The glass breaking sound effect in cinema
The most common glass materials to shatter in a movie are windows and mirrors, followed by smaller objects like bottles and reading glasses. We’ll have a look at common sound design techniques for each one and examine their narrative implications as well.
Blade Runner, Die Hard: Gunshots and broken windows
Gunshots and the sound of glass shattering are a match made in heaven. The intense bang of the weapon only lasts 1-2 seconds, so the high end breaking and rattling sounds of glass debris are a natural accompaniment. In this classic scene below from Die Hard (1988) the villain Hans Gruber commands his partner to “Shoot the glass!”.
Stationed in an office building, there’s no shortage of material for the villains to destroy. Notice the brief pause between the sound of bullets being fired and the crashing glass that comes moments later. This gives the audience a time to watch and experience the gunfire, before panning over to the windows being destroyed. Dramatic orchestral music glues these perspectives together, creating the feeling that everything happened at once.
In this scene from Blade Runner (1982), Harrison Ford’s character Deckard takes shots at a rogue replicant named Zohra. Hit by the gunfire, Zohra proceeds to fall through multiple glass window panes. The initial breakthrough is followed by a soft tinkling sound, reflected in the gentle falling snow and warm analog synth music. This preparation frames the violence of the scene with an existential and melancholic mood.
Jurassic Park: Creaking sound of glass breaking slowly
Sometimes the weight of a heavy object placed on a pane of glass will be more than it can support. Instead of shattering all at once, we see and hear small sections of the glass fracturing. A great examples of this is found in the scene below from Jurassic Park:
Here we see a jeep dangling over the edge of a cliff, with one of the main characters laying face down on the car’s windshield. The sound designers use a combination of creaking and light tapping sounds to build tension toward the inevitable shattering sound as the glass buckles under her bodyweight.
2001 Space Odyssey, Scream, Breaking Bad: Shattered wine glasses, bottles, and beakers
Where windows represent a barrier between inside and outside, glass drinking containers symbolize something more personal. Rather than protecting us from the outdoors, cups and bottles contain a source of nourishment. We have more control over where they’re positioned and how we relate to them. So when they break in a film, it represents a loss of personal control.
Below is a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey where Dave knocks over a goblet of wine while eating a meal. For those familiar with the movie’s plot, this error symbolizes the end of his old way of life and the beginning of a new one. It also speaks to the character’s loss of control and the tragedy of human error.
Other movies have inverted this theme of carelessness with characters who deliberately throw their glassware. The scene below, from the horror-comedy movie Scream (1996), shows the protagonist launching beer bottles at the masked villain.
Foley used for broken drinking glasses is often shorter in length than broken windows. There’s not enough debris to justify the ambient tinkling after the break. Instead, you’ll hear impact sounds and other objects in the environment.
In the above scene from Breaking Bad, we hear a single, light glass tapping sound as the character prepares to throw his glass beaker. When it makes contact with the wall, the sound effect is louder and longer than it would be in real life. The pull-down map of the periodic table rolls back up suddenly and smacks against its holding case, extending the length of the impact and contributing to the dramatic effect.
A Christmas Story, Mortal Kombat: The crunch of reading glasses and sunglasses
The crunch of broken reading glasses has a special narrative role in movies, usually marking a moment of lost clarity and danger. Not only does it represent a loss of the ability to see, but it marks a return to the character’s natural state. For this reason, it represents a very human kind of vulnerability and dependency on technology.
Above we find a scene from the 1983 film A Christmas Story. The main character tries to shoot a rifle and knocks his glasses off into the snow. As he walks carefully and looks for find them, we can hear the gentle crunch of snow under his boots. In a brilliant moment of sound design, we hear a much louder and textural crunching sound when he steps on his reading glasses. It marks a moment of loss for him that harkens back to a similar, iconic scene from Lord of the Flies.
Sunglasses have some utility but are more likely to represent a character’s vanity or persona. Above is a classic example from the original Mortal Kombat movie. After repeatedly drawing attention to his expensive sunglasses during the movie, a monster snatches and crushes them in his palm, challenging Cage to a fight. The crunching glass sound effect lets the audience know what the monster could do to Cage’s body. Ultimately, the sound represents damage to his untouchable persona and forces him to confront his mortality.
Black Swan: Broken mirrors, shattered glass, and identity loss
Our self-image is carefully constructed over time and plays a central role in the creation of personal identity, so what better metaphor for identity-loss than the shattering of a mirror?
The 2010 thriller Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman as Nina, tells the story of a ballet dancer forced to confront her dark side. Throughout the movie, she practices her dance moves before mirrors in the practice studio, shaping her identity as a dancer by making changes to her physical form. During the scene shown above, her alter-ego manifests in the same room as her and she pushes it violently into a mirror, causing it to shatter.
Notice how the initial impact sound of shattered glass is followed by the shuffling of mirror shards across the floor. The audience perceives the delicate tinkling sound as an immediate threat, knowing that these sharp pieces of glass could injure the characters.
Broken mirrors take away a character’s self-image and broken reading glasses take away their view of the world as a whole. Exploding light bulbs offers a third take on the theme of vision loss by removing the source of light.
Green Mile: Exploding Light Bulbs
Exploding light bulbs combine buzzing sparks and electric surges with a short explosion of shattered glass. Green Mile (1999) features several scenes where an inmate’s extreme psychological states coincide with exploding lights.
Recording your own glass breaking sound effects
Foley artists take special precautions to capture the sound of shattered glass. Safety goggles and gloves should be used to guard against injury. As a destructive sound source, shattered glass comes at a higher than average cost. There are only so many opportunities to get the recording right. You’ll need to choose the right object for striking as well and pick a surface material where the tinkling glass shards will land; wood and concrete produce very different sounds.
The isolated sound of glass breaking rarely conveys the drama or intensity of a specific scene. Layering and combining it with other effects, like the deep thud of an impact or the echoing reverb of a large space, can intensify the experience.
An action sequence where the character flies through a window will include a whoosh sound prior to impact, a shattered glass sound, a deep impact thud sound as their body hits the floor, and a final scattering of glass as they slide across the floor. This layered approach to audio sequencing creates a more immersive and cinematic moment.
To save yourself time, money and possible injury, check out the royalty-free broken glass sound effects we’ve provided in this article. You can download and use them for free in any project. If you’re looking other sounds to use for your sequence, pick up a free copy of Audio Design Desk to access a complete library.