Film scoring: The Silent Movies

You’ve all been to the cinema, right? Of course, you have. Every time we go to the cinema we have the expectation that apart from the dialogue, all the background noise and sound effects the movie will be accompanied by a lush orchestra or perhaps contemporary electronic music. Either way, there will be music underscoring the action of the movie. And that happens for multiple reasons: to enhance the actor’s performance,  set the mood of the scene, but most importantly music is used to create dramatic tension and reflect the character’s subconscious motifs and emotions.

Movies have been made for decades now, however when they were first screened the audiences’ experience was completely different to ours. Imagine watching your favourite movie without any sound, you will still see the actor’s mouths opening as they speak, cars honking, birds chirping etc but there are no sound effects to make these things come to life. Well, that’s what cinema was like for the audience at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.

The first documented film with musical accompaniment was published in 1895 and 1896 when the Lumiére family screened some of its early films in Paris and London. At first, the music that came with the film had no dramatic importance, movie theatres would use already written classical, folk or café music played by a pianist, organist, or a small orchestra depending on the size of the theatre, and of course the budget.

lumiere (1)

It wasn’t until 1908, again in France, when Camille Saint-Saens was commissioned what’s believed to be the first film-score tailored for a specific film, L’Assassisant du Duc de Guise. The score was a success however, it was too expensive to commission a composer for each individual film and hire an ensemble to play in each movie theatre, hence this concept did not take hold (for now).


In 1912, Max Winkler, a clerk at Carl Fisher Music Store and Publishing Company in New York came up with the idea of making cue sheets for each film. These cue sheets would lay out the timings for each scene, the choice of music and how long it should be played, as well present guidelines for interpretations in order to stay synchronised (with the movie).  Winkler, watched the films before they were released, created these cue sheets and then sold or rented the music to the musical director for each movie theatre. This benefitted both the film maker, for it provided rough timings and it also benefitted the publishers because they profited from selling or renting the music.


In 1919, the Fake Books were born. Several books were published that provided many different pieces of music with moods that could cover almost any dramatic situation. The pieces were organised in thematic categories: Love, Nature, Nation & Society, Church & State, Lyrical Expression. The musical director had to watch the movie several times to time each scene and transition, to then be able to determine how long each piece would be played and when.

Transitions were a bit challenging because they had a change of tempo, key, instrumentation or overall mood. As there wasn’t written out music for each transition the musical directors created the transitional music themselves.

  • Kinobibliothek (or Kinothek) by Giuseppe Becce
  • The Sam Fox Moving Picture Music Volumes, by J.S. Zamecnik
  • Motion Picture Moods, by Erno Rapée

Both the cue sheets and the fake books were short lived because soon after the first talkies emerged. By the late 1920s, the revolution of talkies had taken over the film industry. It was the technological advancements that began the modern use of music in movies.

Written by: Jenny Shen 

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