About Silent Movies: The music of the silent film

It is commonly said that the phrase “silent movie” is a misnomer. To be properly appreciated, a silent movie needs appropriate musical accompaniment. But what is considered to be an “appropriate” type of music? No two silent film fans are going to quite agree on that but here are some basic guidelines.

Since this guide is aimed at the newer viewer, I am going to focus on music recorded for DVD and Blu-Ray releases, as well as streamed videos. I will try to cover live performances and performance artists who use silent films in another article.

Who writes it?:

Music for a silent movie can either be original, arrangements of previously written pieces, or a combination of the two.

The selection of music depends on who is doing the choosing. Some silent film musicians limit themselves to music that was available to theater accompanists when the film was originally released. Others try to incorporate music suitable to the film’s setting: Authentic sea shanties for a shipboard picture, a bit of Mussorgsky or Rimsky-Korsokov for a Russian setting, red hot Jazz for a flapper film. Still others arrange music by mood and do not sweat it if an otherwise perfect piece is a few years out of date.

Many silent films were released with a cue sheet, cheat sheets designed to help musicians play appropriate music at the right dramatic passages of the film. Vintage cue sheets are invaluable for musicians hoping to create a 100% authentic accompaniment.

Types of music:

Full Orchestra

This is the most expensive musical style but it is also the grandest and most majestic. Epics just don’t seem as epic without it. Generally, the full orchestra is reserved for more prestigious releases.

Chamber Orchestra, or, Chamber Ensemble

The Chamber Orchestra is helpfully defined by Webster’s as “a small orchestra,” but the point is that this is a more intimate group of musicians. What they lack in epic punch, they often more than make up for with cleverness and nimble playing.

Piano

The solo pianist is probably what most people think of when they talk about silent movie music. A really clever piano score is a joy to listen to.

Organ

The other famous silent movie instrument. The theater organ score can be magnificent but a bad one will drone and drone and drone.

Synthesizer

This one is pretty controversial. Synthesizers were, of course, not used in the silent era. On the other hand, synth scores are inexpensive. What to do?

Personally, I don’t mind a well-done synth score (gasp!) but I am not a fan of the ones that verge too deeply into industrial territory.

Vitaphone, Movietone and vintage scores in general

Near the end of the silent era, movies began to be released with their own pre-recorded scores. Older hits were also resurrected and given the then-latest and greatest in sound technology. This music is absolutely authentic. However, newer viewers should be warned that 1920’s audiences liked their music higher and happier than is generally preferred today. So when the heroine is being threatened with a Fate Worse Than Death, the soundtrack just may contain a jaunty tango.

The Canned Score

Music (usually public domain) slapped onto a silent movie. These are often terrible but if the music is selected with some care, they can be okay. Too often used by bargain bin DVD dealers as a way of cheaply scoring silent films. Buyer beware.

How to decipher the silent movie description

No mention of the music: Bad sign. At best, it has a canned score. At worst, it could just have a score lifted from another silent film or a public domain classical piece set to auto-repeat. Or (worst of all… or is it) no music, period.

Orchestra, piano or organ score (no composer given): Canned music

Score by (composer name): Almost always means a synth score when no instrument is specified.

Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. Bargain DVDs will not have the budget for really excellent scores while the fancier (and pricier) discs will take more care with the music. There are exceptions, of course. When in doubt, scour the reviews to see how the disc was received by silent fans.

Opinions

Opinions are like noses and silent film fans in general are a very nosy bunch. Everyone has their preferred musicians, instruments and styles. If you are not sure what kind of silent movie music you prefer, all I can say is listen to as many different scores as you can. I know it will be painful, having to watch all those silent movies, but I am sure you will bear it as best you can.

A few names to know:

Here are just a few of the folks in the business of making beautiful silent movie music. They are in no particular order.

Robert Israel

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Maria Newman

Carl Davis

Alloy Orchestra

Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton

Ben Model