FAQs on Composing Live Accompaniment for Silent Films
When were silent films made?
- Roughly: 1894-1929, with those from the 10s and 20s most commonly still available
- Early films were often experimental with interesting camera tricks.
- Films made through the 1910s may be challenging for modern audiences. The pacing may seem comparatively slow - often including long static scenes of people talking.
- Films from the 1920s are often very sophisticated with engaging plots and the acting became more naturalistic.
- Once sound films were developed in 1929, very few silents were made again
How were scores created for silent films originally?
- Usually improvised by a single accompanist, who would draw upon popular songs and classical themes. Small theaters would feature a pianist, but theatre organs were installed all over the country. The Heights Theater in Columbia Heights still has a working theater organ.
- Some films were issued with “cue sheets” that indicated when actions changed and included suggested musical themes.
- Studios with bigger budgets could develop original scores.
What are some general scoring strategies?
Set list method
- This involves compiling a list of known tunes and adjusting their form to fit within sections
Our score to LOVE AND SCIENCE is made up of many waltzes that we have played as a band over the years.
Improvising to a film is a long tradition, especially during the time period when composers were not able to watch the screening in advance.
Our accompaniment to the one-minute film, AT THE HYPNOTISTS, is completely improvised.
Create a through-composed score, with transitions and every moment accounted for.
Our accompaniment to HYPNOTIZING THE HYPNOTISTS is a through-composed score.
Accompanists may want to use more than one strategy per film. Many feature silent films have the same lengths as today (1:15 - 2:30 hours), so a combination of the above may help fill out the length and provide variety.
For THE MYSTERY OF THE ROCKS OF KADOR, we use all of the techniques listed above.
Honorable mention - an alternative option is to largely not pay attention to the film. This is often employed by a popular band or sound art project. In this case, the film is part of a multimedia experience and it enhances the soundscape.
What are some more specific scoring tips?
- Keep transitions flexible- make it easy to lengthen or shorten sections
- Recruit a sound effects person or percussionist
- Add planned improv sections for eerie or chaotic scenes
- Give instrumentalists extended rests to break up the action and give them a break
What are some issues with silent film accompaniment to know about?
- Film is a sequence of stills. Silent films were shot at variable speeds (or "frame rates") anywhere from 12 fps to 26 fps. Film projectors used to have mechanisms to adjust the frame rate during playback. Most modern projectors do not have this functionality anymore - there are only a few theaters across the country that can do this. That is why you often see silent films that appear to be moving at breakneck speed. The “screener” you use to score the film may not match the speed at which it gets projected.
- The films often feature offensive stereotypes and costuming. Are they still worth showing? There might be brief gags or background extras that you don’t notice upon first viewing. You may need to do research about the filmmakers to understand the context. Depending upon your audience, acknowledging this can be helpful.
- Silent film buffs may prefer to hear authentic period music.
Why would a modern composer score an old silent film?
- A silent film score can facilitate creating a long form composition with built in thematic variations
- Visuals and action may inspire you to develop new themes or rhythms you haven't used before
- All films made in the US before 1923 are public domain. Copyrights vary on other films from the 20s.
- Unlike sound films, you do not have to compose around a pre-existing soundtrack with dialogue and sound effects
- Although most silent films are considered lost, they are often uncovered in archives and restored. They are then “premiered” at film festivals, often with a newly commissioned score.
- Like a poem, silent films don’t typically have “official” scores, and can be re-scored over and over. Many are even issued digitally / on DVD with multiple accompaniment options.
An exception is several Charlie Chaplin films. Chaplin composed scored for his films years later and his estate has strict rules that the films can only be shown if you use Chaplin’s score, with precise instrumentation.