Blog: Captioning sound effects, non-verbal utterances and music

Blog, Captioning 25 Jul 2016

Dialogue forms the core of what we as viewers hear in a TV programme, but sound goes beyond simply what is spoken in order to tell a story. Most programmes use sound effects to relay information, such as the approaching footsteps of an intruder, a time-out buzzer in a quiz show, the chime of a cell phone, the beeping of an electronic heart monitor. Others are used to heighten the atmosphere of the scene rather than further the narrative, like laughter at a comedian’s joke, a wailing siren in a bad neighbourhood, or birds chirping in a wide landscape shot.

Non-verbal utterances, like a gasp, chuckle, or shout, often bridge the gap between sound effects and speech. While an applauding crowd or a group howling with laughter is clear in meaning, some non-verbal utterances not visible on screen are vital to establishing emotional intensity. A stoic man may only show grief through the quaver of his voice, and a muffled chuckle in an otherwise serious situation can be hard to spot. With such noises stripped away, the emotional weight of a scene, whether tragic, funny or dramatic, can lose its intended impact. 

While we keep this in mind while captioning, there is also the danger of describing too much and not enough. A door opening on-screen doesn’t necessitate a caption, and some, for example, (COMPUTER NOISES) are unhelpful and do little to provide further information. Striking a balance of respect for the viewer with the necessity for captions is something we must be aware of in our work.

 Music is far more complex and can be difficult without any visual cues to support the viewer, so we do our best to give a complete and accurate description of what is heard. Lyrics are captioned at all times (unless they interrupt any dialogue or sound effects), and as a rule of thumb, a song title and the artist are given where they’re known. When, it’s not, it is common to describe the physical music itself, the genre and instrument on which it is played, for example, (ROCK MUSIC) or (CLASSICAL VIOLIN MUSIC).

Often, we look beyond the physical music. The chief job of the soundtrack in many programmes is to build atmosphere and heighten audience engagement with what’s on screen, such as a poignant note in a death scene, a fast-paced rhythm at the height of a chase, or dramatic music swelling with a big reveal. Describing the emotional tone of the music is the most faithful way to achieve that same reaction through text rather than sound, leading to captions like (FRANTIC DRUMBEAT) or (MOURNFUL ELECTRONICA MUSIC).

It is only when we put all of these pieces together – the dialogue, the music in the background, the sound effects and the non-verbal utterances – that we can really get the complete picture. We do our best as captioners to give viewers that picture through words, ensuring that those who can’t always hear what’s going on don’t have to miss out.

Check out our list of captioned programmes here.

Alana, Able Caption Editor

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