Silent Film

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The Jazz Singer (1927)
Edison claimed that motion pictures would do for the eye “what phonograph does for the ear” (Gitelman, 1999, p.87). And the inventor's kinescope did “locate the common dominator of vision and hearing" (p.87). The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first commercially successful 'talkie', or film that has synchronized sound. By 1930, films that were produced without accompanying sound were becoming more uncommon. While films are occasionally made without a soundtrack as an aesthetic choice, the technology and conventions that were utilized to make silent films are no longer in use. The main features of the medium, though, display a self awareness that silent film was a transitional mode of mediation that would be quickly supplanted once standardization occurred and solutions were found to synchronize sound and amplify it for public display. During the silent film era, inventors looked towards a horizon where “orality, aurality, and visuality would huddle together under one potential umbrella of marvelous future technology” (Gitelman, p.87).


Silent films were spectacles that arouse from the "pervasive 'separation of the senses' and industrial remapping of the body in the nineteenth century" (Crary, 1990, p.19). But the separation of vision from hearing lead to an abstraction from 'natural behavior' that would be resolved once diegetic sound was coupled with the action. Due to the lack of sound, the expression of emotion and action was acted out very stylistically and dramatically. Charlie Chaplin was famous for his Tramp character that utilized mime and slapstick to create visual comedy that did not require codified verbal symbols to understand. There was a push for realism in the acting that could have no been made possible without the addition of sound and another layer of code to move the story forward beyond the intertitles that were already utilized in film.


Intertitles were title cards that were placed in a scene in a silent film usually to express dialogue or occasionally to provide some kind of exposition. While earlier films did not have standardized placement of intertitles, the convention that was utilized most frequently mimics the timing of speech in a scene in a Skeuomorphic fasion. A character would begin to 'speak,' or move their mouths, and an intertitle would come on screen, then the actor would be shown moving their mouth and finishing there 'speech.'

Speech and the action were therefore two distinct parts of a film. So much so that there were 'scenario writers' and there were 'title writers' during the silent film era. The language and action composed were by two different people. But the dialogue or narrative taking center stage during a film is remediated in the modern industry. Modern film is a vococentric medium that privileges the voice over other sounds that are reduced to the background. Just as the intertitles gave the observer necessary information for understanding the story in addition to the visuals on the screen, the dialogue gives added value to the story. The "principle of synchresis...[is] the forging of an immediate necessary relationship between something one sees and something one hears" (Chion, 1994, p.5). The additional layer of codified expression helps the user quickly understand situations in motion pictures be it in textual and aural.

Textual information was provided in silent film to help frame the action, just as live music did in early films.

Music and Sound

Auguste and Louis Lumiére had one of the first public exhibition of motion pictures that were filmed and projected by their Cinématographe in 1895 (Wierzbicki, 2009). The brothers employed a piano player at their first exhibition and eventually hired full orchestras to accompany their films. Different projection technologies were used throughout the silent film period, but the projector noise, the 'pops and hisses,' were drowned out by musical accompaniment that added to the spectacle. The earliest films had similar to the content of chronographic studies that included a focus on recording and utilizing movements and bodies (Zielinski, 2002, p.245). Georges Demeny--a contemporary of the Lumiére brothers--stated that cinema apparatuses were "reversible chronophotgraphs" (Kittler, 1999, p. 136). Out of the 1,424 films the Lumiére brothers created between 1895 and 1907, approximately 100 were staged while the majority were documenting occurrences. Films were shown in Vaudeville theaters before the rise of the Nickelodeon beginning in 1905. With the release of feature length films, larger theaters were built and the Nickelodeons went into decline. Each of these stages had an impact on the relationship of sound and the silent film. As time progressed the improvisational liveness of a performance began to be more standardized until sound was a mechanized part of the film going process.


Edison remarked that with rise of story lines in motion pictures commonly marked by the release of The Great Train Robbery (1903), "like most films offered to the public after the turn of the century the venue...was the vaudeville theater" (Wierzbicki, p.26). Films were often included within a larger show of disparate acts. Vaudevillian audiences were accustomed to musical support for the myriad of acts performed on stage, and films were no different. While the music was not standardized for these films, but rather left up to the proprietors and musicians, it was constant accompaniment and not framing the action. By 1908, 96 percent of American Films had a narrative and the industry was becoming more standardized in technology, content and presentation which lead to the rise of venues just for movie display, but music was still an integral part of the display (p.27).


The price of admission was a nickel for these theaters and made the movies an affordable diversion for lower classes of society. Nickelodeons played mainly the short form films that were contained on one reel, and most theaters had at least a piano to play in conjunction with the films. Therefore the demand for new films led to a quick production timeline. In 'talkies' not only is the sound is played simultaneously with the film, but it was also usually recorded during production or added in the editing process before the film was released. The sound was typically an after thought in silent films because they were a performative aspect that was individualized at each theater. During this time, trade publications began to publish notes to suggest what type of music be played with specific films to standardize the experience. Usually the suggestions were popular songs or familiar tunes. Also the magazines tended to stress music continuality as an important part of the movie going experience (Wierzbicki, p.34-35).

The practice of "funning" was an industry wide concern during the Nickelodeon era. Musicians often saw the films multiple times and would occasionally use music to purposely make fun of an aspect of the film (i.e. a jovial song when a hero dies). The viewing experience was fractured due to funning as well as other inappropriate music choices and inconstant music (p.35). As feature length films became more popular more standardization happened within the film industry in relation to the specific music played with each movie.

Cue Sheets and Scoring

The Thief of Baghdad (1924) Cue Sheet

As early as 1908, because of the inconsistencies in Nickelodeon music, films were finished and then the cue sheets were created by a third party hired by the studio and distributed to theaters before the release dates. Star studded feature films began to replace the one-reel Nickelodeon fair. The music in these films was subordinated to the dramatic plot, and large city theaters tended to use huge orchestras. Cue sheets were included several pages of cues, tempo, and timing for music and sound effects. Larger theaters with orchestra pits were becoming more popular and compiled scores were utilized more due to the larger nature of the musicians. Therefore providing a more standardized and professional movie going experience for the audience. The music played with films was becoming more mechanized.

American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was founded in 1914, and sought to get the copyright owners of music royalties for the performances of their works. Studios made business relationships with musicians and composers who were not part of ASCAP when they began to produce scores for their films (Weirzbicki, p.46).


Professional silent films were remediated in the home movies before the 1980s when camcorders began to be able to capture sound. Home screenings of films though, are not typically accompanied by music, but rather conversation (Weirzbicki, p.19).


  1. Chion, M. (1994). Audio-vision: Sound on screen. Columbia University: New York.
  2. Crary, J. (1990). Techniques of the observer: On vision and modernity in the nineteenth century." The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  3. Gitelman, L. (1999). Scripts, grooves, and writing machines: Representing technology in the Edison era. Stanford University: Stanford.
  4. Kittler, F. A. (1999). Gramophone, Film, Typewriter." Stanford University: Stanford.
  5. Wierzbicki, J.E. (2009). Film music: A history. Routledge: New York.
  6. Zielinski, S. (2002). Deep time of the media: Toward an archaeology of hearing and seeing by technical means. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.