Diegetic Music: Creating Realism in Fictional Cultures

One of the hardest things to do in a story is start in the middle. And yet, it’s something movies and tv shows do all the time. The first thing you see is a character that has already lived life to some degree, and they’re living it in a world that has already existed for seemingly thousands of years. So how do they convince their audiences that this fictional world is as ancient as they say? How do they make people believe this world has had many stories before the one they are currently watching? And most importantly, how do they get them to relate to the story they are seeing? There are many factors that play into this such as character development through an actor or voice actor, set design, and a backstory that is unveiled over time to fit what is currently happening. But one factor stands above them all in mind, and that is music.

What is Diegetic Music?

Diegetic music, also called source music, is music within a form of media which the characters can hear or interact with. Say for example, a character in a movie or tv show walks by a radio and says something along the lines of “Hey I love that song!”. That would make whatever song is playing on the radio diegetic. This is a very important storytelling tool all throughout different forms of drama from movies to TV shows and even video games.

Diegetic music is meant to be separate from the underscoring music (or simply “the score”) which is heard only by the audience watching the scene. For this you can think of literally any John Williams piece from movies like “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones”. This means that for a time, the music highlighting the scene connects the audience to the characters because they are experiencing the same sonic sensations. This connection is extra important if the movie or show revolves around a completely fictional world. Genres such as fantasy and sci-fi can benefit greatly from source music because it allows for the realism of the fictional worlds to be amplified.

Really effective source music is hard to produce, especially if it is not songs or pieces of music that the audience is already familiar with. However, if the composer is able to connect the source music to the score in style or culture, then it becomes a helpful bridge between what is understood by the audience and what is understood by the characters. Often times successful source music blended with good character development lends itself to the success of a movie or TV show. It creates a world of its own in which the audience learns the songs or pieces of music to connect further with the characters and the world they live in. Two great examples of successful diegetic music ironically share a name: “Avatar” directed by James Cameron and “Avatar the Last Airbender” created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.

Avatar

This 2009 film directed by James Cameron broke many grounds in visual effects and storytelling. The thing that contributed most to its success (grossing a total of 2.8 billion dollars since its first release) was the attention to detail that went into making the world its characters live on. The movie is set on the moon of Pandora which is inhabited by the Na’vi. The makers of this film came up with such an extensive culture for the Na’vi race that it seemed as if these people had actually existed for thousands of years. There are actual articles written on the flora and fauna of this fictional world and James Cameron even brought in a plant physiologist (Jodie Holt) to make sure these fake plants had real science behind them.

With this much detail-oriented work being put in to create a world, it only makes sense that the music would accompany that. The Na’vi all share a common language and having a strong history of passing down their knowledge through mnemonic song cords and ceremonial singing is attributed to that. Because of this the music that occurs within the tribal scenes of the movie is 100% unique to the Na’vi in style and language, but also feels “musical” enough for human ears to follow. This creates a soundscape unlike any other and connect the Na’vi to their planet and the audience to the movie.

“Xenolinguists and xenoanthropologists have hypothesized an exceptionally stable and rigorous oral culture, with the use of mnemonic Song Cords and ceremonial singing to hand down oral culture across many generations.”

This was demonstrated even further when “Pandora — The World of Avatar” was opened at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. In this expansive park area in Animal Kingdom, people can experience firsthand what it’s like to be on the moon of Pandora and interact with the Na’vi. In this world they took diegetic music (written presumably by the Na’vi themselves) and incorporated it all around as background music in both attraction and walking zones. This land would not be as captivatingly realistic without this music that represents the ancient culture you are meant to experience. It even helps guests learn the Na’vi language!

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Another great example of source music that helped create a world with which fans relate greatly is the Nickelodeon show “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. This anime inspired American animation show is based in a world divided into four lands. The Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes, the Fire Nation, and the Air temples. While in the show these lands are at war with each other and all have distinct folk music, they share an overall musical style that is parallel to what we would consider West Asian in origin. A lot of themes utilize the distinct sounds of instruments such as the pipa, erhu and guzheng, which are both West Asian instruments.

This being said, a multitude of different instruments are used throughout the different nations. Skin head style drums are used in the Water Tribe and in an ancient faction of the Sun Warriors. This is more akin to a music culture of African descent. The air nomads were fans of pan flutes in their music (naturally, since it was an air-based instrument). The pan flute originally comes from ancient Inca and Maya civilizations. The main composer for the show Jeremey Zuckerman even created a brand-new instrument for the show called a tsungi horn. This curved horn is played various times by one of the main characters Uncle Iroh and it is a universal instrument played by all four nations in their traditional music, even though it is believed to have originated in the Fire Nation. The actual sound is created by a duduk, which is an ancient Armenian reed instrument.

The amount of detail that went into the music cultures of each of the four nations in the show is mind blowing and is one of the main reasons that audiences connected so highly to the show. Original folk songs that fans of the show could learn themselves and exposure to non-western music coming from an American based show allowed for kids who grew up on this show to become more cultured than before. One of the best examples of this is the song “Leaves from the Vine” which is a traditional folk song about war in the show sung by Uncle Iroh. The song is about a soldier boy who is forced to leave home and fight in the war for his country. He ends up questioning his motives and the war but continues fighting and is eventually killed. In a very emotional scene, Uncle Iroh sings this song on the anniversary of his son who, like the song says, died fighting in the war. This song has captured the hearts of many Avatar fans and encapsulates perfectly the power diegetic music can have on the listener.

Conclusion

Music is a universal language. It is something that connects us all in the world despite our culture. That is why it is such a powerful storytelling tool utilized in multiple forms of media. It allows us into the story to experience and feel what the characters are feeling. It snaps us out of a “this is just a movie mindset” and allows us to delve a little deeper emotionally. A film or TV score allows us to feel things about the characters. Source music allows us to feel things with the characters.

Professional music instructor focused on analyzing musical concepts and trends in popular music.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store