The Sound Of Silents


If I ever kill anyone,” D. W. Griffith once exclaimed, “it won’t be an actor but a musician.” He had been arguing with Joseph Carl Breil, his collaborator on the score for The Birth of a Nation. Griffith wanted to change some of the notes in the music they were planning to borrow, and Breil was outraged. “You can’t tamper with Wagner!” he cried. “It’s never been done!” But Griffith insisted the music for his picture “wasn’t primarily music”; it was “music for motion pictures.”

Griffith was as interested in motion picture music as he was in every other aspect of movie-making. “Watch a film run in silence,” he once said, “and then watch it again with eyes and ears. The music sets the mood for what your eye sees; it guides your emotions; it is the emotional framework for visual pictures.” Griffith was the first American director to engage a professional musician to help prepare a complete score for a motion picture, and he was the first to include the musical director’s name in the film credits. For the premiere of The Birth of a Nation in Los Angeles in February 1915 and in New York City the following month, he arranged for the Breil score to be performed by a symphony orchestra and for program notes to be printed with a list of the classical numbers that had been included. After The Birth of a Nation, musical scores arranged in advance for important feature pictures became customary in the United States. Music as a “cinematic ally” had finally arrived.

From the very beginning, the association of music with film seemed natural. Thomas A. Edison thought so; when he first became interested in movies, he wanted to unite his Kinetoscope with his phonograph so as to make grand opera available to everyone “for a dime.” But early film-makers were unable to synchronize sound and sight satisfactorily, and the idea of sound pictures quickly died. Silent films became the rule. And all of them—even the earliest, shortest subjects featuring cockfights, acrobats, and the like—had music of some kind accompanying them.

This was not due to any aesthetic leanings on the part of the exhibitors; music was necessary to drown out the clatter of the projector, usually stationed in the midst of the audience. Then, after projectors were put in soundproof boxes, music served to drown out the noise of the audience. Without music, wrote the Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg in 1916, “the onesided engagement of the senses would produce an intolerable tension,” which manifested itself in coughing, restlessness, rattling candy wrappers, and incessant chatter. But music could do more than quiet things down. As films developed in length and sophistication, it became clear that music was indispensable for clarifying the emotions behind certain scenes. There were moods and feelings and nuances and overtones in some of the better early films that simply did not come across to audiences without music; the facial expressions, physical movements, and printed titles were not enough. Irving Thalberg, the great Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production head, went so far as to say: “There never was a silent film. We’d finish a picture, show it in one of our projection rooms, and come out shattered. It would be awful. We’d have high hopes for the picture, work our heads off on it, and the result was always the same. Then we’d show it in a theatre, with a girl down in the pit, pounding away at a piano, and there would be all the difference in the world. Without that music, there wouldn’t have been a movie industry at all.”


But the earliest film music was horrendous. Hand organs, music boxes, and phonographs supplied it at first, and then exhibitors abandoned mechanical music in favor of live pianists. This was a step upward, but only a short step.

The early pianists usually had little training and played whatever they knew, whether or not it fit the mood of the film. Comedy would be accompanied by Schumann’s “Träumerei” and winter scenes by Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song.” Often enough, inappropriate music converted tragedy into farce. In one theater it got so bad that when the movie’s heroine threw herself into the water, someone in the audience yelled, “Take the pianist with you, while you’re about it!”