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Captioning Key - Sound Effects and Music

  1. Sound Effects
  2. Music
    1. Background Music
    2. Lyrics

Sound Effects

Sound effects are sounds other than music, narration, or dialogue. They are captioned if it is necessary for the understanding and/or enjoyment of the media.

  • A description of sound effects, in brackets, should include the source of the sound. However, the source may be omitted if it can be clearly seen onscreen.

    Correct Examples

    • [dried leaves crunching]
    • [coins jangling]
    • [house moaning]
    • [staticky voice singing]
    • [siren screaming]
    • [baseball smacking]
    • [creaking chair rocking]
    • [horse galloping]
    • [child giggling]
    • [dog whimpering]
    • [cat scratching]
  • Described sound effects may be combined with onomatopoeia.

    The described sound effect should be on the first line of the caption, separate from the onomatopoeia.

    Both described sound effects and onomatopoeias must be lowercased.

    Correct Examples

    • [runner gulping]
      glug, glug, glug
    • [goat crying]
    • [springs bouncing]
      boing, boing, boing
    • [wet towel slapping]
    • [rain falling]
      pitter-patter, pitter-patter
    • [beast bellowing]
    • [monkey calling]
      hoo, hoo, hoo
    • [heart throbbing]
      thud-dub, thud-dub
    • [evil laughing]
    • [robot sounding]
      beep, beep, boop, boop
    • [radio tuning]
      warm crackling
  • Offscreen sound effects should be italicized, if italics are available.
  • Place the description of the sound effect as close as possible to the sound source.
  • For offscreen sound effects, it is not necessary to repeat the source of the sound if it is making the same sound a few captions later.

    Correct Example

    First Caption
    [pig squealing]

    Second Caption
    [squealing continues]
  • Use punctuation to indicate speed or pace of sound.

    Correct Example

    [clock chiming]

    [gun firing]
    bang, bang, bang
  • A sound represented by a repeated word is not hyphenated. A sound represented by two different words is hyphenated.

    Correct Example

    Repeated Words
    [doorbell ringing]
    ding, ding

    Two Different Words
    [doorbell ringing]
  • When describing a sustained sound, use the present participle form of the verb. When describing an abrupt sound, use the third person verb form.

    Correct Example

    Sustained Sound
    [dog barking]
    woof, woof…woof

    Abrupt Sound
    [dog barks]
  • Caption background sound effects only when they are essential to the plot.
  • When possible, use specific rather than vague, general terms to describe sounds.

    Correct Example

    [bird singing]

    [robin singing]
  • Never use the past tense when describing sounds. Captions should be synchronized with the sound and are therefore in the present tense.
  • Use familiar, age-appropriate vocabulary to match the age of the intended audience.

    Correct Examples

    • [dog barking]
    • [phone ringing]
      bring, bring
    • [baby sneezing]
    • [clock ticking]
    • [bird calling]
      tweet, tweet
    • [car racing]


Background Music

  • A description (in brackets) should be used for instrumental/background music when it's essential to the understanding of the program.
  • Offscreen background music description should be italicized.
  • If possible, the description should include the performer/composer and the title.
  • Use descriptions that indicate the mood. Be as objective as possible. Avoid subjective words, such as "delightful," "beautiful," or "melodic."
    Correct Examples
    [Louis Armstrong plays
    "Hello Dolly"]

    [lyrical flute solo]

    [pianist playing
    the national anthem]
  • Beware of misplaced modifiers in descriptions.
    [frantic piano playing]
    [frantic piano music]
  • Nonessential background music should be captioned by placing a music icon (♪) in the upper right corner of the screen and should never be captioned at the expense of dialogue.
  • Do not caption background music with a duration under 5 seconds.



  • If music contains lyrics, caption the lyrics verbatim. The lyrics should be introduced with the name of the artist and the title in brackets, if the presentation rate permits.

    Correct Examples

    • [Ella Fitzgerald singing
      “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”]
    • [The Beatles singing
      “Come Together”]
    • [Fred Rogers singing
      “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”]
  • Caption lyrics with music icons (♪). Use one music icon at the beginning and end of each caption within a song, but use two music icons at the end of the last line of a song. A space should be inserted after the beginning music icon (♪) and before the ending music icon(s).

    Correct Examples

    • ♪ I’m pickin’ up good vibrations ♪♪
    • ♪ And I can’t wait to get
      on the road again ♪♪
  • Use descriptions that indicate the mood. Be as objective as possible. Avoid subjective words, such as “delightful,” “beautiful,” or “melodic”.

    Correct Examples

    • [monotone boy croons]
    • [hypnotic orchestra serenades]
    • [ethereal choir harmonizes]
    • [animated quartet chimes]
    • [soporific voice mesmerizes]
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Tags: captioning-key