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Silent Film Sheet Music

Piano music written for movie battle scenes.Inez Garrison used this sheet music when accompanying silent films at a theater in Marion, Kansas.  The music produced an atmosphere that a soundless film alone could not.

The earliest movies belong to the silent film era.  Beginning around 1895 and ending in 1929, this generation of films is so named because the movies had no recorded synchronized sound or dialogue.  Although the film recording itself was silent, the theater was not.  Music had long been used in live theater to entertain the audience between acts of a play or as part of a vaudeville show.  It was only logical that it should accompany the new invention of film.  Music enhanced the movie-going experience.  It also had the added benefit of masking the clicking whir of the film projector.

Pianos were the instrument of choice for most movie houses.  Both pianos and amateur pianists were readily available in any town.  Because young women were typically trained on this instrument, theater owners frequently hired them to serve as accompanists.  The ladies knew a variety of music styles, including classical, folk tunes, and popular songs.  Silent film musicians relied heavily on classical and popular music as accompaniment.  They also tried to create sound effects such as crashes, horse hooves, or falls with their instruments. 

Sheet music for movie sword fights and duels.As early as the 1910s, film accompanists established mood with music.  Composers wrote music, known as photoplay, specifically for films. Some songs were marked with the type of scene they were meant to accompany.  These directives can be seen on the photoplay music show here.  For example, "Furioso" was played during scenes with storms or confusion, and "Mysterioso" accompanied depictions of stealth and murder.   

Movie theaters compiled libraries of these pieces.  Accompanists selected specific songs from the library to suit the different themes of a film.  Some films came with cue sheets indicating which song to play for each scene.  Musicians also improvised some segments, giving the accompaniment a personal flourish.  As longer feature films became common, film studios hired composers to write music unique to each movie.  The score was included with the film when it was shipped to theaters.

After sound films were developed in the late 1920s, movie theaters no longer needed accompanists or music libraries.  Inez Garrison, a film accompanist, used this sheet music in the 1920s while working at the Garden Theater in Marion, Kansas.  As a young, single woman, Inez also played for the local Kiwanas Club and a swing dance band.  Many of the pieces are marked with her name on the back, indicating she might have purchased them herself.  It is possible, too, that they belonged to the theater and, when it no longer needed them, Inez took her favorite pieces as a souvenir of her time in show business.  The music was donated to the collections of the Kansas Museum of History by Inez's daughter.

Entry: Silent Film Sheet Music

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2012

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.