Sound in the Films of David Lynch

Shaun McDonald

Talking Pictures alias






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The element of sound has always been a key feature in any David Lynch film, with Lynch himself often stating that the factor of sound is 50 percent of each of his films. His consistent use of alienating industrial ambient sounds have made them become a Lynchian trademark, particularly in his films prior to teaming up with Angelo Badalamenti to produce numerous dark and brooding soundtracks. 

Lynch’s first feature film Eraserhead, with its droning electricity generators and estranged industrial noises, acted as the sound template to which his later films would both return to and expand out from. His collaborations with the revolutionary sound designer Alan Splet offered at times unnerving results with the manipulation of organic sounds to give across the feeling of an ominous over-powering presence of malicious machinery. Lynch’s first feature-film collaboration with Alan Splet was on Eraserhead, where they recorded the soundtrack using a couple of tape recorders to record samples, and a few different sound libraries which they fed through various filters and effects consoles to acquire the correct mood. After spending months trying to find this correct mood for the film, they spent a whole six weeks working day and night on sound editing on the film, before finally adding the music and dialogue to the final sound mix. Through Lynch’s meticulous approach to every element of his films, it seems as though it is in the details of his work, both visually and aurally, which gives his films a unique mesmerizing power, which at times can seem both sinister and unsettling. This uneasy feeling is primarily created through his intentionally understated scores of subtle ambient sound, which both unconsciously draws us into his films, as well as giving them an atmospheric aural depth. 

It can be said that despite some of his films being less noticeably ‘Lynchian’ in their subject matter, they can still be recognised as a Lynch film through his consistent idiosyncratic use of sound. Lynch places so much importance on the use of sound to create a mood of a film, that he once said, “People call me a director, but I really think of myself as a sound man.”. As a director in full control of his visual output, he is equally in control with regards to sound, which he uses to “paint moods” to his scenes. As Trent Reznor recollected about his work on Lost Highway, he said that Lynch would often “scribble on pieces of paper and say, 'This is what I want it to sound like'.” The potential which Lynch sees in the combination of sound and image is particularly evident in Lost Highway, where the abstract  and film noir influenced visuals are fused together with an eclectic and brooding soundtrack, in order to offer a deeper suggestiveness to that which is conventionally offered through just the visual.  

Another important aspect of Lynch’s sound work is the innovative use of speech in his films. Whether from the double-reversed talking in the Red Room in Twin Peaks, or Franks consistent swearing and shouting in Blue Velvet, these abnormalities in speech offer at times startling juxtapositions with the seemingly more normal worlds which surround them. Lynch has also used sound as a way to manipulate an audience with the miming in the performance scenes in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, where despite knowing that the characters are miming, we are still taken by how real it all seems with the use of sound so accurately depicting what we expect to hear accompanying the visual images.  

As well as having a gift for sound, Lynch is also something of a master when it comes to using existing music, with the most famous example being the contextual use of Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ in Blue Velvet, which re-invented the meaning of the song by offering more complex and twisted implications. Lynch seems to believe that sound and music are as important to the mood and meaning of the film as any other cinematic elements, thus stretching the limits of the way in which things can be signified through film. 

Lynch’s coming together with Angelo Badalamenti added another essential element to the soundscape of the Lynch universe, and unlocked new doors of possibility for his aural experimentations. Badalamenti’s ethereal music perfectly complimented the otherworldly quality of the Lynch film, with his combination of both playful softness and darkly evocative tones. Badalamenti’s first score for Lynch was in Blue Velvet, where his bold and brooding meticulously layered composed pieces both complimented and contrasted the savage sound effects created by sound designer Alan Splet. Badalamenti’s scores hereafter have continued to be predominantly dark and menacing, yet at the same time very original, with one of his most notable successes being his hit theme tune to Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks.  

Lynch’s fascination with sound and music extends beyond film soundtracks, as he has written lyrics, produced albums and directed videos for a range of music groups. Lynch’s main musical venture is his collaborations with Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise, where they have recorded a few albums together, and done a live performance show entitled ‘Industrial Symphony No. 1’. On the surface, Lynch’s lyrical style in these songs comes across as intimate and romantic, though Julee Cruise commented that “what’s going on underneath is depression and paranoia and fetishes and obsessions.” 

Although the song structure and use of musical leitmotifs in Lynch’s films is fairly conventional, it is through his attention to the details which most other directors disregard, which makes the sound in his films so unique. The sound in the Lynch film has such a mesmerizing quality, that when it’s surrounding you, you almost get the feeling that you are living inside one of his dream worlds.
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