Diegetic Music, Non-Diegetic Music, and “Source Scoring”

In most analyses, how film music is used is divided into two categories: diegetic and non-diegetic. Diegetic music is understood to emanate from a source in the fictional narrative or “diegesis”. Hence it is also known as “source music”. These sources may include a radio, stereo, speakers, live musicians, and so on. Whether or not we see the source is unimportant. So long as we understand the music to be coming from something in the film itself, it qualifies as diegetic music. Thus, the characters in the film are able to hear this music. The cantina scene in the original Star Wars is an example of diegetic music.

star wars - cantina band

Conversely, non-diegetic music is understood not to emanate from the film itself, so the characters do not hear it. Other names for this type of music include “underscore”, “accompanimental music”, “commentary music”, “interpolated music”, and perhaps most commonly, “background music”. Most film music is non-diegetic music, one of the most familiar instances being the music for the shower scene in Psycho.

Psycho (1960)Directed by Alfred HitchcockShown: Janet Leigh (as Marion Crane)

The distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic music forms an important part of how film music is made because they generally have markedly different functions. Diegetic music is usually used to clarify time and place, social circle, or nationality. The frequent use of this type of music in the Godfather films helps to paint a convincing picture of Italian culture, particularly through Italian folk song and Italian opera. The wedding sequence in the first film is one example among many:

Non-diegetic music, which is far more common in film, typically reflects the psychological state of the characters onscreen, or suggests how we ought to emotionally interpret the images we see. Because this type of music especially helps us to immerse ourselves in the film’s fictional world, it tends to be a more prominent part of films in the genres of action and fantasy, where the suspension of our disbelief is especially crucial. Hence the lavish scores of such film series as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

A Third Category: Source Scoring

While the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic music is clear, some film music cannot be described as entirely one or the other. In his book, Scoring for Films, Earle Hagen argues for a third category of film music he calls source scoring, a combination of source music and dramatic scoring (or non-diegetic music):

This kind of music is like source in its content, but tailored to meet scoring requirements. … This kind of cue can start as pure source music and change over to source scoring. … The main difference between Source and Source Scoring is that source scoring takes on a much closer relationship to the film. It follows the framework of the scene more critically and matches the nuances of the scene musically.

A few examples will demonstrate how this kind of music operates in film.

Example 1: The Man Who Knew Too Much

In Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the final concert scene involves a performance of Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Clouds Cantata”, which clearly begins as diegetic music. In this clip, the cantata starts at 0:17 (by the way, that’s the film’s composer, Bernard Herrmann, conducting):

But as tension mounts, so does the music. And instead of non-diegetic music coming in overtop of the cantata, the cantata itself acts as non-diegetic music in that it seems to comment on the scene. When Ben (James Stewart) arrives at the concert hall in order to prevent the murder of the Prime Minister, he is obviously distressed. It is at this point that the cantata begins its noticeably more active second half. But it is also here that the orchestra stops being shown for a few minutes while Ben tries to find the assassin. The character of this music matches Ben’s emotional state so well that it starts to sound just like non-diegetic music. And interestingly, there is no dialogue through this part of the scene. Indeed, as Royal S. Brown notes in his book, Overtones and Undertones, it is almost “as if it had come straight out of the silent era.”

At the same time, we are of course aware that this is actually the cantata being performed, so both the diegetic and non-diegetic realms merge. This, then, is a perfect example of source scoring. Watch the above clip from 5:45 to see how the use of the music changes when Ben enters. Notice how many of the characters’ actions are choreographed to the music—for example, when Ben reaches his wife Jo (Doris Day) at 6:01, the music suddenly begins a new phrase, as though to articulate the moment as important. The same thing happens when Ben leaves Jo to look for the assassin at 6:16.

Example 2: The Adventures of Robin Hood

In The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Prince John attempts to set a trap to capture Robin by holding an archery tournament. For the start of this scene, Erich Korngold wrote a rousing fanfare for trumpets, and we actually see the trumpeters play the beginning of this music. We also hear a snare drum, but it is not difficult to imagine a drummer just offscreen somewhere. So at this point, the music seems clearly diegetic. But with the cut away from the trumpeters, the music suddenly becomes more richly scored, adding strings, French horns, and cymbals, and so, lacking any source onscreen, suggests it has now become non-diegetic. Compare these moments in the following audio clip starting from 6:00:

Korngold’s score for the film is entirely orchestral, and despite being presented as diegetic music, the opening fanfare in this scene retains that orchestral feel. The sound quality of the fanfare has exactly the same “studio sound” as the richer music that follows, and the fanfare ends with a timpani “thud” that again suggests the unseen orchestra of a non-diegetic score. Thus it seems that non-diegetic music is being treated as diegetic music. Why not just leave it as non-diegetic music? With the addition of trumpeters to ground the music in the diegetic world, the scene is made to feel more authentic, as is the case with most diegetic music. This is the opposite situation of The Man Who Knew Too Much, where the music in the concert hall scene was always diegetic, but sometimes acted non-diegetically as well. Both scenes, however, are examples of source scoring.

Example 3: American Graffiti

Source scoring does not only work with orchestral music. In American Graffiti (1973), the music is a virtually continuous series of popular songs from the 1950s and 60s. Because these songs are almost always understood to be coming from a source in the film’s fictional world (usually a car radio), they qualify as diegetic music. And their function would therefore seem to be clear: to re-create the sound world typical of American adolescents during the early 60s. But the way in which the songs, and particularly the song titles, merge with the images and dialogue suggests that they go further than this.

Consider some of the scenes with John (Paul Le Mat) and Carol (Mackenzie Phillips). John initially asks a carload of girls whether any of them wants to ride with him in his car. The only volunteer is Carol, the younger sister of one of the girls. Feeling that she is too young for him, John is contemptuous of Carol and embarrassed to be seen with her. When Carol first gets into John’s car, the song playing is Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day”. As Peter Larsen observes in his book, Film Music, the song is initially commenting on John’s request to the carload of girls to consider “going steady” with him. But as the scene progresses, it appears to become an ironic commentary on John and Carol’s relationship. In other words, “That’ll Be the Day” seems the perfect way to describe any possible romance between the two. View the scene here (“That’ll Be the Day” enters at about 1:20):

Later on at the drive-in diner, John becomes embarrassed at being seen with Carol by a friend. John introduces Carol as his cousin, whom he says he is “babysitting”. Carol becomes upset and leaves the car to wander the streets alone. John, obviously harboring some feelings for Carol, goes to pick her up when he sees her being taunted by some other male teens. All the while, we hear The Monotones’ hit song, “The Book of Love”. The song seems to suggest the budding romance between John and Carol despite John’s attempts to pretend otherwise. View this scene below:

In a later scene, John encounters another car full of girls, one of whom throws a water balloon at John. The balloon instead hits Carol in the face and as retaliation, John and Carol deface the girls’ car with shaving cream and flatten one of their tires at the next stop light. The song we hear during all this is Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, which again seems an ironic commentary on the pranks the teens pull on each other. Watch the scene here:


Although most analyses regard film music as either diegetic or non-diegetic, there are times when a combination of the two is at work. When this occurs, the music can be viewed as source scoring. While blurring the boundaries between diegetic and non-diegetic music may seem undesirable, it allows the music to perform the functions of both types of music without changing anything about the music itself. Thus, source scoring is useful in creating a particularly smooth flow in the film experience, as is certainly the case with the examples above.

12 thoughts on “Diegetic Music, Non-Diegetic Music, and “Source Scoring””

  1. Another example of “source scoring” might be when a radio is playing a melody in the film, perhaps at the beginning of a relationship, and then the non-diegetic film soundtrack orchestrates that tune from the radio to further suggest a developing relationship. Also, in “Words and Music” we see Dick Rodgers at the piano singing “With a Song in My Heart” and then it is orchestrated non-diegetically to following Dick around Manhattan with his new love, showing them eating ice creams, having fun and falling in love. It develops that idea of the radio, I mentioned in my first comment, only it’s Dick Rodgers singing at the piano with the Fiener girl (first name forgotten) sitting next to him. So, there is a THIRD WAY in film scoring!

  2. Mark Richards

    Indeed, Sue. In his book, The American Film Musical, Rick Altman refers to this very scene from Words and Music, and describes the phenomenon as an “audio dissolve” (a great term). He goes on to say that the audio dissolve here “passes out of the limited context of a story about Rodgers and Hart and into that mythical realm of the classic song, with its power to jar our memories and remind us of good times past.” The famous scene in Casablanca where Rick hears Sam play “As Time Goes By” and slips into a flashback of Paris is another example of the audio dissolve. It seems to heighten the unreal aspect of whatever is happening on screen and draw us further into the fictional world of the film.

  3. I will buy that book, The American Film Musical!! Thanks for the reference. I, too, think the term “audio dissolve” is a very good one and the idea that, in this particular case, the song “With A Song in My Heart” has wider implications for an audience linking the song itself to memory is an interesting idea. It’s as though the film is ‘commenting upon’ the cultural meaning of the song beyond the time depicted in the film’s narrative about its composition. A very post-modern idea!!!

  4. Seems source scoring happens more with the use of popular songs in films these days, most popular use is playing the song as non-diegetic, then later on the change the sonic quality to suggest that the music comes from a radio etc. But orchestral music can push “source scoring” much further. The first example comes to my mind is Zimmer’s SH:a game of shadow (again..Mark), Mozart’s Don Giovanni is playing in opera house hence it is source music, yet the arrangement of the music is much more dramatic, then Mozart’s music joins with zimmer’s dark progressive score and push it to a climax, great scene.

  5. Yeah excellent thread, really helpful. I wanted to ask in good morning Vietnam, at around 1.27.50 robin Williams introduces the track ‘what a wonderful world’ but it then is just playing depicting the Vietnam war as non-diegetic music, is this source scoring ? and have you got anymore example at all ? many thanks

    1. Film Score Junkie

      @ Eammon. Yes, the scene you cite in Good Morning Vietnam is a great example of source scoring since it clearly starts as diegetic music (Robin Williams announcing the song on screen), then serves to accompany the montage that follows, which notably has no other sound but the music (in typical montage style).

      Kassabian mentions some other examples, for instance one of the last sequences in Mississippi Masala, where harmonica music is heard, seemingly as non-diegetic music, but then established as source music when we see the harmonica player. Another example she cites is in Moonstruck, where, much like Good Morning Vietnam, Loretta is preparing for an outing to the opera and turns on the radio, which then accompanies several dissolves much like non-diegetic music. Finally, she also cites the final scene of Star Wars, where the medal ceremony is accompanied by the march music, but could be either diegetic or non-diegetic music, or somewhere in between as source scoring.

  6. Another example of this is in the film Children of Men, when Theo (Clive Owen) is riding in his cousin’s Rolls Royce with “The Court of the Crimson King” playing strongly over the top. As the car ride progresses, diegetic sounds start to bleed through the song. Then the car pulls into the garage at the Ark of the Arts and the song is playing over a loudspeaker in the garage. When Theo gets into his cousin’s living space and is looking up at the statue of David, the song is barely audible, playing high over the scene (but it sounds to me like it’s coming from speakers in the scene).

  7. A fine parody of source scoring is in the Mel Brooks film, ‘Blazing Saddles’. A scene set in the desert with the Black sheriff riding towards the town of racists has a jazz score which, after a short while, is revealed as being played out there in the desert by the Count Basie Orchestra.


  8. I have had a question about film music for a long time. Is there a term which means the beginning of a piece of music coinciding exactly with an action in the film, such as the opening of a door exactly on the downbeat of the music, e.g., in “Amadeus” where a door is forced open, beginning Mozart’s Symphony #25?

  9. As I teach film studies, the term Source Scoring seems to already exist as a term of that intertwining of Diegetic and Non-diegetic sound. That term is called a “SOUND MIX” or the code switching back and forth as in the scene in DRIVE, when the music of the party goes from music in the scene (muffled or muted) to a larger , more involved playing. Thus, sound scoring to me may instead be the use of a leit motif such as in Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet where the sound track involves replaying of the song sung at the party in different ways throughout the film using variations in major and minor tones. I think that may be what source scoring may truly be at it’s heart. Sound Mix is the act of switching, thus source scoring is either a synonym or a deeper meaningful concept of music use and function. That is how I would differentiate that idea. May I instead address a question my students asked: when kids are singing in a scene (diegetic) and a faceless, non-existent accompaniment (background band plays along) that does NOT appear in the scene (non-diegetic , technically), what does one call that background accompaniment that the singers clearly are following or seemingly reacting to in the frame or moment of the film?

    1. Thanks for your engaging question, Chris! So in Hagen’s definition, the music in source scoring can be heard as diegetic throughout, but it takes on meaning that is usually reserved for non-diegetic music. So in the scene in Drive you mention, the music can always be heard as diegetic. Now I’m not sure whether the music takes on a deeper meaning in that scene – yes, it becomes more prominent, but since I’m not familiar with the film, I don’t know if there’s more significance to that increase in prominence. If there is, it would fall into the category of source scoring. The idea of taking a diegetic song and turning it into a non-diegetic leitmotif I don’t know any common name for, but the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic is maintained in such a case, whereas in source scoring, it becomes blurred. As for your question about singing diegetically to non-diegetic accompaniment, there is a great discussion about this in Buhler and Neumeyer’s Hearing the Movies, 2nd ed., where they say:

      song in a musical generally does not lend itself to strict interpretation in terms of diegetic or nondiegetic. The character seems to know very well that he or she is singing, and thus (espeically with musicals written specifially for the screen rather than close adaptations of stage musicals) the song begins diegetically, just as it normally would in any other narrative film (one very common device in classical Hollywood musicals is to show one or more characters gathered around a piano). As the song progresses, however, nondiegetic orchestral accompaniment enters, replacing the piano. It is this displacement, or dissolve of one accompaniment into another, that [Rick] Altman defines as the audio dissolve.

      And they go on to say that “musicals do not maintain the clear separation of diegetic and nondiegetic registers and so cannot rigorously enforce the boundaries of the diegetic world, which seems to constantly dissolve under the force of song.” There’s more too about how musicals being essentially romantic comedies and the songs intensifying the romance to create an idealized world. So basically, musicals don’t play by the same rules as other narrative films!

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