Movies and Music: The Silent Era

In this three part series, Charlie Warren explores the interlinked history of music and film ahead of our upcoming concert, Ad Astra, at St Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, at 19:30 on Saturday 30th March (tickets available here).

The Lumière brothers

The Lumière brothers

What, exactly, comes to mind when you think of a ‘silent film’? Most likely it conjures up images of slapstick comedy, perhaps Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’ or Buster Keaton’s various capers. It’s an unreal world, where people move too fast and are frequently interrupted by overbearing inter-titles. And what do you hear? If you have any notion of what a silent film ‘sounds’ like, it will probably be the honky tonk piano of one of Scott Joplin’s rags, or the tremulous tibia pipes of the mighty Wurlitzer organ. The unspoken assumption seems to be that the medium was awaiting its perfection with the arrival of synchronised soundtracks, colour realism, and greatly amplified surround sound. But this is to miss the point - cinema is artifice. There were no silent films before there were ‘talkies’, rather they were far from silent, being part of a vibrant musical culture, as well as occasionally having narrators (a tradition continued in Japan well into the 1930s). So what was this world like, and how did it help to create the culture of film that we know and love today?


Music has been part of the history of film from the very beginning, with the Lumière brothers’ Parisian projections of 1895 including guitar accompaniment. As film technology spread around the world, it became customary to have accompaniment by live musicians, including, pianists and organists, and occasionally full orchestras. Music was considered vital in giving audiences emotional clues as to what was going on, and over time a repertoire of standard music came into play, liberally pilfered from the classical canon and more popular fare. Theatre organists were aided by newly commissioned instruments built by companies such as Wurlitzer, Bartola, and Compton in the UK, and Fats Waller, composer of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ got his first gig as a theatre organist at the age of 15. From the 1910s onwards, film studios would provide cue sheets with at least a basic indication of what music should be played for the various scenes of a film, although a pianist/organist would probably have improvised their own elements. The director Josef Sternberg, who worked on both silent films and then ‘talkies’ with his famed collaborator Marlene Dietrich, once noted that it was the advent of sound which allowed for long stretches of film without any dialogue or music, as previously most of the running time would simply have been filled in by the house musicians!

Many of our slightly wrongheaded notions of the silent era stem from the transition period between the silents and the talkies. The Jazz Singer, a 1927 musical drama with a synchronised musical score and some moments of lip-sync, has retrospectively this has been seen as the beginning of the end for the silent movie, especially after reference to it in 1952’s Singing in the Rain. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) is probably to blame for the common misconception that silent films are fast and jerky, as he deliberately filmed it at 18 frames per second (silent speed), in order to make the slapstick seem more frenetic when it was screened at 24 frames per second, sound speed. A late silent film, it was a farewell to Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’ character, and set the tone for later homages to the era, including Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1952) and more recently Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011). The new role of music was firmly fixed even by this film however, with a synchronised musical soundtrack now de riguer. The brief flourishing of the cinema musician was over, and cinema organs became a form of light entertainment in the care of preservation societies. However, since the 1970s there has been a revived interest in silent films, often with live musical performances of both vintage quality and with a more experimental bent.


Most of the music in our forthcoming concert comes from the 1940s and later, but there will be several tributes and references to cinema music of the decades before - expect a little Joplin, and perhaps an appearance of the historic St Mary’s organ, much of which dates to 1765! We look forward to seeing you there (ticket link).