State Theatre Sydney

Music and the Silent Film

People are often intrigued by how music is put to silent films. It is always imagined that the films are accompanied by a little old man on an enormous organ making the music up as he went. That image is one way it was done, but not the only way by any means.


They’re called silent films. Weren’t they silent?

They were not called silent until talkies came along — they were called movies, motion pictures, flicks, photoplays (and, okay, sometimes “silent drama”). People nowadays usually think of silent films being accompanied by a solo pianist or organist, but in the teens and twenties, deluxe houses would have had an orchestra (although often a rather small one). In many ways, the silent film era was the golden age of film music, since the music was presented live and did not have to compete with dialog or sound effects. In those days, it was “foreground music,” not “background music.” Talkies were not a good development for film music.


Were silent films always presented with music?

It’s a mistake to look at the “silent film era” as a uniform time. It took a while for film presentation to become standardized, and there’s a lot of evidence that before 1910 a lot of theaters may have not used music, or just had a musician who played to entertain the audience while the film was being rewound rather than during the film itself. But it’s safe to say that by 1913, appropriate music was expected during the film. The idea that early films were not accompanied by music is supported by the fact that almost no photoplay music was published before 1913 (films having been shown since the mid 1890s), implying that there may not have been a demand in the early years.


How is a silent film score put together?

There are three fundamental kinds of silent film scores: improvised scores, composed scores, and compiled scores. Improvised scores are created off-the-cuff by a musician while watching the film, usually a soloist on organ or piano. Composed scores are made of new music written freshly for a specific film, usually for a specific combination of instruments which were generally only available at a limited number of theatres. Compiled scores are assembled from a library of previously written music. In real-world scores, the three techniques were often combined in one score. The Moving Picture Show compiles its scores from period theater music, leaving a few scenes to be improvised on the piano to make the score more flexible for live performance conditions. We are blessed with some very fine jazz musicians which means we can extend the improvised sections when we are showing comedies. The comedies historically used popular music of the era to accompany them, thus the enormous number of foxtrots and charlestons found in the libraries of silent film music. This early jazz suits my musicians totally! Listen to them performing for The Two Tars using popular twenty themes that are well known even today.

Dramatic films are more difficult. Much of the music for such films were cut down favourites from the classical repertoire. It is no surprise everyone knows part of the theme to the Overture to William Tell as a chase tune. This was set down in that era. Here is how we used Funeral March for a Marionette by Gounod(also known as the Hitchcock theme) in the film The General.

In this time also developed composers who composed mood music specifically for film. These are often have titles like “Hurry” “Violence” or “Storm Music”  One of the most important composers of this type of music was Jon Stepan Zamecnik . Here is a video of the opening of The General accompanied by music he composed to give the feel of the American deep south. He really was the John Williams of the twenties.


There are only a few other people reviving the “compiled score” technique, as it is very labor intensive. but it is  probably closest to the authentic sound of the era.




The Moving Picture Show

State Theatre Proscenium Arch

State Theatre Main Staircase










Modern cinemas are noted for being small black boxes with the walls draped in cloth and low ceilings all for focussing on the front screen and a clearly hearing the dialogue broadcast from carefully positioned speakers. This was not so during the silent era. It was just stepping out from vaudeville and the theatre itself was as much part of the experience as what was on the screen – just look at the State Theatre in Sydney where our music came from. The films were accompanied by live music and live acts and sing a longs were interposed between films to rest patrons eyes. A whole show could go for hours and was run by the leader of the orchestra or MC in big theatres. I have been studying early cinema practice and working in the National Library on their collection of film music from the State Theatre Sydney to reproduce an authentic silent film experience for a modern audience. For this I have a film orchestra as would have been used in the time that has helped to develop the show. Many of these musicians are also expert in the jazz of that era as most comedies were accompanied by popular numbers I also have a Foley – sound effects person as was used in the big theatres. This experience is what we want to give modern people a touch of, Sydney cinema of the 1920s.