L’acousmêtre: Meaning, Definition & Examples from Film


Definition: The term “acousmêtre” was popularized by French film theorist Michel Chion and refers to a specific type of sound presence, typically a voice that emanates from an unseen source within the film’s narrative space. The concept is particularly significant in studying film sound and how audio can influence the audience’s perception and imagination.

L’acousmêtre can be found in various forms across different genres of cinema, from the ominous voice of a villain in a thriller to the disembodied narrations in certain documentaries or experimental films.

L’acousmêtre: Etymology & Conceptual Meaning

The word acousmêtre comes from the combination of two elements derived from Greek: akousma (ἄκουσμα), meaning “a thing heard,” and mètre from “metron” (μέτρον), meaning “measure.” Thus, the etymology of “acousmêtre” points to measuring or relating to things heard.

Michel Chion coined the term “l’acousmêtre” (acousmêtre) in his book “La Voix au cinéma” (“The Voice in Cinema”), first published in 1982, which I highly recommend together with his Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (1993).

Three main features characterize L’acousmêtre:

  1. Omnipotence: The acousmatic (sound heard without seeing its source) presence often seems to possess an all-knowing quality or an ability to comment on the narrative or characters’ thoughts from a position of authority or omniscience. This is because the source of the voice is unseen and can, therefore, be imagined to be anywhere or even everywhere at once.
  2. Omnipresence: Linked to its omnipotence, the acousmatic voice can appear disembodied and exist everywhere simultaneously. This omnipresence can contribute to a sense of the voice being inescapable or a constant presence within the film’s world.
  3. Unattached: The acousmatic voice is not initially tied to a visible body or entity within the film, which can create a sense of mystery or supernatural power. However, the moment the source of the voice is revealed on screen, it loses its acousmatic quality. This transition can significantly alter the audience’s perception of the character or entity behind the voice.

Chion argues that the acousmêtre holds a unique position within cinema; it distinctly engages the audience’s imagination, inviting them to construct images or ideas about the voice’s unseen source.

As such, it is an effective tool for sound designers and directors, allowing them to match the audience’s expectations and perceptions.

The acousmêtre is especially prominent within the many horror subgenres, where the audience’s visual perception is often intentionally limited to hide the evil in the shadows. Instead, the sound design gives glimpses of the ominous dangers lurking in the shadows.

L’acousmêtre: Examples from Movies

Here are three concrete examples from movies that span different genres, illustrating the versatile use of l’acousmêtre:

The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Directed by Victor Fleming

In this classic film, the Wizard of Oz is initially presented as a powerful, disembodied voice projected from a large, imposing head in the Emerald City’s throne room. The characters and the audience hear his booming voice, which commands respect and instills fear, but his physical form is not revealed.

This is a perfect example of l’acousmêtre, where the disembodied voice significantly impacts the narrative and the characters’ actions. Later, the Wizard is revealed to be an ordinary man behind a curtain, using technological devices to create the illusion of his powerful presence.

Psycho (1960) – Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Norman Bates’s mother in “Psycho” is another classic example of l’acousmêtre. Throughout the film, her voice is heard scolding or conversing with Norman, suggesting the presence of a domineering, controlling figure.

However, the audience never sees her in the flesh; her voice emanates from the Bates house, creating an eerie and ominous presence.

This disembodied voice plays a crucial role in the plot’s development and the twist ending, revealing Norman’s true nature and relationship with his mother.

Her (2013) – Directed by Spike Jonze

Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha, an artificial intelligence operating system, in this science fiction romance. Samantha’s voice is a constant presence in the film, and she interacts deeply, personally, and emotionally with the protagonist, Theodore.

Despite her lack of physical form, Samantha’s character is fully developed and central to the narrative, making her a modern example of l’acousmêtre. Her disembodied voice makes her an omnipresent force in Theodore’s life, highlighting the film’s exploration of human relationships with technology.


Acousmatic sounds invite viewers to engage their imagination, filling the gaps with personal interpretations and responses, thus enriching the cinematic experience.

Chion’s theories reveal how filmmakers can use sound not merely as an adjunct to the visuals but as a potent narrative and aesthetic force in its own right. By strategically using off-screen sounds and voices, directors and sound designers can evoke a sense of curiosity, suspense, and unseen dimensions within the film world.

So if you’re fx creating a horror movie, Michel Chion’s acousmêtre is a great concept to understand as it can be used as a tool to understand how you can utilize sound design to manipulate and engage the audience, fostering a deeper emotional and psychological connection to the story.

In short, Chion’s l’acousmêtre reminds us of the power of sound in film to evoke invisible worlds, build tension, and shape the narrative in ways that visuals alone cannot.

Up Next: Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound in Film Explained


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com 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.

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