Film Scoring: The First Talkies

Previously, when the actors were silent, the film directors often had to convey or amplify an emotion by using different lighting and camera angles. Because now the actors were talking on-screen, the film directors had to highlight the actors with clear, bright light. The camera angles became more steady as well so all the attention was focused on the actor who was speaking. This change was a technological requirement as well since the cameras were very noisy they had to be enclosed in bulky, cubicles which were too heavy to move around.


Now, that there was sound, the composer could provide the needed insight into the psychological state of the characters through the music. This also meant that he could compose a score which would accompany the movie wherever it was shown. The downside to talkies was that thousands of theatre musicians would become jobless.

The large movie production studios were cautious as they were unsure as to how the public would react to movies with sound, after thirty years of silence. In 1925 and 1926 Warner Bros. Studios screened several short films with synchronised sound to see the audiences’ reaction. The shorts weren’t anything exciting, they showed mundane events such as trains, horses galloping, opera singers.

jazz singer.jpg

In 1927, Warner Bros. premiered ‘The Jazz Singer’ starring the Vaudeville singer Al Jolson, this film had several musical numbers including synchronised sound, although much of the spoken dialogue was silent and the story was told with narration ‘cards’. ‘The Jazz Singer’ did a tremendous success in the box office business and became the film that showed the industry the way to go.

For three years, until about 1931, a steady stream of musicals was produced. This was probably because of the entertainment value of musicals; not only did the actors speak, they also sang and danced. However, after a steady diet of musicals, the public was ready for something new. The producers thought that they no longer needed musicians in their movies, and many of the studio orchestras were laid off. A year later these same executives were proven wrong as they realised how much they really need music.

In the very early talkies, there were two extremes; the film was either scored from the beginning to the closing credits, or there was no music at all. Neither of these solutions was ideal, so it took trial and error until the film makers found what worked best.

Another issue was that music could not be recorded separately, it had to be recorded at the same time as the actors were playing. That was particularly strenuous for the whole crew because nobody could make a mistake left the whole take would be ruined. Sometimes it would take two or three days to record a short song.


In 1931, technology allowed for film makers to record music out of the confines of the set, at a separate time, or “re-record” as it was known then. This advancement in technology allowed for music to be recorded on its own “scoring stage”, so-called to distinguish the music recording building from the “sound stage” or film set building. This process is now called “dubbing”, when the music, dialogue and sound effects are mixed together.

However, though, the audience had been accepting music with no visual justification film makers “felt it was necessary to explain the music pictorially”. For example during a love scene set in the woods in order to justify the music a violinist would be brought into the scene for no reason at all, says Max Steiner. Ultimately, bringing music in and out of the picture as the drama required became the standard practice, and still, is adhered to today.

Written by: Jenny Shen 

The Lost Weekend (1945) starring Ray Milland

A film about an alcoholic going on a weekend bender was originally published without any music. The audience snickered and giggled – exactly the opposite of what the director had intended. It wasn’t until Miklos Rozsa was commissioned to score the film and consequently re-released to great acclaim. The film won best actors, best picture and best director but the score was not even mentioned despite it being the only change added to the original, failed version.

Max Steiner – Film Music Composer 

Max Steiner – Casablanca

Max Steiner Wikipedia

Gone With The Wind Facts


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