Drawn To Sound: Animation Film Music and Sonicity

Rebecca Coyle, 
Drawn To Sound: Animation Film Music and Sonicity
London: Equinox Publishing LTD, 2010
ISBN: 9 7818 455335 26
UK£16.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Equinox Publishing)

No longer can animation be branded as simply Disney’s Mickey Mouse or Warner Bros Bugs Bunny – new players, new technologies and new methods have emerged. From 3D modeling to live action computer generated imagery (CGI), from web design to the games industry – it is clear that animation is diversifying in its form and usage.

Coinciding with the increase in the production of animation, scholarship on the subject is also on the up with many volumes, journals and publications now produced annually. Similarly, film sound scholarship has also matured in recent time: the work of influential theorists such as Rick Altman, Michel Chion and Claudia Gorbman has finally paid off. These scholars offer alternative analytic models, new terms and poetic understandings informed by an acute aural consciousness.

Despite a growing academic interest in both animation and film sound very little research has focused on combining the two. By its sheer breadth and diversity Drawn To Sound goes a long way in bridging this gap, and shedding light into an otherwise unknown area. It is an absorbing read that will not only service those interested in the sonic, cultural and aesthetic dimensions of animation but also attract those interested in the broader economic and social factors relating to its production and distribution.

Unlike earlier, foundational studies such as Tunes for Toons (Goldmark 2005) – which provide broad overviews on the key works, central themes and seminal figures of the American cartoon industry – Drawn To Sound resides at the intersection of several related, overlapping fields of study, offering international and interdisciplinary perspectives. The edition is comprised of case studies by film sound scholars, musicologists and animation experts focusing on the soundtracks of animated features, created in the period since WWII. The texts themselves are eclectic in range, form and origin. Case studies include: Nightmare Before Christmas (claymation), Spirited Away (Japanese Anime) Happy Feet (digital animation) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (live action) – which all fall under the somewhat vague title of ‘animation film’.

Consistently maintained throughout the volume is the importance of the studio, in terms of aesthetics, production, distribution, commodification and technological development. Critical overviews of Disney, Dreamworks, Aardman Animation, Halas and Batchelor, and Studio Ghibli all weave heavily into the analyses.

The title Drawn To Sound if read literally implies an order of process whereby the visual track is drawn to the soundtrack (3) – this play on words might appear as an inside joke to film sound enthusiasts, who are forever fighting against the general assumption that sound is subservient to the image. However, Coyle makes clear from the outset the edition’s neutrality: “this book does not attempt to displace the visual but rather to highlight the equally crucial role sound plays in our experience of animation films”. (1)

The book is structurally reminiscent of Screen Scores (Coyle’s earlier volume on Australian Screen Music), where thirteen chapters form the body of the work. The chapters are grouped under four broad headings: Scoring Animation Film (looking to compositional approaches), Musical Intertexuality (focusing on the relationships between the different sonic components in the soundtracks), Music and Sonicity (detailing historical contexts of animation soundtracks) and Music and Industrial Contexts (concentrating on the production backgrounds and circumstances of specific films). By using this framework the volume seeks to categorize the different analytic models and approaches. Although Coyle notes that “these categories are porous, and of course contain overlapping lines of arguments” (14), the crossover can at times be exhausting. True, the overall cohesion is maintained, but the reader is left wondering whether it was really necessary to insist on these categories in the first place.

There is no space to cover each essay so I will briefly scan over a few that best represent the book’s diversity. An Aesthetic of Ambiguity: Musical Representation of Indigenous Peoples in Disney’s Brother Bear by Janis Esther Tulk is an intriguing read. The author expands upon earlier research on indigenous stereotypes represented within the music of the American film Industry, namely Scoring The Indian (Gorbman 2001) and Indians in Unexpected Places (Deloria 2004). Tulk argues that although musical stereotypes seem to be breaking down, Disney soundtracks are still not accurate in terms of their representation of particular indigenous cultures. Instruments such as Tom Tom drums (which have historically been used to broadly signify the Indian), are being replaced by “world music” and “world instruments” – “without specific referents”, and with the aim to sound generically ethnic. Tulk ask the questions “have we transcended stereotypes or simply changed the sound of the Indian? Or have we merely expanded the tool-box of exoticism”. (131) These interesting observations also brings to mind many other examples of codified sonic stereotypes found throughout the history of cinema: for instance, the gong which has been used as a device to signify the ‘oriental’, as has the didgeridoo (an instrument specific to Northern parts of Australia) come to symbolize aboriginality across the Australian continent, and also come to represent exotica in general.

Neil Learner’s essay Minstrelsy and Musical Framing in Who Framed Roger Rabbit complements the former essay. Also focusing on musical representations that contain racial stereotypes, Learner points out narrative and musical signifiers that work in similar ways to that of the black minstrel faces that plagued early Warner and Disney features – especially the use of jazz and gospel music.

Coyle’s and Fitzgerald’s chapter takes a post-modern approach and focuses on issues of commodification, creative production, intertexuality and technological development. They argue that a new era of Disney productions follows the highly successful The Little Mermaid (USA 1991), and they detail how the combination of Hollywood and Broadway Musicals – and also classic Disney cartoons such as Snow White (USA 1937), Dumbo (USA 1941), and Bambi (USA 1942) – helped to change the face of animation production. By focusing on films that were supported by intense cross-media promotion the authors identify “turning points” e.g. Saturday Night Fever (USA 1997), which not only broke records at the box office sales but also hit US No. 1 on the music Billboard charts (226). Case studies on both The Little Mermaid and The Lion King (USA 1994) help to demonstrate the role of the production team in incorporating different styles and genres of music, as well as the way traditional Hollywood scoring devices contemporize the cartoons and make them accessible. The mix of Caribbean, pop and classical approaches in The Little Mermaid – also emphasizes the way that music could be closely integrated into narrative. Moreover, Coyle and Fitzgerald discuss the relatively new phenomenon of using successful pop artists such as Elton John and Lebo Morake as a means to increase the prospect of commercial success. This point plays on nicely from Anahid Kassabian’s groundbreaking study Hearing Film (2001), which talks of “assimilating identification processes”, whereby audiences may associate in certain ways with particular artists and pre existing musical material.

Kyoko Koizumi’s chapter looks to the scores of the prolific Japanese film composer Joe Hisashi and his close partnership with the great animator Hayao Miyazaki. The author identifies the different compositional approaches that Hisashi adopts. For instance:

“the use of the Dorian mode to create historical European feel; western classical styled music to suggest occidental themes; pentatonic scales natural minor scales and other Asian Japanese musical elements to enhance oriental images; and an eclectic style of Japanese popular songs in which Japanese and Western approaches are mixed” . (71)

By doing this Koizumi not only provides insight into the scoring practices of Japanese composers but also brings to attention the functionality of music in the construction of narrative in Miyazaki’s films.  Also concentrating on Anime are chapters by Kentaro Imada and Aki Yamasaki. Imada’s essay looks at Western and Japanese origins of the music in the highly successful Luppin III (Rupan sansei) franchise), whereas Aki Yamasaki’s essay titled Cowboy Beebop, takes a media studies perspective on the business aspect of the Anime and music industry in Japan. Yamasaki gives an historical account of the different marketing strategies and industry developments from the 1980s onwards. She also brings to attention concerns relating to transnationalism, cross-media production, copyright and the role of the music producer.

In its various manifestations animation has become one of the most potent forms of popular culture and cultural practice. Drawn To Sound explores the complex and disorienting world of animation, and deciphers more precisely the cultural, economic workings of its music and sound. It is an excellent gateway into the literature and through the various case studies the volume also offers a procedural approach for further development in the area.


Deloria, P. J. (2004) Indians in Unexpected Places. Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas.

Goldmark, D., L. Kramer, et al. (2007). Beyond the soundtrack: representing music in cinema, University of California Press.

Gorbman, C. (2000). Scoring the Indian: Music in the Liberal Western, in G. Born and D. Hesmondhalgh (eds). Western Music and its Others: Difference, Representation and Appropriation in Music, Berkley: University of California Press, pp 234-53

Gorbman, C. (1987). Unheard melodies: Narrative film music, BFI Publications.

Kassabian, A. (2001). Hearing film: Tracking identifications in contemporary Hollywood film music, Psychology Press.

About the Author

Johnny Milner

About the Author

Johnny Milner

Johnny Milner is a PhD Candidate in Film Studies at The Australian National University. His research interests include: film sound theory, cinema and nationalism, and genre studies. Milner has also worked as a film-maker and sound designer/composer on various independent and commercial productions.View all posts by Johnny Milner →