Music in Silent Films - Music which “speaks”


Ever felt emotional listening to your favourite tunes? You are not alone. Music has been a universal feature of the human society, with the power to evoke primal feelings from our cores. Silent films, one of the milestones in the history of film-making, make use of music in this precise manner. Recorded without a synchronised audio track, these films do not contain any audible dialogue, making use of title cards to convey its plot and live music to add more drama to the films.

A pianist or a theatre organist is usually employed in a small town and at neighbourhood movie theatres showing silent films. At larger city theatres with bigger productions, a small orchestra is usually hired together with a solo pianist. However, since the mid-1910’s, massive theatre organs, designed to bridge the gap between the piano soloist and the large orchestra were preferred. One of such, the “Mighty Wurlitzer”, was famed for its ability to simulate orchestral sounds, percussion effects and even novelty sound effects ranging from boat whistles to thunder and rain.

Silent film music is usually performed from sheet music. Initially, sheet music from silent films were compiled directly from Classical repertoire and theatrical repertory music. Subsequently, composers began to adapt passages from their repertoire to create some of the most interesting arrangements in music. In more elaborate productions, musicians are normally provided with a cue sheet, which highlights the dramatic passages of the film.

Improvisation is also common in silent films as musicians are required to react to live situations which may not be noted on the cue sheets. Ben Model, a composer and the cofounder of the “Silent Clowns” series, embraces this approach in his compositions. “I don’t rehearse”, he claims, crediting instead his training in comedic improvisation, which “really opened him up”. A number of countries followed suit and developed their own version of silent films. For example, in Brazil, operattas feature “fitas cantatas”, singers performing behind the screen during a silent film showing. In Japan, “benshi”, a live narrator is engaged to provide commentary and character voices behind the scenes.

The thought of syncing music to film evolved steadily, until the occurrence of a production called “Entr’acte” which commissioned Erik Satie to compose the accompanying music for the film. Satie proceeded to invent an ingenious system of synchronising his music to specific frames in the film, a first in film music. This eventually lead to the “talkies”, which feature dialogue and music together with the film. With the advancement of recording technology along the way, silent film music evolved slowly to become what we hear in the cinemas today.

Take a look at Buster Keaton’s “The General “ and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Pawnshop” below:

Check out also our previous blogpost to find out about yet another genre of music that led to the development of music in silent films.

Till the next, Play on and Tinkle Away!