Acousmatic Sound in Film. Definition, Meaning & Examples.


Acousmatic sound in movies originates from unseen sources in a scene. They stimulate the audience’s imagination, create tension, and enrich the film’s sonic landscape without revealing the sound’s direct cause or origin on screen. Sound designers deliberately use acousmatic sounds to create context, establish a mood, and provide audible cues about the narrative.

Introduction: The Acousmatic Listening Situation

Imagine you’re watching a movie, and you hear a sound, like a creepy laugh or a mysterious bang, but you can’t see where it’s coming from. That’s an acousmatic sound when you hear something in a film but don’t see the original source of the sound on the screen.

Acousmatic sound is excellent for creating a certain mood or building suspense. For example, you might feel more anxious or curious about what’s happening if you hear eerie footsteps but don’t see who’s walking. Acousmatic sound make movies more immersive and intriguing by engaging our imagination to fill in the blanks.

Origins and etymology

The acousmatic listening situation: Pythagoras talking to his students from behind a curtain

The term “acousmatic” originally comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who is said to have taught his students from behind a veil or curtain, preventing them from seeing him. They heard his voice without seeing the physical action of him speaking, which is the essence of acousmatic sound—listening without seeing, i.e., an acousmatic listening situation.

Acousmatic theory, particularly in music, explores the aesthetics, perception, and cognitive aspects of listening to sounds detached from their originating cause. It emphasizes sound’s spatial and temporal qualities, encouraging a form of listening known as “reduced listening” (a term coined by composer and theorist Pierre Schaeffer), which focuses on the traits of the sound itself rather than its source or meaning.

In a broader sense, you’re doing acousmatic listening whenever you stream your favorite track or listen to an mp3 or CD because you don’t see the artist who’s singing. But in cinema, sounds provide informational and emotional cues to the story on the screen, making them particularly interesting for any sound designer or director who wants to create a great soundscape for a movie.

Acousmatic Sounds can be Diegetic

Acousmatic sound. Illustrative abstract image concept.

Notice that acousmatic sounds don’t have to be off-screen. They’re not necessarily the same as non-diegetic or off-screen diegetic sounds.

Acousmatic sounds can be diegetic and appear from a place on-screen, but you still can’t see the original source of the sound; fx it can be from a killer lurking in the shadows or the voice of an omnipresent God (see acousmetrê).

The Many Roles of Acousmatic Sounds in Cinema

Likewise, when off-screen sound – diegetic or non-diegetic—is heard in movies, it expands the spatial (and sometimes temporal) space of what we can see on the 2D screen.

Hearing a movie (as opposed to watching a movie) becomes an acousmatic listening situation, where the sounds carry significant information and context for what’s happening on screen.

Below, you can see some of the ways acousmatic sound enhances the visuals, helps establish context, mood, and tone, and conveys significant narrative information.

Enhance Narrative and Emotion

Acousmatic sound can hint at events happening off-screen, build suspense, or provide emotional depth to a scene. For example, the sound of footsteps in a suspenseful scene can heighten tension when the source is not visible, leaving the audience guessing about the potential threat. Similarly, off-screen sounds of nature can immerse viewers in a film’s setting, evoking emotions or moods without direct visual cues.

Establish Off-Screen Space

Cinema uses acousmatic sound to suggest a world beyond the visible frame, creating an immersive environment that suggests the action is part of a larger world. This can include traffic, crowd noise, or nature sounds that suggest the presence and activities of people or objects not currently in view. This technique helps in creating a believable and rich cinematic universe.

Create Mystery and Expectation

By withholding the visual source of a sound, filmmakers can create mystery, anticipation, or fear. The audience’s imagination fills in the blanks, often making the unseen more impactful than the seen. This technique is particularly effective in horror and thriller genres, where the source of a sound (like creaking floors, whispers, or eerie music) can build tension and suspense.

Source of Information

Acousmatic sound can also serve as a narrative device, providing information or context to the audience without the need for visual exposition. This can include off-screen dialogue, news broadcasts, or background conversations that inform the viewer about plot developments, character backgrounds, or the socio-political context of the story.

Transition and Time

Sounds without a visible source can also function as transitions between scenes or indicate the passage of time. For example, a train whistle might transition a scene from one location to another, or church bells might signal the passage of time or a significant event.

Acousmatic Sounds: Examples from Movies

Here are three examples of effective use of acousmatic sound design in movies:

“Gravity” (2013) Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

In “Gravity,” acousmatic sound is pivotal in conveying the isolation and vastness of space. The filmmakers carefully crafted the sound design to simulate the experience of being in space, where sound does not travel in a vacuum.

Sounds are often heard through the vibrations caught by the astronauts’ suits or the spacecraft, creating a deeply immersive and unsettling experience. The absence of traditional ambient sound in space scenes, replaced by the characters’ breathing or the muffled echoes of their actions, heightens the tension and the feeling of solitude.

“The Blair Witch Project” (1999) Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez

This groundbreaking found-footage horror film uses acousmatic sound to evoke fear and suspense. The filmmakers used unseen sounds – rustling leaves, distant voices, and unexplained noises in the dark – to build an atmosphere of dread and anticipation. The source of these sounds is never revealed.

Tapping into our imagination to fill the gaps often results in a far more terrifying experience than any visual could provide. The acousmatic approach in “The Blair Witch Project” demonstrates how unseen sound sources can create an unseen, menacing presence.

“No Country for Old Men” (2007) Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

This film employs acousmatic sound in a subtly disturbing way, particularly by using off-screen sounds to build tension. Here are a few examples and their effect to listen for:

Anton Chigurh’s Oxygen Tank: Creates eerie anticipation with a hissing sound, signaling Chigurh’s presence and foreshadowing violence.

Footsteps: Build suspense by indicating unseen threats, especially in scenes where the protagonist is pursued. This enhances the feeling of vulnerability.

The Buzzing of Flies suggests decay and death in a scene of violence’s aftermath, adding to the unsettling atmosphere.

Dog Barking and River Sounds: Enhances realism and urgency in a chase scene, with the sounds contributing to the tension and highlighting the protagonist’s desperation.


Acousmatic sound in film plays a vital role in shaping a movie’s atmosphere and guiding the audience’s emotions. By hiding its source, it sparks curiosity and heightens suspense, making the cinematic experience more immersive. This technique proves that what we cannot see often impacts us just as deeply as what is visible.

Up Next: Where to find great Royalty-Free Gun Sound Effects online.


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.