Boom, Swish, Waaah: Top 10 Commonly Used Sound Effects

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Posted on December 14th, 2007

Watching a movie without sound effects is like not watching one at all. Even back in the early 1900s when films were silent, people tried to simulate real-life sounds by producing sound effects live while the movie was projected. Sound effects make a better movie-viewing experience by producing sounds that we hear in real life. They also add to the emotions and effectiveness of the scene.

Usually, sound mixers and editors record sound for a particular scene. These recordings are then archived to be used in other films that they can be useful to in the future. As years go by, some of these recorded sound effects have been used over and over again so much so that they have become ubiquitous. In fact, a few of these sound effects have found a following with many observant movie fans and editors. Others find these repetitive sound effects annoying and absurd.

Whether you are pleased or irritated, here are the top 10 most famous and most commonly used sound effects in Hollywood movies that will surely make you go “Why haven’t I noticed that before?”

10. Animal Sounds

In movies, animals always make noise. They are never quiet. Dogs always bark. Cats always meow. Birds always chirp. What is absurd is the idea that they still make sounds even when they are not supposed to. Animal sounds are used to set the mood. If you have very good attention to detail you would notice that the animals actually make the same noise. In many films, snakes rattle even when they are not rattlesnakes. Dolphins make the same “chatter” sound when jumping, spinning and whatever else they do — it’s the same sound. Insects always sound like they are all wet. In open fields, the sound of a red-tailed hawk screeching is heard even when the bird being shown is actually an eagle or a falcon. Many horror films also use the same sound of a wolf or owl howling in the distance. The sound of kookaburras, an Australian kingfisher, is also often heard even when the film is set in North America. Finally, haven’t you noticed that it is the same scream that cats let out over and over again in many movies?


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9. The Martial Art Swish

Another commonly used sound effect is the funny “swish” sound that martial artists make when doing their moves. This swish sound is used every time they jump, hit or kick. They also always tend to let out a high-pitched scream before the fighting-action. The next time you watch a Chinese or Western martial art film, notice how their movements produce exaggerated sounds that don’t occur in real life. Furthermore, notice how they all sound the same.


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8. Boom!

If you are fond of watching action films, you might have noticed how common explosion scenes are. Another thing that you might have noticed is how sound effects are used in such scenes. Most of them sound alike. Another unrealistic use of explosion sound effects is in space movies such as Star Wars. In real life, explosions in space do not produce sound. Sound needs a medium, like air, to be heard. Since there is nothing but vacuum in space, there should be no sound. For the purpose of entertainment, however, sound effects are employed.


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7. The Universal Telephone Ring

Another often heard sound effect is the Universal telephone ring commonly used in television shows produced at Universal Studios in the 1970s and 1980s. This sound effect was made famous by the opening sequence of each episode of “The Rockford Files.” Since then, wherever the character is — at home, in the office or even deep down in a cave — all telephones ring with the same sound, like tittle-little-tittle-ling. Today, many sound mixers and editors dislike this sound effect because they think it is so artificial. Nevertheless, some contemporary TV shows and movies still use this famous ring. Some examples are “Quincy,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Leave it to Beaver,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Close Encounters with the Third Kind.”


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6. The Godzilla Roar

There have been several Godzilla movies and through the years, Godzilla’s physical characteristics always changed except for one — his famous roar. Godzilla’s roar has remained stable over the years. Although this sound effect can only be heard in Godzilla movies, no one can deny that it has been etched on the heart of every moviegoer who has heard it. His roar is so unique and unforgettable that no one guessed it was produced by Akira Ifukube just by rubbing a resin glove over strings of contrabass. Hollywood has produced so many monsters since then, but nothing matches the roar of Godzilla.


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5. Joker’s Laugh

The most sadistic laugh in history is that of Batman’s mortal enemy, Joker. The Joker’s Laugh is very distinct. It starts off quiet. Slowly, it becomes louder and low-pitched. As it gets louder and louder, its pitch gets higher and higher until it is haunting and almost deafening. Although Joker is only present in some Batman movies, his laugh set a trend that most movie villains followed. The next time you watch a movie, notice how the villain laughs. Does it sound like a slightly modified version of the Joker’s laugh?


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4. The Tarzan Yell

Who doesn’t know Tarzan? Who doesn’t know his yell? The Tarzan yell is the ululating yell of the internationally-known character, Tarzan. The yell was made famous by Johnny Weissmuller, a popular actor, in his films. Although the yell seldom varies in the movies, its meaning ranges from “Where are you, Jane?” to “I’ve been caged by some people from the city and I need to get out so whoever is there, whether you’re an ape or a person, please let me out or I’ll order a herd of elephants to come rescue me.” Yes, that yell can convey that long of a message. There is no available information on how Tarzan learned this very remarkable yodel but it has been used in all Tarzan movies except for “Tarzan the Magnificent.”


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3. The Goofy Holler

Another famous character-tied sound effect is the “Goofy Holler.” It is the cry that Disney character Goofy makes every time he falls, runs away from danger, is launched into the air or is struck with significant force. This “yaaah-hoo-hoo-hoo-hooey!” sound was first heard in “Clock Cleaners,” a Mickey Mouse short shown in 1937. Originally recorded by Hannes Schrolle, this stock sound effect has been used over and over again in many Disney movies, even when Goofy is not one of the characters. Some of these films are “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Muppet’s Wizard of Oz,” “Cinderella,” “Aquamania,” “The Rescuers,” and the recent film “Enchanted.” The only non-animated and non-Disney film ever to use this sound effect is “Street Fighter” which stars Jean-Claude Van Damme.


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2. The Castle Thunder

If you hear a thunderclap in a movie, there is a very high chance that it is a “castle thunder.” The castle thunder was originally recorded for the horror flick “Frankenstein” in 1931. Since then, it has been used in so many TV shows and films that it has become the default thunderclap sound effect. It is called “castle thunder” because the sound is usually heard when lighting illuminates an evil castle or a haunted house on a stormy night. It has also been used in positive light in many movies, such as “Back to the Future.” Other famous films that feature this sound effect include “Citizen Kane,” “Death Becomes Her,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Cleopatra.” It has been used in many animated films as well including “The Great Mouse Detective,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Bambi.” Today, the castle thunder is ubiquitous, seen in many TV shows and movies.


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1. The Wilhelm Scream

In the movie “Distant Drums,” produced in 1951 by the Warner Bros., Captain Quincy Wyatt leads a group of soldiers, wading through a swamp. Suddenly, one of the soldiers is bitten and pulled underwater by an alligator. The soldier lets out a scream. This is the first time that this scream — the Wilhelm scream — was heard. Because it is so realistic, it has been used in countless movies since. You might not have noticed it but the last Warner Bros. movie you have seen wherein a character screams may have used this sound effect. If you compile some of the scenes in movies that employed this sound effect, you will surely snicker at how the scream sounds the same in these incredibly diverse scenes. When someone falls off of a building, is shot or is attacked by an alien monster, this famous scream is heard. Even when the character is shot or stabbed through the lungs twenty times, when it is almost impossible to scream, you will still hear the Wilhelm scream. Some of the movies that used this ultimate sound effect include all “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” films, “Planet of the Apes,” “Batman Returns,” “Madagascar,” “Hercules,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” - which is also one of the Top Ten Blockbuster Movies of All Time.


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No matter how diverse films are in their plots, characters and special effects, some of the sounds remain the same. Next time you hear a scream, thunderclap, or villain laugh, take a moment to notice whether you’ve heard it before.

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