For links to archives of photoplay music, and for my mini-biographies of several photoplay music composers, use the menus above. I have also posted my Photoplay Music Starter Kit on this site, for those who want to try scoring silent films using their original music.

Photoplay Music FAQ

"Photoplay Music" is the vast, largely forgotten genre of music published for compiling silent film scores between about 1913 and 1929. Feel free to email me if you have other questions or corrections. And if this is too casual for you, a bibliography of rigorously academic works on silent film music can be found at the bottom of this page.

They're called silent films. Weren't they silent?

They were not called silent until talkies came along -- they were called movies, motion pictures, flicks, photoplays (and, okay, sometimes "silent drama"). People nowadays usually think of silent films being accompanied by a solo pianist or organist, but in the teens and twenties, deluxe houses would have had an orchestra (although often a rather small one). In many ways, the silent film era was the golden age of film music, since the music was presented live and did not have to compete with dialog or sound effects. In those days, it was "foreground music," not "background music." Talkies were not a good development for film music.

Were silent films always presented with music?

It's a mistake to look at the "silent film era" as a uniform time. It took a while for film presentation to become standardized, and there's a lot of evidence that before 1910 a lot of theaters may have not used music, or had a musician who played to entertain the audience during the pauses while the film was being rewound rather than during the film itself. But it's safe to say that by 1913, in most theaters appropriate music was expected to be played during a filmw screening.

The idea that early films were not always accompanied by music is supported by the fact that almost no photoplay music was published before 1913 (films having been shown since the mid 1890s), implying that there may not have been a demand in the early years. Starting around 1913, specific books of music appear, first for keyboard solo and soon thereafter for orchestras.

How is a silent film score put together?

There are three kinds of silent film scores: improvised scores, composed scores, and compiled scores.

A "composed score" is one that is made of fresh music composed for the film. This works when you’ve got an adequate budget and schedule, and can result in an impressive accompaniment. But until the advent of recorded scores in “talkies,” this method rarely made economic sense except for big pictures that could be expected to run in the same theater for many months. Examples of composed scores include the Mortimer Wilson score for The Thief of Bagdad, the Henry Hadley score for When a Man Loves, parts of the Paramount scores by J.S. Zamecnik and Hugo Riesenfeld, and the more recent scores by modern composers like Carl Davis, some of Robert Israel's work, and the recent commissioned scores from the Mary Pickford Foundation.

"Improvised scores" are made up by a musician as the film runs. This is a very efficient way to present silent films, but is best suited to solo instrumentalists or small avant-garde groups, since it's hard for a large ensemble to make stuff up that makes musical sense. Improvised scores are the most common type of score in live-music silent film screenings today, but it was not always so—there are more improvising musicians now than there were in the 1920s. Improvisation was not part of the standard classical music education, and most musicians relied on having something written on a page.

A "compiled score" is assembled from a library of pre-written music, and was the most common type of orchestral silent film score. Each scene is scored by choosing an appropriate piece—storm music for storm scenes, romantic music for love scenes, etc. Since all of the music is already composed and orchestrated, a complete orchestral score can be assembled and rehearsed in a matter of days. When the film’s run is over, the music was filed back into the library to be reused later. Thousands of “photoplay music” compositions were published for building libraries from which one could compile film scores.

In the real world, the three techniques are often combined in one score.

Excellent scores can be made using each technique.

The Mont Alto Orchestra compiles its scores from period theater music, often leaving a few scenes to be improvised on the piano to make the score more flexible for live performance conditions.

Does Mont Alto use the original, authentic score for silent movies?

One possible definition of silent films would be "films that have no single, definitive sound track." Most theaters in America in the silent film era created their own scores, so there was no single "original, authentic" score. If you saw the same film in 1000 different theatres, you would hear close to 1000 different scores. It is true that many big productions had scores composed especially for their New York premieres by composers like Erno Rapee and Hugo Riesenfeld. But these scores were rarely used at many theaters outside New York unless an orchestra travelled with the film as a "road show," and I prefer to refer to them as the "New York Premiere Score" rather than the "Original Score." Mont Alto's score compiling approach is historically authentic, and creates a a score that could have been heard in a silent film theater, even though these exact scores are unlikely to have occured during the silent era.

What's a cue sheet?

A "cue sheet" was sort of a cheat sheet for the musical director that would be sent with or ahead of a film to give hints as to what pieces would work with the film (see an example below). The cue sheet lists the "cue" (action or title) to watch for in the film, the title, composer, and publisher of a suggested piece to be played, and a few opening measures of the violin part. Note that this is not enough to play a score from, but just enough to give musicians an idea of the kind of music is being called for so that they can make informed substitutions.

Theater music directors were expected to maintain a library of music, and either use the music suggested in the cue sheet or substitute similar pieces from their collections. Cue sheets were ignored by some theater directors and used by others.

It is maintained by some that using the cue sheet is the only way to prepare an "authentic" score that reflects what people originally heard. I feel that using a cue sheet can be an interesting academic exercise, but it mistakes the original intent of cue sheets. A paragraph from some of James Bradford's cue sheets makes his intentions clear:

"The purpose of this musical setting is to aid the leader in selecting appropriate music for the picture. It is not intended that he should purchase the pieces suggested nor should it be inferred that without them a good musical setting is not possible. Their purpose is rather to illustrate the style and character of the music that fits each scene and so enable to leader to select a similar piece from his library."

Here is the first page of the cue sheet for the Paramount Film Beggars of Life.

Beggars of Life Cue Sheet

What are the advantages to compiled scores?

Compiled scores are a remarkably efficient way to assemble impressive movie scores -- typically the score compiler received the film or cue sheet three days to a week before the picture was to be shown and was able to have the film score arranged and the orchestra rehearsed by opening night while still exhibiting the previous film. Mont Alto got an accidental trial-by-fire on this at the 2000 Cinecon convention, when an expected film was cancelled a week before the screening. Susan Hall and I were able to compile a score for a different film in one day, arrange parts for each musician the next, rehearse on a third day, and then present the film "as professionally as if planned for months" (according to a review of the performance in Classic Images).

How many pieces do you need to compile a film score?

A typical compiled film score uses from 35 to 70 pieces of music, but you need a larger pool of pieces to select them from. Large theaters boasted of libraries with 15,000, or even as many as 50,000 scores, typically a mix of classical works, popular dances and songs, and photoplay music. I would estimate that a minimum practical film scoring library should have at least 500 to 1000 pieces, and even then some of the more useful pieces would start to repeat themselves after five or ten film scores.

My grandma played piano for silent films. Was it unusual for women to do that?

I have encountered many more people whose grandmothers played for the movies than people whose grandfathers played. I don't know any studies of this, but it would not surprise me at all to learn that more women than men were pianists in the small nickleodeons. More women were trained to play the piano than men (it was part of a proper upbringing), and they were probably cheaper to hire. The huge demand for qualified musicians overruled long-standing prejudices, and Black musicians such as the composers James Scott and Jelly Roll Morton, as well as Louis Armstrong, got regular work in movie theaters. It seems to have been much rarer for women to be members of orchestras, although I have found some photoplay pieces that were rubber-stamped with the names of women who were presumably the orchestra leaders.

I'm a musician. Is there some photoplay music I can try out?

Volume 1 of Sam Fox Moving Picture Music is available here. This is some of the earliest (and most primitive) photoplay music, written in 1913 by J.S. Zamecnik. This book contains piano music well within the range of a beginning to intermediate pianist. The Photoplay Music Starter Kit contains over 90 pieces of music arranged for variable-sized orchestras. To hear the music, try our CD and video recordings page, on which are downloadable MP3 files of Mont Alto's recorded performances of photoplay music. Also, check the Photoplay Music Sources page for more places that music can be found.

What's that really famous silent film music thing, you know, "dum... dum... dum... dum... DAAAHHH!"?

This little snippet, under the title "Mysterioso Pizzicato," appears in the Remick Folio of Moving Picture Music, compiled and edited by J. Bodewaldt Lampe, published in 1914 by Jerome H. Remick & Co. "Containing over 100 Dramatic, Descriptive, and Characteristic Numbers Suitable for any Theatrical Performance or Exhibiltion Requiring Incidental Music."

I have learned to never claim something as being the "first" appearance of anything in early movies, because usually someone will come up with an earlier example. But, this is certainly an early version of this theme.

The piece almost immediately became an object of satirical imitation, and is quoted in humorous takes on silent films. Like the "woman tied to a railroad track by the villain" meme, I suspect that it appeared in silent film more in parody (even at the time) than in seriousness.

Lampe does not take actually take credit as composer of the piece (which he does for other pieces in the collection), so it may be that he took it or adapted it from some older source, possibly from vaudeville or melodrama (which often had live music). Also, note how short it is: movies were not very long in 1914, but even considering that, this is not going to score very much film.

Mysterioso Pizzicato

Did many movie theaters have orchestras?

In a 1922 survey of movie theaters by Motion Picture News, exhibitors were asked about the musical accompaniment in their theaters. Of those who answered the question, 46% used theater organ, 25% used piano only, and 29% had an orchestra. Orchestras were expensive and often reserved for prime-time shows, so even those theaters that claimed to have orchestras probably used theater organs or pianos at the early matinees and during the orchestra's breaks. On the other hand, the 29% of theaters with orchestras were also likely the largest theaters seating the most people, so probably well over 29% of the movie-going audience any night was seeing an orchestrally-scored movie presentation.

Where does Mont Alto, a mere salon quintet, get off calling itself an "orchestra"?

Pure (but historically authentic) American hype. In the Motion Picture News survey mentioned above, only 6.6% of the orchestras had more than ten players, 29% had from six to ten, and the remainder were "orchestras" with five (18%), four (13%), three (22%), or two (11%) players. The unscientific nature of the survey makes extrapolation from this data risky, but if the data were assumed accurate, in the roughly 15,000 American theaters there would have been around 3700 "orchestras," of which around 250 would have been larger than ten players, 1100 with six to ten players, and 2000 with three to five players. If you were to plot a graph of the data, you'd notice that five players may have been the most common configuration (depending on how that 6-10 category breaks down).

What is the proper instrumentation for photoplay music?

To be useful to the widest variety of orchestras, photoplay music was arranged so that any piece could be played by any group from a piano-violin-cello trio up to an 80-piece orchestra. Orchestrators did this by "cross cueing," which means that an important musical line in one instrument would be placed, in small "cue" notes, in the parts for other instruments, so that (for instance) in the absence of the oboe, the clarinet or violin could play the oboe's solos. The piano was used to cover the usual "filler" work of the basses, violas, and second violins.

The "piano-conductor" score was used by the conductor as well, since there was no full score published. Considering that most conductors in small groups were playing an instrument, a full score would have had an unwelcome number of page turns. If the orchestra was large enough, all of the piano's notes were covered by other instruments, and the piano could be omitted entirely.

Advertisements for the Sam Fox Photoplay Editions, state "Arranged for full orchestra and effective in any small orchestral combination which includes violin and piano." The folder containing Carl Fischer's Loose Leaf Motion Picture Collection reads "All parts are carefully cued and specially arranged so as to be playable for violin and piano[,] trio, quartet, or any other combination of instruments with violin and piano."

What were the large theater orchestras like?

Most photoplay music was sold in "large orchestra" and "small orchestra" versions. The "small" orchestra's parts consisted of:

  • violin 1
  • violin 2
  • viola
  • cello
  • bass
  • flute
  • clarinet 1
  • trumpets/cornets 1 and 2
  • trombone
  • percussion, and
  • piano/conductor reduction (there is no full-orchestra score).

The "large" orchestration added

  • oboe
  • bassoon
  • 2nd clarinet
  • horns 1 and 2
  • and often harmonium, and occasionally harp.

But the parts are identical. A cellist would read from same part whether in a piano trio, a small orchestra, or a large orchestra -- but in the small group, he or she would have to play the bassoon and trombone cue notes. The piano/conductor score was also sold separately, and theater organists played from these parts, using cue indications to choose appropriate stops.

Were photoplay music composers any good, or were they tin-pan-alley hacks?

Most photoplay music composers were serious classical musicians, working in what they felt was a novel (and economically viable) new field of classical music. Gaston Borch had studied with Jules Massenet and had played in and conducted symphonies across Europe and America.

J.S. Zamecnik, who studied for two years with Dvorak at the Prague Conservatory, voiced the attitude of many composers

"I believe the biggest composers will be attracted to this field, for there is a scope to it hitherto unknown to music. If the great composers only realized the opportunities in the motion picture field they would be knocking on the door for an opportunity to write this music. I am of the opinion that essentially dramatic composers, such as Wagner and Tschaikowsky, would have been vastly attracted by the motion picture. Wagner's ideas were always dramatic and always conceived on a tremendous scale. They were so vast and called for such technical resource that he had to have a special opera house constructed to properly present his music dramas. The motion picture has no such limitations as the stage. Nothing is too vast for the screen. I think that Wagner would have reveled in the idea of fitting his music to the motion picture for that reason alone. Then there was Berlioz, whose ideas were even vaster than Wagner's. Had he been able to he would have used thousands of people in tremendous musical spectacles and he could have done this in the films. As it was, he died without realizing any but a small part of his vision. Again, take Tschaikowsky. His music is always dramatic and always emotional. It is also most melodious. I believe that he would have written unparalleled music for the screen and would have been enchanted by the problems the pictures set up for solution. Likewise, I believe that any future Wagners, Berliozs and Tschaikowskys will be led instinctively to the screen for the proper exploitation of their talents."

-- Gordon Whyte, “J.S. Zamecnik,” in The Metronome, September 1 1927, p. 41.

In reality, classical composers such as Stravinsky who tried motion picture scoring often did as poorly as famous novelists did with screen writing. And although writers on silent film music have made much of compiled scores being made up of the standard classical repertoire -- usually mentioning Breil's use of the Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" in his score for The Birth of a Nation -- such classical pieces are quite rare in actual cue sheets. The purpose-written photoplay music was more useful.

Was photoplay music just a backwater in the development of American music?

Considering that America alone had 15,000 movie theaters, many giving two to four daily programs, it's clear that the presentation and attendance of films vastly surpassed the presentation and attendance of opera, ballet, and classical music concerts -- possibly even church music. Weekly attendance in 1926 was 47 million people, or about half the population. ASCAP reported that film theater orchestras were responsible for more royalties than any other type of musical performance. In the days before radio was widespread, photoplay music was probably the most commonly heard form of music in America, and contributed greatly to the development of the general public's musical taste.

Borch? Riesenfeld? Zamecnik? Why haven't I heard of any of these composers?

Because they didn't get any credit, their music wasn't recorded, the medium died overnight, and no one bothered to remember it. This does not mean that these were not significant composers. In the words of Gordon Whyte, a columnist for The Metronome, "This is a field of musical writing in which the composer may not be known to the outside world, as the composer of popular songs or musical comedies may be known, but if he is able to write the sort of music which is demanded by the pictures it is safe to say that no other branch of musical writing will yield more performances of his works than this."

Were any silent movie scores recorded during the silent era?

This might seem like a silly question, but there are some interesting recordings of silent film-type scores that were made at the tail end of the silent era. Some theaters were wired for sound before the studios had converted all of their productions to sound, so a number of films from 1927 through 1929 were released as silent pictures -- with intertitles and silent-style production techniques -- but with recorded musical scores for those theaters that wanted them. These films give an idea of how silent film scores sounded at the best theaters in the late 1920s, although unfortunately these scores are hard to find on video. While some films, like Sunrise and Seventh Heaven, are considered incomplete without their recorded scores, others like Wings or The Wedding March are re-released on video with new organ scores as though the original score was expendable. My personal opinion is that in live performances it is valid to present these films either with the recorded score or with live musicians, but if you're going to watch a recorded film on a video it might as well use the original score. As composer Hugo Riesenfeld said in 1926:

It is not probable that the Vitaphone will ever entirely replace the orchestra, but it does make it possible for certain films requiring the finest musical accompaniment to be shown in places where there is no orchestra available.

The fact that he was wrong about the death of the theater orchestra is irrelevant to the fact that he obviously prefered live orchestras to Vitaphone scores -- a case could be made that his Vitaphone scores were likewise only intended for theaters where there was no orchestra (including, eventually, our living rooms).

Where can I find good books or articles on silent film music?

Most of these answers come from my article on photoplay music (where the facts are properly referenced). 

Rodney Sauer, Photoplay Music: A Reusable Repertory for Silent Film Scoring, 1914-1929, American Music Research Center Journal, Vol. 8/9, 1998-99.

The most complete book to date on silent film music and non-musical accompaniment practices (such as lectures, sound effects, etc.) is

Rick Altman, Silent Film Sound. Columbia University Press, 2005.

A good illustrated overview of silent film music practices, as well as listings of the contents of the Library of Congress collections and some other silent film music archives, is given in

Gillian Anderson, Music for Silent Films 1894-1929, Library of Congress, Washington, 1988.

A collection of 50 photoplay music cues for keyboard, reset in a consistent style, is given in

Model and Vickers, The Music of the Silent Film, 2015.

A remarkably detailed analysis of early composed scores (though little on compiled scores, and nothing on the significant 1925-1929 era of composed scores) is given in

Marks, Martin Miller, Music and the Silent Film, Contexts and Case Studies 1895-1924. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Contemporary perspective on the economics of theater music can be found in

Hugo Riesenfeld, "Music and Motion Pictures," in The Motion Picture in Its Economic and Social Aspects, issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November, 1926, pages 58-62.

How to make an orchestral arrangement work for any size of orchestra is discussed by the master in

Gaston Borch, Practical Manual of Instrumentation, The Boston Music Company, New York: G.Schirmer, 1918.

What to expect as a theater organist is explained for you in

Edith Lang & George West, Musical Accompaniment of Motion Pictures, The Boston Music Company, Boston, 1920.

Putting together an orchestra, a music library, how to approach compiling your own film scores, and a huge list of some 10,000 useful pieces (titles, authors, and publishers; but no actual musical scores) organized by theme is given in

Erno Rapee, Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures, Belwin, NY, 1925. Reprinted in 1974 by the Arno Press.

A basic repertoire of piano/organ scores to suit 52 "moods" can be found in

Erno Rapee, Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists, G. Schirmer, NY, 1924. Reprinted in 1974 by the Arno Press.

Several items written during the silent film era are available at the silent film bookshelf. Particularly June, 1998 on the composer J.S. Zamecnik, March 1997 on Music in Motion Picture Theaters, and October 1996 on Orchestral Accompaniment in the 1920s.