3 - 5.5 megabytes)

Mystery sounds for an audio quiz

Sound1.mp3 - 303k

Sound2.mp3 - 311k

Sound3.mp3 - 259k

Sound4.mp3 - 278k

Sound5.mp3 - 203k

Sound6.mp3 - 189k

Sound7.mp3 - 131k

Sound8.mp3 - 252k

Sound9.mp3 - 180k

Sound10.mp3 - 282k

Mystery sounds key

  1. a cassette tape being rewound
  2. water running from a bathroom tap
  3. a light switch being turned on and off
  4. a TV set with the volume turned all the way down
  5. a drawer being opened and closed
  6. scissors cutting air
  7. a blender motor
  8. magazine pages being turned
  9. writing with a mechanical pencil
  10. hair being brushed with a plastic brush

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original web posting: Tuesday, June 25, 2002
last modified: Monday, June 03, 2013