Film music was largely live in the silent cinema but its practice was specific to the various cultures and nations where it was heard. In the United States phonograph recordings were sometimes used in early film exhibition; in Japan the tradition of live narration extended throughout the silent period. The notion of pairing film and music had a number of antecedents, among them the nineteenth-century stage melodrama. The conventional explanation for the use of music in silent film is functional: music drowned out the noise of the projector as well as talkative audiences. But long after the projector and the audience were quieted, music remained. Music eventually became so indispensable a part of the film experience that not even the advent of mechanically produced sound could silence it (although for a few years it looked as though it might). Film is, after all, a technological process, producing larger-than-life, two-dimensional, largely black and white, and silent images. Accepting them as "real" requires a leap of faith. Music, with its melody, harmony, and instrumental color (not to mention the actual presence of live musicians), fleshes out those images, lending them credibility. Further, music distracts audiences from the unnaturalness of the medium. Adorno and Eisler even posit that film music works as a kind of exorcism, protecting audiences from the "ghostly" effigies confronting them on the screen and helping audiences, unaccustomed to the modernity of such sights, "absorb the shock" ( Composing for the Films , p. 75).
The history of musical accompaniment in the United States has yet to be fully written, but this
important work has begun. Martin Marks, a musicologist and silent film accompanist, finds that original scores existed as early as the 1890s. The scholar Rick Altman shows that in the crucial early periods of silent film exhibition, continuous musical accompaniment was not the normative practice, and he provides compelling evidence that accompaniment was often intermittent and sometimes nonexistent. The US film industry began to standardize musical accompaniment around between 1908 and 1912, the same period that saw film's solidification as a narrative form and the conversion of viewing spaces from small, cramped nickelodeons to theatrical auditoriums. Upgrading musical accompaniment was an important part of this transformation; attempts to encourage the use of film music and monitor its quality can be traced to this era. Trade publications began to include music columns that often ridiculed problematic accompaniment; theater owners became more discriminating in hiring and paying musicians; and audiences came to expect continuous musical accompaniment.
Initially, accompanists, left to their own devices and untrained in their craft, improvised. Therefore the quality of musical accompaniment varied widely. The single most important device in the standardization of film music was the cue sheet, a list of musical selections fitted to the individual film. The most sophisticated of them contained actual excerpts of music timed to fit each scene and cued to screen action to keep the accompanist on track. As early as 1909, Edison studios circulated cue sheets for their films. Other studios, trade publications, and entrepreneurs began doing the same. Musical encyclopedias appeared, containing vast inventories of music, largely culled from the classics of nineteenth-century western European art music and supplemented by original compositions. Encyclopedias like Giuseppi Becce's influential Kinobibliothek (1919) indexed every type of on-screen situation accompanists might face. J. S. Zamecnik (1872–1953) composed the Sam Fox Moving Picture Music series (1913–1923). It included not only a generic "Hurry Music," but "Hurry Music (for struggles)", "Hurry Music (for duels)"; and "Hurry Music (for mob or fire scenes)." Even treachery was customized for villains, ruffians, smugglers, or conspirators. Erno Rapee's Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures (1925) offers music for scenes from Abyssinia to Zanzibar (and everything in between). Popular music of the day was also featured in silent film: in illustrated songs during the earliest periods of film exhibition; as ballyhoo blaring from phonographs to lure passersby into cinemas; and in "Follow the Bouncing Ball" sing-alongs, popular in the 1920s. It is not surprising that popular music crossed over into accompaniment.
Much more work needs to be done on the impact of geography (neighborhood vs. downtown settings; the urbanized east coast vs. the less populated western states) and ethnicity and race (the place of folk traditions, ragtime, jazz) on musical accompaniment. By the teens, however, silent film accompaniment had developed into a profession, and the piano emerged as the workhorse of the era. The 1920s saw the development of the mammoth theatrical organ, like the Mighty Wurlitzer, and motion picture orchestras, contracted by the owners of magnificent urban picture palaces. Orchestral scores, music transcribed for the orchestra, developed during the late silent era. Orchestral film scores based on original compositions were rare in the United States, but there are some famous international examples (not all of which, unfortunately, have survived): Camille Saint-Saëns's (1835–1921) L'Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908), Arthur Honegger's (1892–1955) Napoléon (1929), Dmitri Shostakovich's (1906–1975) Novyy Vavilon ( The New Babylon , 1927), Erik Satie's (1866–1925) Entr'acte (1924), and Edmund Meisel's (1894–1930) Bronenosets Potyomkin ( Battleship Potemkin , 1925), blamed for causing riots at the German premiere and banned. Most orchestral scores, however, were compiled from existing sources, largely nineteenth-century Western European art music. The first American orchestral score, generally acknowledged as The Birth of a Nation (1915), was a compilation by Joseph Carl Breil (1870–1926) and the film's director, D. W. Griffith, raiding such classics as Richard Wagner's (1813–1883) Ride of the Valkyries , from his opera Die Walkure , and Edvard Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King , from his Peer Gynt suite no. 1.
Wagnerian opera and Wagner's theory of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) were early influences on accompanists. Wagner argued that music in opera should not be privileged over other elements and should be composed in accordance with the dramatic needs of the story. Accompanists envisioned film music as performing the same function. Especially influential was Wagner's use of the leitmotif, an identifying musical passage, often a melody, associated through repetition with a particular character, place, emotion, or even abstract idea. Silent film accompanists often used the leitmotif to unify musical accompaniment, and during the period of film's transformation into a narrative form, leitmotifs became an important device for clarifying the story and helping audiences keep track of characters. However, Eisler and Adorno, among other critics, argued that the leitmotif was inappropriate for such short art forms as films.
Spurred by reconstructions in the 1970s of silent film scores by scholar-conductors such as Gillian Anderson and by screenings of the restoration of Abel Gance's Napoléon , silent film has enjoyed a resurgence. The rebirth of the silent film with musical accompaniment has made it possible for audiences today to feel something of the all-encompassing nature of the silent film experience. Original scores have been rescued from oblivion, and new scores have been created. Some of these restorations exist in recorded form and boast the original music: Broken Blossoms (1919), scored by Louis Gottschalk (1864–1934); Metropolis (1927), scored by Gottfried Huppertz; Chelovek s kino-apparatom ( The Man with a Movie Camera , 1929), with a recreation of the director Dziga Vertov's (1896–1954) score by the Alloy Orchestra. Other restorations feature newly composed scores: The Wind (1928), scored by Carl Davis; Stachka ( Strike , 1925), scored by the Alloy Orchestra; and Sherlock, Jr. (1924), scored by the Clubfoot Orchestra. Giorgio Moroder (b. 1940) used disco in his restoration of Metropolis in 1985. But the most exciting development has been the success of silent screenings with live musical accompaniment at film festivals, in art museums, on college campuses, and sometimes even in renovated silent film theaters.