New Music for Old Film

The continuing popularity of silent film showings with live music means that there is plenty of room for experimentation in composing new scores for old pictures—and that audiences can experience individual silent films with multiple soundtracks as fits the occasion or mood.

Written By

Kendra Preston Leonard

When integrated sound came to the cinema, many theaters fired their musicians and stopped showing silent films. A few hung on and offered the occasional silent film with live accompaniment as a concession to audiences or as a novelty. When home video became a reality via first VHS and later DVD, studios hired silent film accompanists such as Rosa Rio and Gaylord Carter to record new soundtracks for silent pictures. And there was a revival of interest in silent film in the 1970s and ’80s that resulted in the establishment of multiple silent film festivals around the world—and with those festivals came a range of approaches in accompanying old movies.

Some accompanists, as I’ve written about earlier in this series, have tried to recreate the accompaniments that audiences would have heard in the 1910s and 1920s. Others, however, reject the concept of using pre-existing music, either from the silent period or elsewhere historically. These musicians argue that today’s audiences have heard so much of this pre-existing music already that common musical gestures and tropes have become saturated with meaning that can interfere with first-time viewers’ experiences seeing silent film. So they compose all-new scores or improvise new scores for each film.

Organist and pianist Ben Model, who serves as the resident film accompanist for the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art, writes, “Avoid playing recognizable music if you can help it. [….] The thing to remember is that your audience may already have their own associations with a familiar piece, whether it’s ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ or ‘Handel’s Messiah’ [sic] and your use of that piece will trigger their association regardless of what yours is.” Model improvises most of his performances, although he has developed certain motifs and themes that he uses for specific films. When he’s fully satisfied with a score, he may (or may not) commit it to paper for others to use or record it with the film for distribution on DVD. While the texture and rhythms of the music may be redolent of the 1910s, it’s all original.

Ben Model’s score for the 1918 film Hey There

Composer and performer Andrew Simpson takes a similar approach to scoring silent films. In his new scores for old movies, Simpson—who also composes for the concert hall—works in an early-20th century idiom, using piano, clarinet, cello, and other instruments common to motion picture houses. He too avoids pre-existing music except for cases in which it’s particularly suitable to use a familiar piece or melody.

Andrew Simpson’s accompaniment for the 1924 Harry Langdon comedy Picking Peaches

Accompanists today are also not limited to piano- or organ-only scores, nor must they have an ensemble at their disposal. Leslie McMichael has composed multiple scores for silent film using the harp. McMichael makes a convincing case for using the harp as opposed to other instruments for a number of films, including Peter Pan from 1924: “What could be more fitting for Tinker Bell than a silvery glissando as she flies about the Darling nursery looking for Peter Pan’s shadow?”

Leslie McMichael’s score for Peter Pan (1924)

McMichael has also incorporated toy instruments, such as the toy piano and toy horns, into her scores for movies featuring children, like the Baby Peggy series of films.

Leslie McMichael’s score for Captain January, a 1924 Baby Peggy film

Drawing on Celtic and other traditional musics and their forms and gestures, McMichael has developed a wide following among silent film fans and offers a very different option for audiences used to organ or chamber ensembles accompanying film.

Other accompanists today prefer to create scores even more distant from the sounds of the past. The Alloy Orchestra describes itself as “a three-man musical ensemble, writing and performing live accompaniment to classic silent films. Working with an outrageous assemblage of peculiar objects, they thrash and grind soulful music from unlikely sources.” Their scores are for percussion and keyboards, including piano, synthesizer, and accordion, with the occasional clarinet. Much of their percussion battery consists of found objects—what the Orchestra calls “the rack of junk.”

The Orchestra creates evocative and original scores that, while playing off of silent film-era musical conventions such as exoticism and gendered motifs, are new and thoughtful and always interesting. The Alloy Orchestra has, like other present-day accompanists, committed many of its scores to DVD and Blu-Ray.

The Alloy Orchestra accompanies a scene from Son of the Sheik (1926)

The Alloy Orchestra’s score for the 1927 film The Unknown

Thanks to technology that gives even non-performers the ability to create and synchronize music with a silent film, there are countless new scores for silent movies online. A quick search on new music for silent films on YouTube results in dozens of hits, including scores created with Sibelius software, scores made with electronic instruments, and student projects.

The Motorist (1906) with new music by Jean Hasse composed for MIDI

Remo De Vico’s electronic score for a short film by Segundo de Chomón

The continuing popularity of silent film showings with live music means that there is plenty of room for experimentation in composing new scores for old pictures—at least those in the public domain, which includes all films released in the United States before 1923—and the increased availability and ease of use of video and audio technology, as well as the availability of recordings for free use through Creative Commons—like those at SFSMA means that audiences can experience individual silent films with multiple soundtracks as fits the occasion or mood.

Additional resources

Catalog of Copyright Entries: Cumulative Series. Motion Pictures 1912–1939. 1951. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. Available in full here.

Creative Commons. 2018. “Legal Music for Videos.”

Hurst, Walter E. 1989. Film Superlist: Motion Pictures in the U.S. Public Domain, 1894-1939 (vol. 1). Hollywood, CA: 7 Arts Press.

Walls, Howard Lamarr. 1953. Motion Pictures 1894–1912 Identified from the Records of the United States Copyright Office. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.