This module covers early film and the silent-film era. “Silent” film is a misnomer because movies made during this period often had sound, but it was performed live as opposed to being prerecorded. Early attempts at synchronization were not very successful. This module will look at the sound and music from this period.
Student Outcomes
• Develop a deeper understanding of the silent-film era.
• Be able to dispel myths about the silent era.
• Understand how film music was already fully formed during this period, if not actually recorded.
• Understand how film music was disseminated in the silent era without recording.
Kinetoscope and Kinetophone (1894)
In 1877, Thomas Edison introduced sound recording with the phonograph. His team looked for a way to record sound and picture simultaneously, culminating in the release of the kinetoscope—predecessor to the motion picture projector—and kinetophone. The kinetophone is a kinetoscope with a phonographic machine inside to reproduce sound.
These machines were made for a single viewer to use. The viewer looked through a viewfinder and handcranked the machine to run the film. Inside the machine was a film loop. This was a great advancement over previous flip-card devices, but it was still a “peep show,” not a projected film (which we will discuss later when we study the Lumiere Brothers).
As mentioned, the kinetophone was a kinetoscope with an Edison-type cylinder phonograph tucked inside. By the end of the 19th century, there was not yet electrical amplification of sound waves, so the sound was recorded and reproduced mechanically via hard wax cylinders and acoustical means of amplification (conical horns can acoustically concentrate or amplify the sound). Earphones supplied the sound to the listener. These were not electrical earphones like we have today, but were tubes that transmitted the sound acoustically, like old-fashioned airplane earphones. (Some older students may be familiar with this type of earphone).
The synchronization between the film loop and the cylinder was not very good. As a result, only basic synchronization was used (e.g., music to accompany a dancing girl or a marching band; of the 55 titles in Edison’s 1895 catalog, one-third were march or dance films).
Nickelodeon (1894–1915)
The nickelodeon was the natural home for the kinetoscope and kinetophone. Nickelodeons were like popular arcades and little theatres; they cost a nickel to get in and perhaps an additional nickel to run one of the machines.
Nickelodeons were very popular. By 1907, there were 3,000 nickelodeons across the United States. They were not fancy but were instead affordable places for popular entertainment.
The following are some examples of early Edison kinetoscope films. As you can see, these brief films feature dancing girls, which has its lineage to the days of burlesque. After all, if you are going to drop a nickel to see a little show in a new-fangled viewing device, what would you most like to see? How about a dancing girl? What other subject matter do you think would earn the most nickels? Notice one of these films is hand-painted. This was a common technique at the time.
Lumiere Brothers: “Cinematographie”
In Paris, the Lumiere brothers developed the projected motion picture. They designed and built the “cinematographie,” which was both a camera and the projector. This is where the word “cinema” comes from. (As an aside, “lumiere” is French for “light”.) In 1895, the Lumiere brothers were able to show their films to audiences in Paris. Initially the films were ignored by the press, but audiences went wild, and the films became very popular.
To accompany these films and popularize them with Parisian café society, the brothers hired a pianist—common performers in cafés of the time. These pianist-accompanied screenings started the precedent of live musical accompaniment. Edison’s kinetoscope film loops had been either silent or accompanied by music from a very loosely synchronized cylinder phonograph.
In combining music and image, one thing was clear: The image was primary and the audio secondary, as far as the audience was concerned. We will look at an interesting example of this from the Lumiere screenings. But before we do so, it should be emphasized that the primacy of the image is a concept that still applies today. This primacy is biological in nature; if the brain is given competing information, the visual information always trumps the aural information. For example, if you see a lion approaching but don’t hear the lion, you will run away. By contrast, if you hear a lion but don’t see it, you will more likely look around until you see it—and then run away.
In film music today, the music is still considered to be at the service of the image. If the music and the image contradict each other, either a sense of irony will be imparted, or the viewer will find the music inappropriate—or perhaps ignore it. The picture will remain the primary concern of the film viewer. This is rooted in our biology and our fight-or-flight survival instinct.
In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers screened one film in particular that elicited an unexpected response. This movie, L’arrivee d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat), could be considered the first horror film. The film showed a train heading towards the camera. Numerous reports claim that some audience members got out of the seats and ran off when they saw the oncoming train. While this may seem preposterous today, it must be remembered that few people had ever seen any kind of moving image before. An oncoming train may have been just a bit too nerve-wracking for some in the audience to
handle, and why take a chance? No one wants to get hit by a train! Let’s watch this film. Try not to run away!
Of course, projected films soon made their way into the nickelodeon. While contemporary vaudeville theatres delivered three or more hours of entertainment for 25 or 50 cents, nickelodeons featured shows that were 10 to 30 minutes long for just a nickel—quite the bargain!
Why Music?
For some curious reason, it is often asked why music was added to these new silent films. It’s a bit of a peculiar question. For instance, why was music added to video games? One day perhaps scholars will ponder that question, while for us, we can scarcely conceive of video games without music. Let’s consider some of the multiple explanations.
The Lumieres’ projector was very noisy, and it was positioned in the middle of the room around the audience; early film screenings had no projection booths. As a result, the audience sat in close proximity to this loud, mechanical, whirring device. (One Russian filmmaker, Dziga Vertov, even took his name from the sound of the camera.) So having a pianist or other music would help distract from the projector noise.
Also, as the films did not involve any live actors or any dialogue, there was nothing to indicate to the audience to be quiet. Why would they not talk through the film?
The early theater-going experience: Patrons talk through the silent version of Blackmail, featuring Anny Ondra. Note the piano player in the background.
• “Oh, look how interesting this is!”
• “Have you ever seen anything like it!”
Film was a new experience, so the addition of music helped cue the audience to remain quiet, as they did at live theater productions.
Indeed, early promoters of film wanted to make it a “theatrical” experience. It would have been very easy to market the early film screenings as a science experiment or demonstration. However, the profit motive indicated that there was more potential for this as a form of popular entertainment than just a technological novelty. Therefore, promoters used music to make it entertaining.
At the time, films were a new form of entertainment and while novelty is interesting—in order to be comprehensible to an audience—the new art form needed to be associated with other forms of popular entertainment in order to sell tickets. Generally, people won’t buy a ticket to something that is unknown—especially if money is tight. By featuring music and a familiar narrative, this new form of entertainment became relatable to viewers. For example, the dancing girls harkened back to burlesque, and short narratives were familiar from the theater. At the time, burlesque, vaudeville, and the theater all used live music. So incorporating music with this new art form was an obvious decision.
As it turns out, sitting silently in a room with a large group of people can be very awkward—every little sound sticks out. If you shift in your seat, fidget, or drop something, everyone hears it. If the audience knows to be quiet during the show, but there is no music or sound, it is just uncomfortable and strange. The longer this goes on, the more awkward this experience can be. Having music as part of the show helps to “soften” the natural rumbling of an audience, creating a more relaxing experience for all.
We have already discussed—via Larry Timm and Claudia Gorbman—many ideas about how film music “functions” or operates with the moving image. And, not unsurprisingly, all these ideas apply to “silent” films as well. Any of the benefits that Timm’s “functions” or Gorbman’s ideas impart to sound-synchronized films also apply to these early films too. The only difference is, of course, the music must be performed live to the film.
Early Projected Film Developments, 1904–09
The five-year period from 1904 to 1909 was an interesting one for cinema; projected film was beginning to replace the kinetoscope in nickelodeons and interesting new films were being made.
At this time, films were getting longer. Many scholars and theoreticians have credited Wagner with influencing film music, and this particular example is of notable interest. It’s a 22-minute version of Wagner’s late opera Parsifal, which ordinarily is several hours long. Even at 22 minutes, the film needed to be loaded onto several reels.
In France in 1904, Leon Gaumont made an attempt at synchronization with his chronophone. This early attempt to create sound movies shows how visionaries were thinking ahead, even if the technology wasn’t quite there yet.
Edison likewise attempted (and claimed) synchronization with non-projected film in his kinetophone, but it didn’t work well. The chronophone didn’t work well either, but it was nonetheless a first attempt at synchronizing projected film with prerecorded sound.
In 1906, the Audion tube—an electronic amplifying vacuum tube—was invented, but it was yet not in commercial use. All sound was still recorded and reproduced mechanically and acoustically at this time. (We’ll discuss the audion tube later, but at this point, it was still in its infancy in the laboratory.)
At this time, nickelodeons were still going strong, even as they were transitioning from the little personalized viewing devices to the showing of short projected films.
In addition to pianists, theaters also employed what was then called “soundmen.” These people created live sound effects to go along with silent movies.
These early motion pictures give us a look at what the times were like—what clothes and costumes were made of, how people moved, what the streets looked like, and so on.
As these films did not use spoken dialogue, they could be enjoyed by the many immigrants coming to the United States at the time, in some ways helping these new arrivals assimilate into the new culture.
Use of Music
Another area of interest to historians, musicologists, and scholars of film music is how music was used at the turn of the 20th century.
During the early 1900s, there was a move away from the arcade-like, coin-operated machine nickelodeon toward movie theatres. Many nickelodeons ripped out the arcade machines and installed seats for viewing projected films. Admission was still a nickel.
Typically, nickelodeons featured a pianist to accompany the projected films. Pianos cover the entire range of an orchestra in terms of pitch (high notes and low notes). You need only one musician to play the piano, and it is a cheaper instrument than say, a theater organ. Because nickelodeons were considered discount entertainment, the pianist was the natural solution to supplying music for the moving image.
Some people criticized early film accompanists for not doing a good job, or for playing inappropriate music during films. At this point, playing piano for the movies was at the bottom rung of musician jobs, but this would change over the years. But in the early 1900s, films were still a discount novelty, and with admission only a nickel, nickelodeons could only afford to hire the worst or most desperate players. As films become more and more popular, there was an increasing need for accompanists to play along with the films.
As more and more nickelodeons began screening films with piano accompaniment, music publishers jumped on this new market as an opportunity to sell sheet music especially compiled for use with films. Ernö Rapée, one of the most prolific symphonic conductors at this time, put together a well-known anthology of music to accompany films. These anthologies covered all kinds of moods, and the sheet music was categorized by mood and style. These anthologies represent the sound of film music from that period.
Table of Contents from Ernö Rapée’s anthology of music for use with films. As you can see from the headings, the sheet music was categorized by mood and style.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith released Birth of a Nation, the first feature-film blockbuster, which, despite its many flaws, was a huge hit and inspired a wave of silent-feature films. Because Birth of a Nation featured a lot of music, it codified an expectation of music to accompany these new feature films.
Even if the films of the silent era had no sound, some directors used music during filming to help get the actors in the mood of a scene. John Ford did this in his early silent westerns. In some cases, intertitle cards even indicate what song lyrics are being sung, which essentially forces an accompanist to play the correct song. In this and other ways, Ford was very savvy about using music even during the “silent” period. You can read more about Ford’s use of on-set music in the silent era in Kathryn Kalinak’s How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford.
Four Types of Music During the Silent Period
Piano Improvisation
Piano improvisation was a prevalent form of cinematic accompaniment during the silent period, and as mentioned, pianos were less expensive to install than theater organs. Improvisation means that the pianist is free to draw upon whatever musical material they are familiar with, or make up his or her own on the spot and use that to accompany the film. There is more freedom with improvisation. However, some accompanists were criticized for making inappropriate choices during films—for example, playing a comic song during a dramatic moment or a scary chord during a love scene. Some pianists were known to make fun of the films musically if they didn’t like them. This sort of parody—like an early version of Mystery Science Theatre—was not always appreciated by the audience. As mentioned in the previous session, working as a nickelodeon pianist at this point in film history was on the bottom rung of jobs for a musician. That said, many improvisers had great talent and respect for the films, and many film composers actually began their careers as piano accompanists to silent films.
Published Musical “Cue Sheets”
Once it was established that most theaters had organists or pianists, it was easy for a film studio to send along what was called “cue sheets” with the film. These would provide a suggested musical accompaniment for each scene in the film. This way, an accompanist would not need to preview the film and could more easily provide appropriate music.
Prearranged Scores—Derived from Familiar Musical Sources
Thematic cue sheet for the Paramount film The Popular Sin
More than just a “cue sheet,” which might simply be a list of well-known popular tunes or moods, prearranged scores were actual sheet music for the accompanist. This was derived from familiar musical sources, which were fairly straightforward for the film studio to compile.
Original Score
Some filmmakers might commission an original score, which could then be sent out as sheet music. This is, of course, the advent of original film music, music composed specifically for a film. Note how this is already happening during the silent-film period—the films might be silent, but musical scores were already being disseminated as sheet music for musicians to play live!
Movie Palaces
Built in the early 1920s, the Loew’s Inwood (NY) seated nearly 2,000 patrons.
With the popularity of feature length films—beginning with Birth of a Nation in 1915—there was a growing audience for film, and with that came a need for larger theatres. By the 1920s, the construction of large, beautiful, ornate movie palaces began, seating huge numbers of people. Birth of a Nation was seen by millions of people, and these new movie palaces could often seat several thousand people at a single screening.
Beginnings of Mass Culture
Huge movie audiences and the dissemination of information from wireless (radio) communication helped usher in a mass culture in the United States. The ability for many people to gather and witness a film, concert, or play in a single place or gather at home to listen to the radio had a huge impact upon the growth of mass entertainment. People were now hearing music—not by creating it themselves, but on the airwaves or at giant movie palaces.
Castro Theatre, 1922
The Castro Theatre in San Francisco is one of the country’s great movie palaces, and it still shows films today. It was built in 1922 and seats over 1,400 people. This theater, as were many other palaces across the country, isn’t even located in the downtown area of the city, but instead in a small neighborhood. This is an indicator of the popularity of movies during the 1920s and the significant growth of mass entertainment during that era.
The Castro Theatre still looks remarkably the same. The original chandelier was damaged and replaced in the 1930s with one with an anachronistic deco-style. The Wurlitzer organ is not the theater’s original organ. The current Wurlitzer is an old theatre organ, but it was installed in 1982, replacing a Conn electric organ—most likely not the original organ either.
These large movie palaces often had theater organs. A theater organ is different than a church organ in that it also has percussion attachments, bells, and other sounds. A church organ is much more limited in the number of stops available. Both are interesting instruments in that they are built into the building, and they are part of the architecture. What people frequently call the “organ”—the keyboards they see the organist playing—is really just the console. It controls the organ itself, which is a huge array of pipes and
instruments that live in the walls behind louvers, which control the volume. You can see the slats or louvers move if you sit in the balcony of the Castro Theatre or similar old movie palaces. You can also hear that some instruments, like the bells or the tambourine, clearly come from one side of the theater or the other. These organs, whose actual pipes vibrate with compressed air, are remotely controlled by several stacked keyboard manuals and foot-operated pedal board.
The movie palaces would also often have its own orchestras and conductors as well. These orchestras could play music from scores that were disseminated for the films by the movie studios or use a numbered book with all kinds of cues in it (as we’ve seen from the Rapée compilation example). So, if for instance, there was a romantic scene, the conductor could indicate which number the orchestra should play from the numbered book.
Film Scores of the “Silent” Period
The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (1908) had an original score composed by the French composer Camille Saint-Saens. This is the first known original score. Saint-Saens wrote some other famous pieces like “The Swan” and “Aquarium” from Carnival of Animals, which are sometimes heard in film scores. Saint-Saens was an organist himself and comes from the late Romantic period. So this is an example of a genuine Romantic period composer writing a film score for the new motion pictures.
By the mid 1920s, more original scores began to appear. This is of course the period of the great movie palaces with their own orchestras, conductors, and organists, well-equipped to perform an original score.
Birth of a Nation
As mentioned previously, in 1915 D.W. Griffith released a three-hour film, Birth of a Nation. The film was longer than any other previous film and is the first “blockbuster” hit. Composer Joseph Carl Breil composed or arranged a whopping 214 cues for Griffith’s film, a huge number, even by today’s standards. It was arranged for a 40-piece orchestra. Briel’s score borrows from classical music and folk songs, and has some original music as well. Nation launched the feature-film age; it was the first blockbuster, and it had considerable influence on other filmmakers and studios of the period, which followed suit with other feature films.
The film, however, has serious flaws and detractors. Birth of a Nation, even at the time of its release, was seen as racist and misinformed. It features a white woman who is threatened with a forced marriage to a “mulatto” (a now politically incorrect term for mixed race) man. The woman must be rescued by the Klu Klux Klan, a notoriously racist organization that Nation portrays in a heroic manner.
Although to some extent it shows racism and prejudice of the time period, Birth of a Nation was also thought to be unacceptable by many. The film was widely protested and boycotted at the same time that it drew huge crowds. Although the film was a financial success, it became a personal embarrassment for Griffith, who was shamed into making the anti-prejudice film Intolerance one year later. Intolerance, however, was not as exciting as Nation, nor was it as successful at the box office.
As film scholars, we must recognize Birth of a Nation’s historical importance. It shows us where popular attitudes were at in 1915 among some segments of the U.S. population, and we cannot hide this fact. The film says more about the history of the country than about the merit of the Klu Klux Klan.
But the film is also of particular interest to both current and future film music scholars. For instance, we are most interested in the fact that so many music cues were written for a feature film that was released as early as 1915—that alone was groundbreaking. Even if the score was performed live and not synchronized, it was film music on a grand scale during the early days of the silent film. Birth of a Nation is an early indication of where the crafts of filmmaking and film music were heading.
More Early Film Scores
The following clips demonstrate that international silent feature films had original music composed for them. This music might be performed by an orchestra in large movie palaces to be later reduced to piano or organ performances in smaller theaters. Let’s look at some of these films, with recordings of the original scores that have been post-synchronized to the films.
Battleship Potemkin, 1925, Directed by Sergei Eisenstein, USSR; music by Edmund Meisel (1894–1930)

Click here to request for this assignment help

Open chat