A third year essay for which I received a first.

The ‘Silent’ Era

In this essay I will discuss what the term ‘silent film’ means and the relationship between image, sound and music. I will also be looking into the history of the silent era and explain how film music conventions and functions developed at that time by looking at the technology, techniques and musical styles used by composers.


Theorist Mervyn Cooke, claims the term silent film doesn’t necessarily refer to no sound, or music accompanying a moving film at all, but in fact refers to a moving film being accompanied by a piece of music, or better known as a musical score:


The cinema has never been silent: the so-called silent films which represented the first flowering of the medium from the 1890’s to the late 1920’s often used sound as a vital part of the filmic experience.’ (Cooke 2008, p1)


Cooke reinforces his theory that film was never truly silent by stating the earliest days of cinema were never truly silent due to audience participation. For example, ‘Illustrated songs’, which refers to lantern shows that provided sing-a-long entertainment for the audience. This form of entertainment was followed through to the early silent cinema around 1905 in Nickelodeons:


But audience noise and direct audience participation were more prominent at the turn of the twentieth century than they are in today’s cinema in the West, so to this extent films were never truly experienced in silence.’ (Cooke, M 2008, p1)


However Rick Altman disagrees stating that during the early stages of silent film there was in fact instances of no music accompanying a moving film:


During the early development of the moving picture (c.1895-c.1913) it was not uncommon for films to be projected with no organized sound component at all.’ – (Altman 2004, p193-201)


As Cooke suggest through Altman’s research: ‘it is important to note that music was not necessarily performed inside an exhibition venue, nor at the same time as a film was being shown.’ (Cooke 2008, p5)


This theory agrees with Altman’s theory above, that it was not uncommon for films to be projected with no organized sound at all, and also continues with stating that music may have been played outside before, during or after the film screening:


live music might be played at the entrance, or recorded music blared out into the street through a barker phonograph horn… and even musicians inside the projection room might be instructed.’ (Altman 1996, p664-674)



But what are the origins of music accompanying film? Theorist Martin Miller Marks suggests that there is a link between silent film and stage pantomime or ballet, and that these theatrical genres are dependent on “movement as an artistic form”:


Historians may well assume that both ballet and pantomime, which their reliance on “accompanying sounds”, did much to create musical traditions useful for cinema.’ – (Marks 1997, p27)


Richard Abdel suggests that film music originated from the ‘Illustrated songs’ that moved from lantern shows to nickelodeons, and the ‘Illustrated songs eventually disappeared from cinemas due to audience’s avoidance of popular culture:


Illustrated songs gradually disappeared from nickelodeons in 1910-13, perhaps in response to a widespread desire for movies to be taken more seriously: this new-found aura of respectability required silent contemplation on the part of the audience, and an avoidance of popular culture.’ (Abel, quoted Cooke 2008, p7)


Cooke, and Kurt London have another theory. They look at music being used to cover up the sound of the apparent loud noise the projector made during film screenings:


Cinema proprietors had recourse to music, and it was the right way, using an agreeable sound to neutralize one less agreeable.’ (London, quoted Prendergast 1992, p4)


Cooke expands on this theory, and states that it was also used to cover up other irritating sounds that you encountered in the cinema at that time:


The provision of sound in the early years of cinema may have been to mask intrusive noise both inside and outside the projection venue, including the sound of traffic passing by and the distracting whirring of the projector itself’ (Cooke 2008, 1-2).


However, Siegfried Kracauer disagrees with the theory of the projector noise stating:

This explanation in untenable;… the noisy projector was soon removed from the auditorium proper [into a projection booth], whereas music stubbornly persisted.’ (Kracauer 1960, p133)


Hans Eisler also disagrees on the theory of the projector, simply stating that the projector noise wasn’t in fact that unbearable:

There remains the question, why should the sound of the projector have been so unpleasant?… This is precisely the consciousness of one’s own mechanization.’ (Eisler, quoted in Prendergast 1992, p4)



Developing from these theories, many inventors from the beginning, and during the silent era attempted at making diegetic music by synchronizing the moving image and music for cinema, but it proved difficult with the technology at hand at that time. For example Cooke states Thomas Edison started work on his Kinetograph in 1889, and it: ‘was developed specifically to provide a visual enhancement to music reproduced on his already successful phonograph… Both Edison’s Kinetograph (camera) and Kinetoscope (projector) were conceived with the aim of synchronizing image and sound.’ (Cooke 2008, p7-8)


Cooke describes another example of a technique used was that of inventor Oskar Messter who from 1903 worked on the Kosmograph disc system and released Tonbilder films In 1908 which provided: ‘An incredible gramophone synchronized to the pictures and driven by compressed air.’ (Lack 1997, p14-15)


However, these early stages of synchronization provided a challenge for the inventors as it was difficult to synchronize music and film successfully:

The challenge of synchronization proved to be too ambitious for unsynchronized accompaniments.’ (Cooke 2008, p8)


Although this form of film music didn’t seem to be very popular at the time. One form of diegetic music was, and that was that of ‘cue music’. Cue music is thought of by Anne Dhu Sharpio (1984) to have originated between the characteristics of music and drama that: ‘shaped the development of major theatrical genres such as opera, ballet and (above all) melodrama.’ (Sharpio, quoted in Cooke 2008, p10)


Melodrama features: ‘live organ and orchestral incidental music to enhance the audience’s emotional response and to suggest character types or geographical locations, the choice of appropriate music being indicated in the scripts and aided by the existence of anthologies of specially selected musical extracts.’ (Cooke 2008, p10).


Taking this into consideration, there are similarities between melodrama and early stages of film music. For example the different musical techniques used in melodrama to create or enhance a mood, are the same musical styles played by the organ or orchestra live in the cinema:


These were all features of early film music, which directly inherited melodramatic clichés such as the use of string tremolo and delicate pizzicato for tension and furtiveness respectively, and loud stinger chords to emphasize physical action or rousing lines.’ (Gorbman 1987, 33-5; Marks 1997, 28)


Looking at cue music in more depth, it is important to look at where it originated. Cue sheets were created to give a variety of different musical scores to accompany appropriate scenes that were being displayed on the screen that answered to the need of film music at that time:

By 1913 theatre orchestras and pianists were able to acquire music for specific moods or dramatic situations, all conveniently catalogued by the publisher.’ (Prendergast 1992, p6)


An example of a production company that took interest in cue sheets is Gaumont. According to Cooke, in 1907: ‘Gaumont began publishing a weekly pamphlet entitled Guide Musicale for distribution to exhibitors in France… In 1909, Edison Pictures in the USA started publishing cue sheets in the pages of its Edison Kinetogram to encourage the selection of appropriate musical numbers from both classical and popular scores to accompany screenings of its films.’ (Cooke 2008, p15)


The interest of these cue sheets developed from the first original score which was composed by a Frenchman named Camille Saint-Saens. The company Le Film d’Art teamed up with The Comedie Francaise, and the Academie Francaise to create a short film entitled L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise. Saint-Saens was asked to compose a musical score specific to this film:


Music for L’Assassinat, performed by classical instrumentalists drawn from the orchestras of the Concerts Colonne and Concerts Lamoureux, showed how structural coherence could articulate the drama across relatively broad time-spans, and it proved to be prophetic of the later mainstream film composers art.’ (Cooke 2008, p14)


However, although the films musical score was a success, this specific film and its musical score didn’t impress audiences:

The film received critical acclaim in France, though some observers lamented its utter subservience to old-fashioned theatricality, and others later exhibited it with designedly ridiculous music.’ (Sadoul 1948, p541)


L’Assassinat was a powerful influence on the future of film music, but due to not being popular with audiences, specifically composed scores like this one didn’t catch on:


For various reasons, not the least of which was considerable added the expense to the picture’s production costs, this idea of specially composed scores didn’t catch on to any great extent. Nevertheless, there arose an industry that answered the ever-growing need for music to accompany the cinema.’ (Prendergast 1992, p6)


Why was it, or is it important for music to accompany film in the silent era? Cooke puts it as simply as:

Music may initially have been supplied at film screenings simply because it has always been an inevitable adjunct to almost all forms of popular entertainment.’ (Cooke 2008, p4)


Furthermore: ‘As Silent cinema developed, and especially after c.1912, music came to play a crucial role in shaping and conditioning the viewer’s response to moving pictures.’ (Cooke 2008, p5)


Paul Ramain, in regards to the live orchestra that played during film screenings, describes the role of music as being subsidiary:


‘All that is required of the orchestra in the cinema is to play harmonious background music with the idea not of being heard but of creating an atmosphere to sink us into our subconscious… The role of music is therefore subsidiary, helping to put us in a trance with a vague background hum.’ (Quoted in Mitry 1998, 248)


Roy Prendergast suggests the theory from Kurt London, which looks at an observation ‘in terms of film aesthetics’, is the ‘closest to understanding music’s unique relationship with silent film’:


The reason which is aesthetically and psychologically most essential to explain the need of music as an accompaniment of the silent film, is without doubt the rhythm of the film as an art of movement… It was the task of the musical accompaniment to give it auditory accentuation and profundity.’ (London, quoted Prendergast 1992, p4)


There is also Hanns Eisler’s theory of the “ghostly effect”, which refers to the way music is used to help the spectator feel a certain way, or have a certain reaction whilst consuming the film:


The pure cinema must have had a ghostly effect… The need was felt to spare the spectator the unpleasantness involved in seeing effigies of living, acting and even speaking persons, who were at the same time silent… Music was introduced not to supply them with the life they lacked… But to exorcize fear or help the spectator absorb the shock.’ (Eisler, Quoted in Prendergast 1992, p3)


Jean Mitry had a different theory to those above. She believes that the link between music and film in the silent era is not to do with audience reaction, but in fact the poor quality of film editing at that time:


‘Unlike moving shots… The editing of a series of fixed shots establishes a feeling of continuity but is unable to create the sensation of the continuous… which means that reality appears as though it were an idea or memory; or to put it another way, it appears restructured.’ (Mitry 1998, p162)


Based on the evidence I found, I have discovered that although Altman (2004) suggests that ‘it was not uncommon for films to be projected with no organized sound’, this statement is difficult to believe as Cooke (2008) suggests that sound was a part of early cinema, whether it occurred outside of the screening, or if it had been audience participation but it was still a part of the early cinema. Thus suggesting that the cinema has never truly been silent, and allowing audiences to consume a film in complete silence would have been near enough impossible, and it shouldn’t be done:


Allowing the picture to be screened in silence is an unforgivable offense that calls for the severest censure. No picture should begin in silence under any conditions.’ (Beynon 1921, p76)


It is impossible to watch anything in the world without some sort of sound (unless with a hearing impairment), even if it’s hearing a rustle of clothing. Therefore, in the silent era nothing was ever viewed in complete silence, and psychologically we need some sort of sound accompaniment, or more importantly music with a moving image to encourage us to take interest and feel different emotions:


In real life, movement is never viewed in strict silence; indeed, without special acoustic facilities, total silence is a physical impossibility even when viewing static objects.’ (Cooke 2008, p3)




Altman , R, 1996. ‘The Silence of the Silents’, Musical Quarterly 80/4. Pages 648-718.

Altman, R, 2004. Silent Film Sound. 1st ed. New York, Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press. Pages 193-2011.

Bazelon, I, 1975. Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. Page 13.

Beynon, G, 1921. Musical Presentation of Motion Pictures, New York: Schirmer. Page 76.

Cooke, M, 2008. A History Of Film Music. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pages 1-15.

Gorbman, C, 1987. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music, Bloomington: Indiana University Press; London: British Film Institute. Pages 5-33.

Kracauer, S, 1960. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, New York: Oxford University Press; repr. Princeton University Press 1997. Page 133.

Lack, R, 1997. Twenty Four Frames Under: A Buried History of Film Music, London: Quartet. Pages 14-15.

Marks, M, 1997. Music And The Silent Film: Contexts & Case Studies 1895-1924. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc. Page 28.

Mitry, J, 1998 [1963]. The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema, trans. Christopher King, London: Athlone Press. Pages 162-248.

Prendergast, R, 1992. Film Music: A neglected Art. 2nd ed. New York, London: W.W Norton & Company. Pages 4-6.

Sadoul, G, 1948. Les Pionniers du cinema: de Melies a Pathe 1897-1909, Paris: Denoel. Page 541.