Empathetic sound, anempathetic sound and sound imagery in sound design

What are they? How are they used? How do they benefit me?

Ben Spooner
5 min readDec 13, 2021
Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

Empathetic sound
Empathetic sound is when the music or sound design added to screen complements the mood of the action that is occurring, such as the celebratory music that accompanies the victory scene in Star Wars episode VI: Return Of The Jedi.

StarWars Entertainment, 2016

Anempathetic sound
Anempathetic sound is the opposite of empathetic sound. Rather than complement the mood of the action, the music or sound design is indifferent to it. In Hitchcock’s film Psycho, we hear the sound of the shower continuing to run as if nothing has happened, moments after Marion Crane has been murdered. The effect of hearing the everyday, mundane sound of the shower is creepy in the context of her chilling death.

Dollar, 2018

Water is used as anempathetic sound In the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan too. Instead of adding music to complement the tense mood of men about to enter battle, all we hear is the sea all around them, loud and relentless. The audience are given the impression that the sea, that nature, is indifferent to the lives of these men. The crashing waves convey a sense that these individuals are just small specs or cogs in a far bigger picture, cannon fodder, which is indeed the case in this story.

Sound Imagery
When sound is used symbolically it is termed sound imagery. The best way to understand this is with reference to the same figures of speech that we use in language. The following list is a sample taken from a sound design lecture:

  • Simile. The acoustic similarity of two sounds. An example is a scream and a siren.
  • Hyperbole. Obvious and intentional exaggeration. An example is an alarm clock and a scream. The scream is not the sound the clock would make in real life, but it conveys the horror of being woken up from a deep sleep.
  • Metaphor. Pairing a sound and image to create a feeling and meaning. An example is a blinking red light and a scream. The scream is not the sound the light would make in real life, but it conveys danger.
  • Paradox. Contradictions that express inner truth. An example is a scream from a cigarette. The scream reveals the danger of smoking, or perhaps the anxiety felt by the person reaching for the cigarette.
  • Vivification. Manifesting living traits in inanimate objects. An example is a scream from a doormat, as though the doormat has feelings and is in pain.

At the end of the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now, a helicopter noise is heard as a man stares up at a ceiling fan. This is a great example of a simile chosen by Walter Murch, the sound designer of the film, who used the helicopter sound to give the audience insight into the experiences and memories of war that the man is reliving in his mind.

Beere, 2013

As I researched Apocalypse Now I stumbled upon this YouTube comment below the clip of the opening sequence. The idea that war is an ‘endless spiral’, a ‘vicious circle’ struck me as being very well observed and I wondered if that was another reason why it is the fan and the helicopter, with their endless circular motions, that are the focus of this scene.

Beere, 2013

How are these techniques useful to me?
In my first term studying MSc Music and Sound for Film and Games I was tasked with the sound design for a video and instructed to focus on sound imagery. The video had four distinct sections including a shot of bubbles and lights. I asked myself how each section made me feel, as this would lead me to emotions I could then find complementary sounds for (empathetic sound). The bubbles made me feel relaxed, so I looked for big, deep sighs and exhales for the sound; this is vivification i.e. bringing the bubbles to life with human qualities. For the final section which showed swirling lines and lights, I used the sound of a crowd applauding, as this made the lines seem like living and excitable beings. I decided to continue using human-made sounds throughout this sound design project.

Spooner, 2021

I also used sound imagery in my Chirality project, when the little alien creature pulls a crystal from the wall. The crystal turns from turquoise to bright red, signalling trouble, so I used an alarm-like sound to enhance the mood of danger (metaphor).

Spooner, 2021

I am enjoying exploring the different ways that sound imagery can add depth, intrigue and meaning to visuals.


4K HDR Media. (2018). Saving Private Ryan — Omaha Beach Scene (HDR — 4K — 5.1). [Online video]. May 5th. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdBEyitJ7Qc. [Accessed: 29.11.2021].

BEERE, A. (2013). Apocalypse Now — Opening Sequence. [Online video]. October 29th. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5L617dEXlE. [Accessed: 29.11.2021].

DOLLAR, S. (2018). Psycho’s Shower Scene: How Hitchcock Upped the Terror-and Fooled the Censors. [Online] Available at: https://www.history.com/news/psycho-shower-scene-hitchcock-tricks-fooled-censors. [Accessed: 06.12.2021].

SPOONER, B. (2021). Sound Imagery Uni Task. [Online video]. November 12th. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKAsgSVEGkw. [Accessed: 12.11.2021].

SPOONER, B. (2021). Chirality — Animated Short Film — Original Music, Foley and Sound Design. (Re-Sound Project). [Online video]. November 29th. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xc6K4AN3i2I. [Accessed: 29.11.2021].

StarWars Entertainment. (2016). Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi — Victory Celebration HD [1080p]. [Online video]. March 18th. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlCFPo6YYbU. [Accessed: 29.11.2021].

STONEHOUSE, J. (2021). SOUND DESIGN IN VISUAL MEDIA, 7CTA1104–0909–2021, [Lecture notes] Sound Design 1. University of Hertfordshire, MSc in Music and Sound for Film and Games, Remote, October 2021.



Ben Spooner

Self taught musician who loves to learn and share with the world. www.benspooner.co.uk