The History of Sound in Cartoons
Silent Film and Slapstick
The cartoon sound tradition goes back to the silent era. Silent films were accompanied by live musicians who used audio to establish tone and punctuate motion. Slapstick comedy was one of the most popular forms of silent film. The genre’s sense of humor borrowed from clowning and vaudeville, where movement was used to make the audience laugh.
Silent films needed more than imagery to pull off their gags. It was important that the audience felt the pratfalls and pies to the face. That’s where fun and wacky musical instruments entered the picture. Sure, producers couldn’t accompany the image of a gunshot with the sound of an actual gunshot, but they could match the image with a percussive jolt.
It didn’t matter if the musical sound resembled the real sound, so long as it matched the mood of the scene: any goofy moment could benefit from the wail of a siren whistle.
Movement that wouldn’t typically have a sound in the real world could be accompanied by musical punctuation to give it life. When someone falls in real life, their impact makes noise but the fall itself is silent. Slapstick matches that downward motion with a descending musical line to make the fall funnier.
In this way, an abstract relationship between sound and motion was firmly established in the silent era. Sound became an animating force that reflected the reality it depicted without aiming for realism. While this style went out of fashion in live-action comedies of the sound era, it was taken to new heights by cartoons.
Mickey Mousing and the Golden Age of Animation
Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks’ Steamboat Willie (1928) was not the first cartoon with a soundtrack, but it was the first to truly use sound effects successfully. The production went to great lengths to make the sound an active part of the film.
Walt Disney became convinced that sound was the future of cinema after seeing The Jazz Singer (1927) — but the notion of a sound cartoon seemed far-fetched to many because of the inherent non-reality of the cartoon space. What would that sound like?
Disney hosted a screening of the silent unfinished film to test its feasibility. His team performed live sound to the picture. Composer Wilfred Jackson played the mouth organ, co-director Ub Iwerks played pots and pans, animator Johnny Cannon provided sound effects on a slide whistle, and Walt Disney mumbled gibberish for the dialogue. Essentially, it was a more sophisticated approach to the silent film method.
The result was an overwhelming success: “The effect on our audience,” Disney said of the performance, “was nothing less than electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion.”
This early short displayed many of the conventions of cartoon sound. There is hardly a distinction made between sound and music. Just about everything happens in sync with everything else.
In the clip below, Mickey whistles, which is music. The turning boat wheel isn’t music, but it happens in time with the music. Everything comes together into a controlled, unified whole.
This control is the major benefit of sound in animation. A live action musical number can be carefully choreographed to fit inside a meter, but reality will never perfectly match musical time. Control is total in animation because everything is invented from scratch.
Carl Stalling and Mickey Mousing
The conventions introduced in Steamboat Willie were still underdeveloped. The soundtrack was steady to the point of being restrictive. It coincided with the motion and sound effects, but it avoided rapid shifts in tone. In other words, it matched, but it wasn’t particularly expressive.
This changed when Walt Disney hired Carl Stalling, a composer who had cut his teeth accompanying silent films. Together they developed a style that took cartoon soundtracks to bold, expressive heights.
This style was known as Mickey Mousing because of its association with Disney and Stalling’s early work. It is the process of carefully syncing music frame by frame with the animation on screen.
Film scores had always unofficially Mickey Moused. Their point was to match and comment on action. Mickey Mousing takes this approach a step further. Music accompanies just about every gesture, movement, or emotion. Composers scoring live action can take a step back and let reality speak for itself. Stalling proved that cartoons needed a more active approach.
Stalling pushed Disney to experiment with more striking combinations of sound and music. Disney developed Silly Symphonies, which began with musical tracks. The motion was then built around the music with a precision only possible in the animated medium.
Stalling’s brand of manic orchestral compositions blossomed when he became the musical director of Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies for Warner Bros. Stalling’s compositions transitioned seamlessly from original melodies to European classical music to the American songbook, all the while matching the cartoons with meticulous detail. This style was as elastic and boundless as the worlds he scored, and it became the dominant approach in cartoon music.
This approach further blurred the line between sound effects and scoring in cartoons. Stalling’s score carries most of the Road Runner’s movement in the clip above.
The score is supported by occasional sound effects. The Road Runner’s speed is illustrated by a doppler effect as he zips by. Everything else is conveyed by the tempo and tone of the score.
Goofy Sounds and Library Tracks: Cartoon Sound for Television
Cartoons Move to TV
Cartoons from the Golden Age of Animation (roughly, 1928 to 1960) were released theatrically. Cartoons shifted from the silver screen to television at the end of this era. Production methods changed to meet the demands of TV.
Episodes were churned out faster on smaller budgets. Characters became stiffer and walk cycles were recycled. Cartoons put a heavier emphasis on dialogue and story than intricate gags.
Cartoon soundtracks were impacted by this shift. Golden Age cartoons received original scores performed by staff orchestras. TV cartoons used library music that was not as carefully integrated into the motion. The music largely existed in the background.
With the new limitation on orchestral accompaniment came a stronger emphasis on sound effects.
Relying on Sound Effects
Scooby Doo, Where Are You! illustrates the difference in approach. The music here is reused throughout the series. The themes have been edited to match the scene, but they don’t create motion and can’t function as sound effects.
The sound design is denser than earlier cartoons. Sound in the Golden Age could hardly be called minimalist, but the different elements fit into a unified whole. Here, there is a clear distinction between music, foley, and background sound.
Goofy sounds are much more prominent. This is what most people think of when they hear “cartoon sound effects”. Everything from Scooby’s percussive footsteps to the car break shriek as he comes to a halt screams “this is a cartoon”.
If 1928 through 1960 was the Golden Age of Animation, this era could be called the Golden Age of Cartoon Sound. Make no mistake, these whacky sounds had always been a part of the tradition. They were just subservient to the musical score. In this era, they became the dominant sonic force that set cartoon reality apart from our reality.
A version of Mickey Mousing can still be seen in the clip above. All of Scooby’s motions are given exaggerated sounds. They just aren’t occurring in the score.
Sound related gags could compensate for the era’s dip in budget. Off-screen gags became especially prominent in this era because they were cheaper.
Here The Flintstones sets up a gag. Barney’s finger is caught in his bowling ball. When he throws it, it will carry him along to a painful impact.
We know the impact is coming. Why show it? The animators allow Barney to zip off-screen, leaving the viewer with nothing but an exaggerated crash. We then cut to the aftermath.
This approach is cheaper than animating the collision. It’s also funnier because it leaves the impact to the audience’s imagination. Sound alone can create humor.
Approaching Realism: Sound in Contemporary Cartoons
Cartoon sound has evolved with the cartoons themselves. Some modern cartoons have taken the trend established in the 60s further, moving closer to something like realism (albeit with the flavor for exaggeration and the impossible that sets the medium apart). Others revitalize the approach of Stalling and his contemporaries.
Most modern cartoons live somewhere in between the two approaches. Their music tends to live in the background while their heightened reality calls for absurd sound effects.
The very form of the cartoon allows for a freedom and imagination mostly absent from live action sound design. Cartoon sound, whether realistic or totally absurd, is able to make us believe in a completely fabricated reality.
How to Use Cartoon Sound Effects
Now that we’ve delved into the history of cartoon sound, let’s consider how to approach a given cartoon. Should you treat the world as basically real, but faster and louder? Should a character’s motion be accompanied by a wacky sound effect or a musical phrase? It all depends on the cartoon world’s logic.
Getting Wacky: Exaggeration and Abstraction in Animation Sound Design
Cartoons tend to be bigger than life, but most mimic reality up to a point. They’re dominated by human or human-like characters, and their worlds are governed by a loose set of rules. That’s the magic of animation. It can mimic the rules of reality and then upend them to comical or fantastical effect.
Different cartoons have different levels of rule-following. Shorts from the Golden Age have the loosest rules. Animated sitcoms like The Simpsons and sagas like Avatar: The Last Airbender set rules for their worlds that they don’t break. Yes, there are magical animal hybrids and element bending in Avatar. There is also death, geographical distance, and limitations to a character’s abilities. You won’t find such hinderances in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
A cartoon’s sound will always be more exaggerated than a live-action film because things move and appear differently in animation. Still, there are sounds in Scooby Doo! that would be entirely out of place in Avatar.
Rule of Thumb: The Less Realistic the Film, the More Abstract the Sound
Take a look at this scene from Ted Lasso. The characters are eating very spicy food. It would be pretty strange if they opened their mouths and the sound of a train whistle came out, right?
Yet this is exactly what happens in a similar scene from Scooby Doo! And the Monster of Mexico, but here it makes perfect sense.
Realistic sound in this scene would be equally strange. Scooby, after all, breathes steam and fire.
Cartoons are more abstract than live action, and their sound reflects this. Cartoon sound is often symbolic. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily match what is happening. It might match the meaning of what is happening.
Cartoon images do this to begin with. The Ted Lasso scene shows what spicy food is really like. The Scooby Doo! clip shows what it feels like. Ted feels like steam is coming out of his mouth. Steam does come out of Scooby’s mouth. Sound takes a step further into the symbolic. We don’t just hear the steam, we hear a train whistle. Why?
An abstract connection is created here. The feeling of spice is connected to the feeling of heat. The feeling of heat is connected to steam and smoke. Steam and smoke are connected to steam-engine trains. Steam-engine trains are connected to the train whistle, their most identifiable sound.
The strange thing is that, no matter how abstract, everyone gets it. The sound is symbolic but immediately understood. The association heightens the impact of the cartoon world the same way a slide whistle heightens a slapstick fall.
Foley in Cartoons
Cartoons aren’t all abstract sound. Like most films, they contain foley. Foley is the reproduction of everyday sound effects added in post-production to enhance audio quality. Cartoon foley is distinct from live action foley. Live action foley is used to mimic realistic environments. Animation foley has to match the pace of its world, which tends to be fast and unrealistic.
As the clip above illustrates, the sound of a real crab wouldn’t match the movement of Mr. Krabs in SpongeBob Squarepants. A cartoon foley artist has to analyze the appearance of a character before they create sounds. What does their body look like? How does it move? What would that sound like? They then have to figure out how to make that sound.
Mr. Krabs is in a shell that is hard and hollow. His legs are tiny and move quickly. The foley artist took a percussive approach to his body. She clinked on a sea shell for his general movements and tapped crab legs on a hard surface for his steps.
Music As Sound Effect
Foley is minimal in Golden Age cartoons because a carefully orchestrated cue made much of it redundant. If a gesture can be encapsulated by music, there’s no need to give it a source sound.
Cartoons in the TV era generally didn’t have original scores, but the musical approach to motion stuck. Musical instruments created many of their goofy sound effects.
Musical Sounds for Movement
Music used for motion is usually quite simple. It tends to be a single sound that matches the action in length and quality. Above, a thrown shoe is accompanied by a slide whistle to match its trajectory.
Simple musical gestures can float above a more complex score. This scene from Animaniacs features a rapidly shifting, Stalling-esque score. Mood, emotion, and intention are conveyed by music. Wacko and Dot are accompanied by pitched percussion that rises as they do. This percussion is in the key of the underlying score, and therefore serves as punctuation in the music and the action.
Using Complex Cues
A fully developed cue can give motion nuance and character that a single instrument can’t. This approach also requires less foley. Foley was used in Looney Tunes to match important on screen action. Everything else was handled by abstract sound and music.
Here we see the distinction between music and foley in old cartoons. Sylvester opens a door, which makes a realistic sound. He then tiptoes down the hall, but there is no sound effect. The score does all the work. The tempo matches his pace and the melody matches his intention. Putting in toe steps would be overkill.
Compare this to a modern cartoon like SpongeBob. Mr. Krabs will always be accompanied by footsteps regardless of the music in the scene. The lesson here: different cartoon worlds have different styles and rules. Sound should always reflect that logic.
Cartoon Sound Effects in Live Action Films
Film pioneer Maya Deren called cinematography “the creative use of reality.” Films record something that is empirically there and edit it to create a world that does not exist. Most live action filmmakers strive to create the illusion of reality, but it is still an illusion. Filmmakers will sometimes use sound to call attention to this illusion.
Live action films can benefit from well placed cartoon sound effects if the moment calls for it. Cartoon sound effects are striking in live action because of their dissonance. It tells us how we should view the cinematic reality. The use of cartoon sound in live action breaks down into two categories: sound that sells the world, and sound that betrays the world.
Sound That Sells the World
Sound that sells the world helps an audience buy into a movie’s reality — or a movie’s refusal to buy into a fixed reality. A film that ventures into the absurd needs to signify this to its viewer. If this isn’t established early on, the audience’s expectations will be misplaced, and their suspension of disbelief will be betrayed. Sound is an excellent way to establish the rules (and the lack thereof) of a world.
It’s important to note that many sci-fi or fantasy films would not benefit from cartoon sounds. These films are committed to making their world logical and consistent because they already depend on a suspension of disbelief. Films that benefit from cartoon sounds exist in self-aware, non-real spaces.
Think Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), Sorry to Bother You (2018), or Barbie (2023). These are anarchic, postmodern films that work because they refuse logic and consistency. They are essentially live action cartoons. They let us know that we are in an ecstatic world of images.
Sound That Betrays the World
[CW: the following clip contains disturbing content. Viewer discretion advised]
Cartoon sound effects can be disturbing in different contexts. They can signify the dissonance between reality and how we’re looking at it.
Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) is a disturbing satire of the relationship between media, violence, and American culture. This scene turns the main character’s life of domestic and sexual abuse at the hands of her father into a harmless sitcom. It reflects the use of entertainment to dissociate from and perpetuate trauma.
Her father gives a wink and a smile when he refers to his abuse. The soundtrack gives his wink a charming, cartoony ping. The effect is extremely disturbing. Sound that betrays the world lets us know that we are not seeing things as they truly are. We are not in a world of images. We are in a world hopelessly obscured by images and our addiction to them. The abstraction of cartoon sound design is another layer between us and what is real.