Live Music in Silent Film Era:

Live Music in Silent Film Era:


According to Cook (2005) the era of the silent film extends from the late 18th C, with the initial work by the Edison and Lumiere Brothers in America and France respectively, into the beginning of 1930s, when silent film paved way for the talkies. Nevertheless, a number of scholars locate the silent film era in America between 1910 and 1920, when it developed to a relatively organized film sector privileging the multi-real concept film following the nickelodeon’s waning, the move from original New Jersey and New York headquarters to Hollywood, and the competition decline from European filmmakers as a result of the World War I twelvereel feature by D.W Griffiths, (The Birth of a Nation 1915), which a major cinematic and commercial achievement indicating a number of the directions the sector was to adopt going into the 1920s. Whereas the term silent in respect to silent film refers to the lack of coordinated sound, early film was distinct from the silent film in other aspects (Cook, 2005).

 Live Music as an aspect of Silent Film Era

Presenting the silent films nearly all the time featured live music, beginning with a pianist at initial public show of film on December 28th, 1985 by Lumiere Brothers in Paris. At the beginning live music was viewed to be important contributing to the setting and offering the audience essential emotional cues. Small neighborhood and town cinema theaters normally had a pianist. As McCaffrey and Christopher (1999) point out at the start of the mid 1910s, huge city film theaters appeared to have ensembles or organists of musicians.  Huge theater organ were developed to bridge the gap between a huge orchestra and a mere piano soloist. The theater organs had a variety of unique effects, theatrical organs for instance the renowned Mighty Wurlitzer were capable of simulating certain orchestral sounds as well as various percussion effects for example the cymbals and bass drums and sound effects ranging from rolling thunder to galloping horses.

According to Greiveson and Peter (2004) starting from the era of the nickelodeon into the 190s, cinemas went along with live music performance, ranging from reed organs or single pianos to big orchestras, based on the location and nature of the venue that also varied from small front-store theatres to multi-seat picture palaces.   Certain studio features came with meticulously-composed melodic scores, and   nearly all with cue sheets, which hinted musical themes for particular scenes. In most cases, solo musicians that were professionals at reading and interpreting visual cues of the cinema improvised the score on the spot, and the exhibitors as well drew on huge published sheet music collections suitable for the stock scene forms.  The theaters within the silent era, apart from musical accompaniment, could deploy lecturers or descriptive talkers to narrate the cinema, in some instances from printed object of differing level of specificity. Some lecturers invented dialogue not included, for example on the inter-titles.  Within the urban immigrant communities, this element was depicted as a way of self-improvement, and it for a long time it continued to be used when the clarity of visual narrative was compromised.  With the feature cinema becoming the core product of the industry, the deployment of lecturers went down and the application of title cards for the purposes of dialogue got more realistic, and with time displacing exposition cards. Bowser (1994) posts that Warner Brothers in 1925 developed Vitaphone system, disc sound system which started the end of the silent cinema, producing The Jazz Singer, two years later, nevertheless silent cinema continue to be produced in the 1930s and the Modern Time (1936) of Charlie Chaplin is a number of occasions have been noted to be the last silent cinema. As a matter of fact, it is hard to envisage the cinematic experience in the course of the silent era due to the individualism in regard to the varieties both of projection and aural accompaniment.

Cook (2005) argues that even though the standard speed for projection was 16fps, exhibitors could project cinemas slower or faster than the talking speed to make sure that the film started and ended within the proscribed time. As a medium developed from theater, vaudeville, and still photography, silent cinema adapted a number of their presentational techniques as the era progressed, nevertheless, the cinema industry diligently worked to become more reputable, trying to delink its products from the once peddled by nickelodeons and vaudeville houses. Whereas older distribution methods and venues persevered, the grand film palaces of the silent period exaggerated the uplift movement’s goals to create a friendly-family, clean and safe environment for the middle-class orderly audience in an economical style with impressive orchestras, elegant lobbies and vast seating areas. In spite of the growth of the picture palace, smaller theaters remained the most prevalent with a number of them having a seating capacity of less than 500 seats. The Roxy Theater situated at the heart of New York City, which showed off for its 6,214 seats were indeed opulent, however it represented a unique case.

At the onset of the 1920s, there were about fifteen thousand theaters in the US and charging admission fees of between 10 and 25 cents. Out of this number, most of them were in rural areas as opposed to urban settings.  The theaters presented different entertainments in a balanced method that increased in length as the era progressed. A classical mid-1920s bill could comprise combinations of a novelty film or brief comedy, a live revue, a lantern slide show, news weekly, a feature film and a musical overture (McCaffrey and Christopher, 1999). 

Cinema exhibitors sough to start and wind up the program at particular times, which in some instance implied, apart from speeding up the projection, removing reels from the feature, or even leaving out some menu items, to put up with the repeated group audiences. Within the increase of the large theaters, the need for quick audience turnover declined and the multireel feature cinema developed into the core attraction.

According to McCaffrey and Christopher (1999) film scores during the initial stages of the silent film were either complied or improvised with theatrical or repertory music. Once complete of features became humdrum, nonetheless music was developed from the photoplay music by orchestra conductor, organist, the movie studio or the pianist and also comprised of a cue sheet.  Such cue sheets were normally very lengthy, with well developed notes about the moods and effects to watch for. Beginning with the very initial score by Carl Joseph Breil for D.W Griffith’s (The Birth of a Nation 1915), a groundbreaking epic it became quite common for the huge-budgeted movies to get to the exhibition theater with specifically original scores.  Nevertheless, the original full blown designates scores were developed earlier in 1908, by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov and Camille Saint-Saens for the Stenka Razin and The Assassination of the Duke of Guise.

When the pianists and organist used sheet music, they could still blend it with improvisatory flourishes to enhance the screen drama. Even if the special effects musical effects were not shown on the score, when an organist was performing a theater organ capable of producing a bizarre sound effect, for example the effects of galloping horses, it could be applied for theatrical horseback chases as Greiveson and Peter Kräme pointed out.

At the peak of the silent film era, movies were the main source of job o for the percussion musicians, mainly in America.  However, the overture of talkies, which simultaneously took place with the beginning of the Great Depression, was overwhelming to most musicians.  A couple o countries devised other processes of bringing creating sound to the silent film. The initial Brazilian cinema filmed fitas cantatas; featured operettas with musicians performing at the backstage. In Japan, movies not only had live music, but also a live narrator (the benshi) who provided character voices and commentary. The live narrator was a central feature of the Japanese silent film, and also offering translation for foreign mainly in American films.  The main reason for the persistent of the silent film in Japan well into the 1930s was due to the benshi’s popularity.

A couple of film scores thrive intact from this era and musicologist remain confronted with questions when they try to accurately reconstruct the remaining once. Scores could be differentiated as entire reconstructions of composed scores, lately composed for function, developed from the already existing theatrical libraries or can be improvised (Cook, 2005).

The enthusiasm in silent film scoring somewhat fell out o fashion in the course of 1960s and 1970s. Some argue that in a number of repertory cinemas and college film features, which audiences were to experience silent film as a visual pure medium, undisturbed by music. This notion could have been promoted by poor music track quality found in reprints of a number of silent films during that era. Of later, there has been restoration of interest in showcasing of silent films with excellent musical scores, either cue sheets or reworkings of epoch scores or composing of suitable initial scores.

A watershed occasion in this aspect according to McCaffrey and Christopher (1999), was Brownlow Kevin’s 1980s revival of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), filming a score by Davis Carl. Brownlow’s rival was then after distributed in America shortened or re-edited by Ford Francis Coppola accompanied with live music score developed by his father Carmine Coppola.

The revival of Metropolis (1927) in 1984 with novel score by composer and producer Moroder Giorgio was also another great event in the contemporary interest in live music in the silent films.  Although the modern-day score that comprised of pop songs produced by Freddy Mercury of Pat Benatar, Queen and Anderson Jon of Yes was contentious, they open a new chapter for novel approach to showcasing of typical silent films. Johannes Heesters (1903-2012), the German-Dutch film star is such one of the handful silent era actors who still remain active in the 21st C (McCaffrey and Christopher, 1999). 

Currently music ensembles perform contemporary and traditional scores of the silent movies. The traditional approach of the purveyors comprised organists for example Dennis James and pianist for example Donald Sosin, William P. Perry, Ben Model, Philip Carli, Gunter Buchwald, and Neil Brand. Music conductors for instance Carl Davis have compiled and written scores for a number of silent films. A part from producing fresh film scores, Brock Timothy has revived a number of scores by Charlie Chaplin. Joana Seaton, the wife to Sosin Donald focused in adding voice to the silent cinema, especially where there was onscreen music that gains from hearing the actual music that is being performed (Bowser, 1994).Silent films of this category according to Bowser (1994), comprise Phantom of the Opera by Julian with Virginia Pearson and Mary Philbin, Evangeline by Carew with Dolores del Rio and Lady of the Pavements by Griffith with Lupe Velez. 

Greiveson and Peter (2004) assert that the other modern pianists (such as Gabriel Thibaudeau and Stephen Home) normally work in not so traditional styles. The modern day orchestral ensembles are assisting to reintroduce typical silent cinemas to wider audience by applying a wide range of approaches and musical styles. Certain performers develop fresh compositions deploying traditional percussion instruments whereas some add modern harmonies, electronic sounds, sound design, improvisation and rhythm elements to improve the experience of watching the film. Some of the modern day ensembles from this group include Silent Orchestra, Club Foot Orchestra, and Alloy Orchestra. Other performers have established this practice as Zaragoza (Jaime Lopez, Spain) free and public offering his musicmuda blog editions of the most popular films of the silent era film.

As earlier indicated a silent cinema is a cinema that comprises solely of the picture, meaning it does not have sound.  The concept of blending motion picture together with recorded vocals or sound is almost as old as the motion picture itself, however prior to 1920s, a number of cinemas were silent. The days prior to the arrival of sound to the films are referred to as the silent period, among the historians and film scholars. The motion picture concept developed into complete maturity before talking picture replaced the silent films and many cinema buffs argue that the quality of film in a sense declined for a couple of years, before a novel sound medium was adapted for the cinemas. Because the silent cinema were not able to take the advantage of harmonized sound for purposes of dialogue, titles had to be edited in to elucidate the on-screen presentation to the film and add or improve critical dialog.

Presentation of silent cinema normally were not in actual sense silent, they were usually accompanied with live performance. Originally in the course of the motion picture industry development, it was appreciated that music was an integral component of any film, since provided the audience with expressive cues for the screen actions taking place (Koszarski, 1994). 

The silent film medium needed a greater focus on facial expression and body language to allow the audience to better comprehend what the actor was portraying and feeling on the screen. The contemporary audiences who are not well versed with these cinemas may appear to be overacting to an extreme level. Due to this silent cinemas or comedies seem to be more common in contemporary era as opposed to drama, since overacting tend to be a natural style of comedy.

Literally a number of the film cinemas were developed during the period leading the sound introduction, however a significant percentage of those cinemas (historians approximate about 85%) have been forever lost. Films of the first half of the twentieth century were developed on highly flammable, unstable nitrate film stock that needed vigilant preservation to conserve them from decomposing as time went by. A lot of the movies were not preserved, and as a result their prints gradually crumbed into the dust. Some of them were recycled and a good number were wiped out in studio fires.


The importance of the silent film epoch in cinema history cannot be overemphasized. In the course of the beginning of the 20th Century, a truly money-making famous art emerged closely bound to the modern America image. Because of the established of synchronized sound, the silent film period drew to an end, however the modes of consumption, exhibition, distribution, and production inaugurated in the course of the silent cinema period persisted, making the film industry what is today known to be.  


Bowser, E.  (1994).The Transformation of Cinema: 1907-1915. History of the American Cinema.   Berkeley: University of California Press.

Greiveson, Lee and Peter Krämer. (2004). The Silent Cinema Reader.  New York: Routledge.

Koszarski, R. (1994).  An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. History of the American Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press.  . 

McCaffrey, D. W. and Christopher P. J.(1999).  Guide to the Silent Years of American Cinema.  London: Greenwood Press.

Cook, D. A. (2005). A History of Narrative Film, 2nd edition. New York: W.W. Norton.

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