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Silent Film Sound

Silent Film Sound

Rick Altman
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 480
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  • Book Info
    Silent Film Sound
    Book Description:

    Because silent cinema is widely perceived as having been exactly that-silent-no one has fully examined how souns was used to accompany the films of this era. Silent Film Sound reconsiders all aspects of sound practices during the entire silent film period. Based on extensive origianl reserach and accompanied by gorgeous illustrations, the book challenges the assumptions of earlier histories of this period in film and reveals the complexity and swiftly changing nature of American silent cinema.

    Contrary to received opinion, silent films were not always accompanied, nor were accompaniments uniform. Beginning with sound practices before cinema's first decade and continuing through to the more familiar sound practices of the 1920s, Rick Altman discusses the variety of sound strategies and the way early cinema exhibitors used these strategies to differentiate their products. During the nickelodeon period prior to 1910, this variety reached its zenith, with theaters often deploying half a dozen competing sound strategies-from carniva-like music in the street, automatic pianos at the rear of the theater, and small orchestras in the pit to lecturers, synchronized sound systems, and voices behind the screen. During this period, musical accompaniment had not yet begun to support the story and its emotions as it would in later years.

    But in the 1910s, film sound acquiesced to the demands of the burgeoning cinema industry, who successfully argued that accompaniment should enhance film's narrative and emotional content rather than score points by burluesqiung or "kidding" the film. The large theaters and blockbuster productions of the mid-1910s provided a perfect crucible for new instruments, new music publication projects, and the development of a new style of film msuic. From that moment on, film music would become an integral part of the film rather than its adversary, and a new style of cinema sound would favor accompaniment that worked in concert with cinema story-telling. For the first time, Silent Film Sound details the ways in which these diverse intersts and industires cam together to produce an extraordinarily successful audiovisual art.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53400-0
    Subjects: Film Studies, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-1)

    • 1 The History of Silent Film Sound
      (pp. 5-13)

      It has never been easy to capture in words the phenomenon of sound. While philosophers and technicians have developed concrete languages for describing images, sound has often seemed to require a more abstract terminology, drawing on the language of myth and the sacred rather than that of three-dimensional reality. Though their understanding of acoustics was highly developed, the Greeks concentrated their attention on exceptional circumstances and unusual practices. While Pythagoras was charting the harmony of the spheres, others developed a myth to explain the phenomenon of echo, made ventriloquism into a sacred source of prophecy, and turned the process of...

    • 2 Crisis Historiography
      (pp. 15-23)

      Silent Film Sound offers a full-length example of a new type of history writing, which I call “crisis historiography.” This chapter presents the assumptions and commitments of this approach, explaining how they differ from the presuppositions and practices of traditional history.

      Object of Study. This book deals not with technologies or events as such, but with complex cultural signs. When traditional media historians choose an object of analysis, they are apparently selecting something that actually exists, such as television. In fact, however, they are concentrating on a particular historical and cultural understanding of the category labeled “television,” not on a...


    • 3 The Musical Scene
      (pp. 27-53)

      Never in the course of human history has the sound environment changed as fast or in as wide-ranging a manner as it did during the latter half of the nineteenth century in American cities. If the first half of the century continued to be characterized by rural occupations and organic materials, the last fifty years of the century increasingly featured industrial processes and steel products.¹ With “meat” horses (as Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum would put it) giving way to iron horses and trolley cars, and human effort increasingly replaced by steam engines and electric motors, the residents...

    • 4 Lecture Logic
      (pp. 55-73)

      From its very inception, cinema sufficiently resembled other cultural practices to virtually require the exhibition treatment widely associated with those practices. Cinema’s appeal to existing representational systems was hardly univocal, however. Depending on film content, differing exhibition strategies seemed appropriate. Films representing musicians and dancers, assimilated to live performances, were treated as requiring musical accompaniment, whereas films featuring objects traditionally associated with stage sound effects (such as cannons or side arms) seemed incomplete without those sound effects. An entirely different tradition is invoked by films depicting faraway places. Because of the importance of illustrated travel lectures during the last two...


    • 5 From Peep Show to Projection
      (pp. 77-93)

      Early film accompaniment offers maddeningly incomplete evidence. Sound was held in such low esteem that it is never even mentioned in most reviews. Even more problematic, cinema’s early years were a period of exceptions. Everything was a novelty, and thus received special treatment. Remaining evidence often relates to inaugural presentations of new projection systems, gala releases of new films, or special introductions of new devices. As a whole, the sound components of this era have thus been entirely passed over by historians, with the sole exception of the festive debuts of the Vitascope, Cinématographe, Biograph, and other new projection systems.¹...

    • 6 Vaudeville
      (pp. 95-115)

      For a full decade, from 1896 to 1906, America’s vaudeville theaters were the nation’s primary venue for the exhibition of moving pictures. Unfortunately, the historical record on vaudeville is sorely lacking. By far the majority of writing on vaudeville involves undated reminiscences or undocumented general claims. Archival materials are few and incomplete. To make things worse, the status of resident musicians was so low in vaudeville theaters that even the most complete accounts often leave them out entirely. As a result, the record regarding film sound in vaudeville theaters is anything but complete. Even incomplete, however, the vaudeville record provides...


    • 7 The Crisis of the Late Aughts
      (pp. 119-131)

      The rapid development of storefront theaters after 1905 changed the film exhibition situation rapidly and substantially. Typically called “electric theaters,” “nickelettes,” or especially “nickelodeons,” these small theaters were concentrated in city shopping districts but also sprang up in small towns throughout the country. Most city nickelodeons were open continuously from early morning to late evening. Because they required so little capital, storefront theaters were especially attractive to entrepreneurs, who rented both space and films. Projectors available for inexpensive purchase could handle lantern slides as well as moving pictures. A simple sheet served as a screen, and spectators sat on folding...

    • 8 Lectures, Sound Effects, and the Itinerant Exhibition Model
      (pp. 133-155)

      Few areas of film history have been so systematically overlooked as the elusive realm of itinerant exhibition. From the 1890s to the 1950s traveling showmen periodically brought moving pictures to spectators interested in topics outside the mainstream of public entertainment, avid for a level of seriousness and erudition superior to that of theaters, or located in small towns lacking permanent projection facilities. Most traveling exhibitors signed season-long contracts with booking agents who sold their services to churches, charitable and fraternal organizations, or municipalities. Turn-of-the-century shows took place in churches, Lyceums, or opera houses; later, summer tent Chautauquas and public schools...

    • 9 Films That Talk
      (pp. 157-179)

      Long before projected moving images became a reality, they lived an active imaginary life in the minds of their inventors. Almost without exception, dreams about the future of cinema not only included sound but systematically evoked a specific sound model: the theater, and opera in particular. Such goals were always a part of Thomas Edison’s vision. His 1894 handwritten statement, published in facsimile by W. K. Laurie Dickson, makes his aspirations abundantly clear:

      I believe that in coming years, by my own work and that of Dickson, Muybridge, Marié [sic] and others who will doubtless enter the field, that grand...

    • 10 The Nickelodeon Program
      (pp. 181-201)

      Received wisdom treats cinema’s first two decades as a single period dominated by a lone pianist accompanying every minute of every film. The early cinema soundscape was considerably more complex. Until the 1980s, scholarship on early cinema was little more than an extrapolation of feature film history. Over the past two decades, this situation has changed radically for the film image, film technology, and the film industry, yet film sound has not benefited from these developments. Notions of early film sound have continued to be dominated by clichés, unverified reminiscences, and unsupported extrapolations. As this chapter will reveal, many basic...

    • 11 Nickelodeon Music
      (pp. 203-227)

      Received wisdom has described nickelodeon music primarily through a process of interpolation, constructing the nickel theater’s soundscape by reference to a preceding tradition of stage melodrama music and to subsequent picture palace practice. Nickelodeon music has been assumed to be ubiquitous, continuous, emotive, and improvised according to classical principles. The previous chapters have already offered several reasons to question these conclusions:

      Nineteenth-century stage melodrama music was highly discontinuous, stressing character introductions and music matched to on-stage sources.

      Far from monopolizing the storefront theater’s soundscape, film accompaniment was neither the nickelodeon’s first nor its primary form of music, those distinctions going...


    • 12 Trade Press Discourse
      (pp. 231-247)

      The nickelodeon era was a period of extraordinary diversity in the American film industry, covering the entire chain from production to consumption. Some films continued to be shot by solitary itinerant exhibitors, extending the tradition of nineteenth-century lantern slide lecturers; others were produced by well-organized and heavily capitalized companies working within a carefully configured schedule and a predetermined budget. Distribution followed similarly diverse paths. Most moving picture theaters rented films through exchanges, but vaudeville persisted in using exhibition services, while traveling exhibitors and platform circuit lecturers carried films from town to town. Exhibition conditions varied still more widely. Projected in...

    • 13 Music for Films
      (pp. 249-269)

      The industry’s campaign to standardize sound was supported by three related developments: larger theaters, longer films, and systematic introduction of a second projector. Large moving picture theaters were not really a novelty. Throughout the nickelodeon period, enterprising exhibitors had seized every opportunity to exploit bankrupt legitimate, melodrama, vaudeville, or burlesque theaters. On Manhattan’s Fourteenth Street, William Fox had snapped up every available performance space and even in 1909 built the 2,300-seat City Theater. Not until after the turn of the decade, however, would moving pictures definitively prove their mettle as a worthwhile investment. As industry arbiters argued for standardized film...

    • 14 Training Musicians, Training Audiences
      (pp. 271-285)

      It is one thing to trace industry discourse on film accompaniment, and quite another to understand exactly how published principles were passed on to moving picture pianists. As one of the most actively expanding areas of professional opportunity for musicians, moving picture music might reasonably have become an important aspect of the music-teaching enterprise, and thus an essential topic for professional music journals. Yet the International Musician, official organ of the American Federation of Musicians, never so much as mentions moving picture music until 1911, when the union finally admitted that, “The picture show problem has assumed proportions that must...


    • 15 Moving Picture Orchestras Come of Age
      (pp. 289-319)

      In the early teens, film music was primarily a keyboard affair. Most theaters employed a single musician, usually a pianist, to accompany films and song illustrators. Orchestras remained small when they existed at all. In fact, the term orchestra was regularly applied to groups as small as the once preferred piano/percussion duo or the frequent combination of piano, drums, and violin. Around 1912, a “large orchestra” was an ensemble of four to twelve musicians, still led by the pianist or first violin.¹ Union guidelines reveal contemporary expectations regarding orchestra sizes. In 1912 the Springfield (Mass.) chapter of the American Federation...

    • 16 New Roles for Keyboard Instruments
      (pp. 321-343)

      New representational technologies are condemned to a chameleonlike life. In order even to appear on contemporary cultural radar screens, they must dress in costumes that potential patrons will recognize. Their only choice is to take advantage of available resources, to simulate familiar practices, and to fit existing exhibition and distribution patterns. The first films were thus exploited not in film theaters but in phonograph parlors, using machines designed to imitate nickel-in-the-slot phonographs. When films were first projected they complemented traditional fare in vaudeville theaters, on the lecture circuit, or in phonograph concerts. As moving pictures shuttled from one venue to...

    • 17 Cue Sheets and Photoplay Music
      (pp. 345-365)

      It is a sure sign that a new mode of representation has achieved individuation when other industries begin distributing products specifically designed for the newcomer. During its early years, cinema had no choice but to make do with available technology and existing practices. The first filmmakers used film stock developed for still photography, cutting it to size for their cameras and projectors. For illumination they borrowed systems already in use for magic lantern projection. Exhibition took place in existing venues like the Lyceum podium or the vaudeville stage, with sound provided by the attendant lecturer or the resident pianist. Throughout...

    • 18 Musical Practices
      (pp. 367-388)

      Early film theaters varied widely in terms of audience, program, and expectations. Some attracted recent immigrants, while others catered to established populations. Films shared the program with illustrated songs, vaudeville acts, or lantern slides. Announcements might be in Yiddish, Czech, German, Italian, or French. Music was out front or inside, live or mechanical, popular or classical. By the twenties this diversity had largely disappeared. The uncertain competition of cinema’s first two decades had by the twenties engendered a stable hierarchy. Instead of initiating new practices, theaters throughout the country would strive to imitate the names, programming, and musical formations of...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 389-392)

    Like many dimly remembered practices, early cinema’s exhibition strategies have long seemed uniform in their otherness. This study seeks to change that perception once and for all. Listening more carefully to the diverse sounds associated with silent cinema, we grasp not only their variety but also the competing logics determining their development. Several quite unexpected conclusions may be drawn from this close inspection.

    Once considered a simple import from the melodrama stage, silent film sound was far more complex. Though film accompaniment did borrow intermittently from the stage, and from melodrama in particular, it drew on a far broader spectrum...

    (pp. 393-394)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 395-432)
    (pp. 433-444)
    (pp. 445-448)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 449-462)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 463-463)