What’s Your Favorite Silent Film Score?

When it comes to silent films, the score is even more important than it is in talkies. A good score can save a mediocre film while a bad one can ruin even an excellent motion picture. But let’s talk about the best of the best.

What are your favorite silent film score? The one that elevates and enhances, the one that sticks with you afterward?

I am inspired by the excitement surrounding the release of The Covered Wagon and its reissue of the Gaylord Carter organ score. Any music that inspires such devotion is worth examining.


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35 Replies to “What’s Your Favorite Silent Film Score?”

  1. Organ or piano, anything Jon Mirsalis does is brilliant (Phantom of the Opera). Likewise Ben Model. For full orchestra, give me Carl Davis (The Wind, Flesh and the Devil).

  2. The beauty of the City Lights score has always stuck with me, and the score is my favorite part of the much-maligned 1942 version of The Gold Rush.

    My first experience with Metropolis was with the 2003 Kino edition, which includes the original score, and I was left wondering how anyone could possibly prefer to hear 80s music with it instead. And I *like* 80s music!

  3. Currently Anoushka Shankar’s (Ravi’s daughter) score for “Shiraz.”

    And Bill Morrison’s collaborators whose jazz and jazz related scores work well. An adventurous concept that creates an original genre.

    And, of course Carl Davis.

  4. Tough choice but I narrowed it down to three: Carl Davis’ score for both Ben-Hur and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg. Also Jeffrey Mark Silverman’s outstanding score for Scaramouche. It moved me so much that I contacted the composer by email and told him so. He answered that my praise “made his day!”

  5. With rare exceptions, I prefer to take my silent films ‘straight,’ thank you – no music. I did hear some great scores performed live by the legendary Lee Erwin, but for the most part, scores tacked on to silents seem to me ‘noisy,’ over-tinkly, and-or out of sync with the pace of the film.

    1. Shari Polikoff, if I might ask, what are some of the rare exceptions? Genuine curiosity here.

      Your words made me think of how film editors worked (and still work) without music…except the music playing in their heads 😉

      1. Marie, don’t ignore the not so new technique of ‘tracking’ whereby the various temporary mixes of a film in post have pre-existing music added for a general sketchy feel of the likely final version. I understand that it’s the bane of some composers, gets stuck in the director’s brain and makes the musician’s job harder.

  6. Gottfried Huppertz‘s “Metropolis” score might be my favorite. And I always loved the score to Gance’s “Napoleon,” but that’s a story worthy of its own article when you have the original French composer (Arthur Honegger) and then two contemporary composers (Carl Davis and Carmine Coppola) for the restoration.

    You mentioned music destroying a silent movie. Too true. Years ago, a local TV station ran “The Phantom of the Opera,” and had used a mishmash of canned classical music, most of it unsuitable. During the rooftop scene, Elvis’ version of “Blue Suede Shoes” was played. I was 13-years-old and so outraged, I called the station management to complain. They apologized, but said that old movies like that needed some “lightening up.” 🙄

  7. Robert Israel scored “Putting Pants on Philip”, featuring Laurel and Hardy (about a Scottish relative coming to America) with Scottish folks songs from the 18th and 19th centuries. If one knew the lyrics of the songs, they’d realize that they fit the action of the film PERFECTLY! It was an amazing film experience! LOVED IT!

  8. Marie, I like the music from the late silent period, like ‘The Pagan,’ or the ‘Diane’ theme in my all-time favorite, ‘Seventh Heaven,’ or Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times.’ Ragtime music is always good, and fits in well with slapstick. But so many silents that I’ve watched on TCM or elsewhere on television have scores added that don’t seem to gibe with the action, and prove distracting, so I turn to the ‘mute’ button for relief.

    1. I’m all in favor of using the Mute option if a soundtrack is grating, so couldn’t agree more on that.

      Seventh Heaven and The Pagan…I’ll have to get them down off the shelves and watch again!

  9. I think you had a poll once asking about preferences for authentic-to-the-period vs modern music for accompaniment, and I thought I was 100% for authentic period music. But last year we saw The Lost World at the SF Silents Festival, accompanied by The Alloy Orchestra, and wow!

  10. The various scores for “The Passion of Joan of Arc” are an interesting case study when you find yourself with 4 options plus silence which is reported to be Dreyer’s choice.

    1) Criterion edition: Richard Einhorn’s ‘Voices of Light.’ Not written for the film, but inspired by La Pucelle’s story.

    ‘…a patchwork of visions, fantasies and reflections assembled from various ancient sources, notably the writings of female mystics.’ (Richard Einhorn)

    The work was not specifically written for this restoration, but has been skilfully placed and works very well.

    2) Eureka Masters of Cinema edition: Choices of:

    a) Piano score performed by Japanese silent film composer Mie Yanashita.

    b) ‘A radical new accompaniment by esteemed American avant-garde musician Loren Connors.’

    c) For the ‘Lo Duca’ version of the film: adding to the rather awful recutting and additions he performed, a pastiche of existing music from Bach, Scarlatti et al.

    I’d put Richard Einhorn a long way ahead of the others, but Mie Yanashita’s score works well. Loren Conors treatment is too radical for me, and I do enjoy modern music.

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