Music and Screen Media

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The musical order of things: cinema music libraries of the 'silent period'

In this joint paper we will compare film music collections of the so-called “silent period” in Germany, the UK, and the US. Since these libraries served specific purposes that became obsolete soon after the advent of sound-on-film technology, most of them have perished. However, a reconstruction of the musical order of the screen world is possible, to some extent, based on old catalogues, surviving scores (sometimes heavily annotated), instruction manuals, and trade paper columns dealing with practical aspects of musical accompaniment and the organisation of both repertoire pieces and generic photoplay pieces in indices and on the shelves. Apparently, the orders of most, if not all, cinema music collections in the UK, the US and Germany from the late 1920s used complex taxonomies of semantic (rather than alphabetical) systems, which posed no small challenge since their holdings consisted almost exclusively of instrumental pieces. Their key concepts, strikingly similar in different countries, were tailored to stock characters, stereotyped “moods”, common locales, settings and scene types that were used in cue sheets and titles of photoplay compositions as well. Other issues that determined the organisation of cinema music libraries were limited local resources and serious time pressure, which forced music directors, organists, and pianists to compile and arrange (rather than to compose) music for a new show within just a few days. Contemporary sources shed light on such strenuous conditions and enable us to reconstruct the quasi industrial workflow in the preparation of silent film accompaniments, which explains the rather peculiar order of cinema music libraries in the 1920s. The surviving cinema music library from the Theatre Royal Picture House in Bradford, North Yorkshire, nevertheless reveals that this professional sphere proved a challenge for some to navigate.

Jointly presented paper, with PhDr Tobias Plebuch, Humboldt University, Berlin
Period26 Jun 2014
Event typeConference
LocationLiverpool, United KingdomShow on map


  • silent film
  • film music
  • libraries