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Silent movie accompanying for students and professionals


In 2012, we are so far removed from the so-called silent film era (ca. 1894-1929) that most of us have only a vague concept of what it was really like. Although the films of that period were silent, their presentation was not. In the small venues, films were accompanied by the local pianist (who was often the neighborhood piano teacher) or a small ensemble, and in the big cities, large theaters provided live orchestras and, in some cases, an impressive organ.

Although some films were shipped to theaters with fully notated scores, most were not, leaving the local musicians to their own creative devices. Pianists with good improvisation skills and the ability to pull well known (and hopefully appropriate) tunes out of the air were in high demand.

Although the art of providing live piano accompaniment for silent film has few practitioners today, there is a revival of interest in this performance genre. And, there are plenty of opportunities for teachers and their students to apply their pianistic skills creatively to both old and new films.

Few readers of this magazine will ever receive a commission from a famous director to score a contemporary film, but all of us have the opportunity to work with the most celebrated directors and actors of the silent era. They have no choice in the matter! 

What follows are essays written by a professional pianist/composer/arranger who devotes a substantial portion of his career to reviving this performance niche, as well as a creative teacher whose students have experienced the joy of participating in this live, multimedia art form.

Silent movie music in the piano studio 

by Penny Lazarus

The silent movie years were a boon for orchestra musicians and pianists. During this time, movie music was the single largest source of employment for musicians in the United States. This was especially true for women, who could earn a steady income by playing regularly at movie houses all across the country.Similar to today's soundtracks, silent movie background music enlivened the action and provided an emotional context for the movie experience.

Silent movies inspire creative studio projects 

In my studio, I've discovered that using film music in teaching is a wonderful, creative way to blend student music with a fascinating investigation of American history and popular culture. None of my previous studio projects has so totally captured my students' imagination, increased their motivation to practice, and drawn audiences to our performances with everyone so excited to participate in a totally different kind of recital experience.

Technology is changing the way we teach music. But innovative technology also enables us to understand our past better, from the very beginning of recorded sound, and to learn how music served the earliest moving pictures. Live movie music is again gaining real interest with performance artists now that original silent movies are remastered and easily streamed or downloaded.During the twentieth century, many thousands of silents have disintegrated because they were produced on highly flammable film or they just simply disappeared, tossed away once "talkies" replaced them in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The silent movies that remain are a treasured link to our past.

My piano students are not the only ones fascinated by silent film music. Today it is not hard to find silent movie gala showings, theatres devoted to silent films, silent film retrospectives complete with live music, Turner Classic Movies, and young composers' competitions for scoring silent film. Silent movie music performance is definitely resurging.3,4 An entire cottage industry of indie artists are also composing live soundtracks for classic silent film, and of course this year's Academy Award winning movie, The Artist, is a French romantic drama in the style of black-and-white silent film with little sound except for music played by the Brussels Philharmonic.

Student piano music can be used to create silent movie music scores. In the heyday of silent film, it was customary for the movie accompanists to draw heavily upon classical music sources, but those musicians also incorporated folk and popular music into their work. In addition, there was an entire industry of composers who produced mood music just for silent film. Some of this historic music is now available in reprints.

Essential material for getting started

Once talkies eliminated the need for live music, movie studios threw out entire libraries of original, silent movie scores, even using these manuscripts for scrap paper!5 Fortunately in 1974, Arno Press reprinted the original 1924 Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists by Erno Rapée (available from and other used book sellers). Three volumes of Sam Fox Moving Picture Music by John Steven Zamecnik, a Czech composer who studied under Antonín Dvoˇrák, is available as a free download from the International Music Score Library Project ( wiki/Category:Zamecnik,_John_ Stepan). This public-domain collection of original mood music is a must-have for all piano teaching studios. The one- and twopage pieces are melodramatic, fun to play, and, for advancing students, perfect sight-reading practice. What student wouldn't love to play Mysterioso-Burglar, Clown-Grotesque Music, or Hurry Music for Mob or Fire Scenes"? 6

This is a page from Sam Fox Motion Picture Music Volume 1. It shows two cues that can be used as “hurry music,” one for “struggles” and one for “duels.”

Three approaches to scoring a silent film 

Silent movie projects provide an opportunity to teach improvisation, composition, memorization, and performance skills. Students learn an important lesson about the ways in which music engages our senses and imagination to tell a story. Silent film accompaniment (with several students taking turns playing) is the ultimate collaborative music project, requiring students to perfect the timing of their playing so that it coordinates with moving images on the (computer) screen!

There are three ways to arrange music for a silent film score, and my students have used all of them in our projects. 

(1) Compiled Scores Silent movie music was most often compiled from already written and known pieces. If an orchestra was employed to accompany a silent movie, group improvisation was impractical. Therefore, a compilation of previously published music was necessary to get everyone on "the same page." Sometimes, an orchestra just repeated a group of classical mood pieces that didn't necessarily reflect the image or action on the screen, unless by coincidence. But the larger movie houses preferred composers who would put together compilation scores that would enhance and elucidate the story line of a film.7 This is exactly what my own students have done on most of our projects.

(2) Improvisation Smaller movie houses typically employed a single pianist who could improvise. With simple schematic notes to help them remember the order of action in a film, pianists would use bits and pieces of composed music, coupled together with riffs, scales, modulations, and tremolos to create moment-by-moment music. Improvised music enabled the pianist to change mood quickly, heightening the sense of urgency of a cop and robber chase or the sadness of a couple parted by war. All of my students, no matter how young, have delighted in connecting two simple pieces together with their own "improvised" measure or two of linking music.

(3) Original Scores Motion picture production companies with the biggest budgets hired professional composers to create original music scores for those silent movies that they wanted to promote. D.W. Griffith's ground breaking epic silent film, Birth of a Nation, arrived at movie houses in 1915 with a score composed by Joseph Carl Breill. But even earlier, in 1908, Camille Saint- Saëns was commissioned to create a score for The Assassination of the Duke of Guise.8 A few of my students have loved the challenge of composing their own music for a particular scene. One movie workshop coincided with a studio theme of Spanish piano music. This inspired one of my eight-year-old students to compose Guitarra for a silent scene in Disney's 1928 Steamboat Willie in which Minnie serenades Mickey on her guitar. 9

Starting a silent movie studio project 

The first step in starting a silent movie project is to select an appropriate movie on which many students can collaborate. Only a fraction of all silent films (about 2,000) survive today.10 But a number of them, featuring some of the most successful silent movie film actors (such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Keystone Kops, and Douglass Fairbanks), are available. You can do a Google search for "silent movie shorts" to locate films whose playing time is thirty minutes or less. These shorter films work very well with younger students, either in a recital format or in a workshop session.

The longer, full-length silent films were often based on popular nineteenth century literature (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Oliver Twist, and The Wizard of Oz, for example) and make great studio recitals. You can find many of them on DVD, such as Silent Classics and Landmarks of Cinema. They often come with incidental movie music but the soundtracks can be turned off so that students can play along. In my studio, we use only a portion of these films because they can be as long as two hours. For example, we used the first forty-five minutes of Zorro, concluding with one of the dramatic rescue scenes, and just forty minutes of the big train chase scene in Buster Keaton's The Governor.

For a recital project, I usually assign younger students short comedies by Charlie Chaplin or The Keystone Kops. More advanced students can score longer films, such as Phantom of the Opera or The Governor. In workshop situations, we all work together on one type of film (silent cartoons, for example).

Once you have selected a silent movie, you might want to schedule a group showing so that all of your students can watch the movie together. Alternatively, you can devote lesson time for this purpose. Some of the Keystone Kops movies are only eight minutes long, which makes it easy for students to watch these short films from beginning to end during their lesson or while waiting for their lesson. If the movie is downloadable, you can email the link to families so that they can watch the movie together at home on a computer or tablet.

I like to explain to students that they may be watching the movie on a modern computing device but that the movie itself is one of the earliest films ever made! As they watch the film, I ask them to characterize each scene based on the action and the mood. At first, this step can be very general. Logging precise details and their timing comes later in the process.

The next step is to create a cue sheet. This step is identical to what was done 100 years ago when a cue sheet of three or four pages was typically created for a feature film. The cue sheet concept was invented around 1910 by the Edison Film Company, one of the first movie production houses.11 In the heyday of silent movie making, there were companies devoted solely to producing cue sheets.

A production cue sheet would list the title and author of a song, when to play it, roughly how long to play it, tempo, and the publisher of the piece. The musical director would go through the theater's music collection (generally listed by tempo) and pick out the appropriate cue for each scene. If they did not have that particular cue, they could replace it with another suitable piece or order one from the company that created the cue sheet. A typical theater's music library might consist of tens of thousands of pieces, depending upon the budget of the theater.12

It has not been difficult for my students to create their own cue sheets, a process that is truly fun for everyone, motivating each lesson with creative energy. Once we know the movie and a general idea of the scenes, we derive a score. Each student reviews their "memory/repertoire" list of pieces they already know or goes through their music books to create their own list of appropriate music. Then lesson time is used to help students examine the pieces on their list in order to decide the mode (major, minor, or pentatonic), tempo (fast or slow), and mood.

Once students have created their own "movie music" list, we put together a master cue sheet for each movie. I take care to calculate approximately how many scenes to assign per student so that performance time is shared equitably among the participants.

The beauty of this project is that most of the students' regular music can be fitted to a silent movie film scene, making the movie rewarding to watch! Nothing is funnier than a Keystone Kop trying repeatedly to get out of a locked basement, eventually popping out of the cellar through the kitchen floor while my youngest student plays Pop! Goes the Weasel! The Faber PreTime Piano and PlayTime Piano series of classics and popular songs provide every elementary student with an excellent choice of pieces to add to one of these film scores. Many of these short silent films have chase scenes that are delightfully realized with Offenbach's The Can-Can or romantic scenes that can be accompanied by the melodic theme from Mendelssohn's Wedding March.

It is amazing how well intermediate and advanced music can fit with longer films. Burgmüller's programmatic style in The Storm, Opus 109, No. 13, illuminates the heightened frenzy of the falling chandelier in a packed opera house in Phantom of the Opera. Likewise, the rapidly changing moods of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 are the perfect foil for Charlie Chaplin in The Work.13 We've used contemporary music, too. For example, one student seamlessly switched back and forth during the first sighting of the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera using bits of Chopin's Prelude in B Minor, Opus 28, No. 6, Phillip Glass' Metamorphosis #2, and Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky, fully capturing the creeping shadow of the Phantom, the ballet dancers on stage, and moments of hysteria.

This is a student-created cue sheet for the movie The General, starting Buster Keaton. Notice the mixture of normal student repertoire.

Preparing the performance

We use my laptop during individual lessons to view the film and perfect the timing of pieces so that they fit the length of the scenes. Usually a student plays only part of a piece, sometimes just a few bars. But students also improvise once they are familiar with their part of the movie. They can change octaves, change modes from major to minor, and alter the tempo of their pieces so that their music really matches the scene. And, as my students learn to play while watching the movie at the same time, they begin to realize their ability to project a mood and to enhance and elucidate a story line.

Eventually students work collaboratively, fine-tuning their cue sheets so that there is never a break in the music. Together they practice how to judge when it is their time to sit on the bench, replacing the previous student. And they are always ready to improvise because timings never come out exactly the same way twice. My students are also prepared to cut their piece short if needed or to prolong the music when necessary.

Some students memorize their music so that they can watch the screen. Others use their music but know it so well that they can move their eyes between score, keyboard, and film. In performance, we use two pianos or two keyboards so that there is always a student in a "ready" position, waiting for the prior student to complete the current scene.

Our city of Newburyport, MA, still has a small movie house with an old upright piano from movie days long ago. I have worked out an arrangement with the very willing proprietor to host our screenings, complying with copyright laws by charging admission. The theater orders the DVDs, and we borrow two keyboards for the actual performance (which make for better sound projection and seamless playing). And we have performed to a sold out house! The audience whistles, boos, claps, and gasps as the villains and heroes in our films grab their attention and empathy. Best of all, everyone forgets that the music is being provided by students. Students and audience alike identify with the movie experience instead of succumbing to recital anxieties that often plague young performers in their first years of playing in public. This type of event has been a hit for my studio, and we plan to come back for more.

1 Silent Film. Retrieved from and_sound

2 Movies may be downloaded from

3 Kalinak, Kathryn (2010). Film Music, A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 50.

4 Lockwood, J.C. (2011, March 22). Score One for the Teacher. Newburyport Arts Blogspot Review.

5 Hughes, Richard (March, 2011). Lecture, Silent Movie Pianist. Newburyport, MA: Public Library, by Richard Hughes, Silent Movie Pianist. Richard Hughes's website:

6 Available at SamFoxMovingPictureVol1/SamFoxV1.html

7 Prendergast, Roy M. (1992). Film Music: A Neglected Art, 2nd ed. New York:W.W. Norton and Co., p. 5. Additional information at

8 Marks, Martin Miller (1997). Music and the Silent Film: Context and Case Studies 1895-1924. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 30.

9 Disney, Roy and Disney,Walt (Producers), & Disney, Walt and Iwerks, Ub (Directors). (1928). Steamboat Willie [Motion Picture]. United States: The Walt Disney Studio.

10 Hughes, lecture.

11 Kalinak, p. 41.

12 Prendergast, pp. 8-11.

13 Reduction found in Thompson, John. John Thompson's Modern Course for the Piano: The Third Grade Book. Florence, KY: The Willis Music Company

Sound and Silents

by Donald Sosin

Donald Sosin accompanies My Best Girl, starring Mary Pickford, at the Kennedy Center.

The film audience is seated, the lights go down, the titles roll, and the music swells. It's not coming from a surround sound system, but from a piano in the pit. And though the film was made in 1912, the music has never been heard before. It's being improvised in 2012 by a pianist who may not have seen the film previously. Can you imagine taking on such a crazy challenge?

A new opportunity? 

For the past ten years I have been one of a handful of pianists from four continents who provide accompaniment to approximately 150 films scheduled at the world's largest silent film festival.We're not alone in our interest in this genre, and we conduct a master class for aspiring film accompanists who would like to play for films at sight. 

A century ago it was commonplace for pianists and organists to improvise for films or to provide accompaniment by stitching together pre-existing musical selections. Those who played in large theaters in big cities might have access to a library of more than 10,000 selections from the classical repertoire to ragtime and popular songs of the day. 

By the end of the silent film era, there were 30,000 working silent film musicians in the United States alone, and when sound arrived in 1927, they were quickly dropped from the movie house payrolls. From that time until the 1990s, there was hardly anyone who could make a living playing for films.

The number of film accompanists has grown somewhat since then, now that silent films are widely studied in high school and college film courses. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of film festivals around the world where silents are shown on big screens to a growing number of appreciative audiences. The 2011 releases of Hugo and The Artist captured the public's fancy and kindled an interest in silent films among younger viewers. So, it's once again possible to find a fair amount of work as a film pianist and composer.

One pianist's story

My journey into this fascinating performance niche began in 1971 at the University of Michigan. A piano student since age four and a sometime composer, I could improvise and was a good sight-reader. To earn some cash, I played for dance classes, which gave me a chance to develop my skills by applying a variety of tempos and moods to the dancers' steps.

One night in my dorm, I had fun playing some rags for a Laurel and Hardy short. Having enjoyed that experience, I subsequently jumped at the opportunity to play for a campus screening of Phantom of the Opera. Improvising for two one-hour shows with a short break stretched my abilities and stamina to the max, and I remember almost falling over when I finally took a bow to the cheering audience.

After that I was hooked and offered my services to the campus film society. My friends and I hauled an old Steinway upright into the auditorium, and I began learning the repertoire of the classics—Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Wings, and a few dozen others—under the patient tutelage of film professor Hubert Cohen.While on vacation in New York, I met William Perry, composer of a string of scores for the PBS series The Silent Years.We became friends, and a few years later I took over his position as accompanist for films at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

While learning more about the history and practice of film accompaniment, I began keeping notebooks of my themes for various characters and also recorded many of my performances. Although my ideas often change for repeat performances, this is a very useful practice for those occasions when I encounter a film I haven't seen in twenty years. One of the great things about this field is the fact that there is no film director telling me what sort of music to play!

I've had the terrific opportunity to play all over the United States and Europe and even in Shanghai. Sometimes I play notated solo scores that I have worked out carefully in advance. On other occasions, I conduct small ensembles or perform with my wife, Joanna Seaton, who sings our original material as well as period songs and even adds percussion. But most often I improvise on themes I've jotted down, choosing an appropriate style for each particular film—anything from a slapstick comedy short to a three-hour Swedish drama or a Chinese romance.

I've played for well over 1,500 films, and recorded original music for over three dozen DVDs on the Criterion, Milestone, and Kino labels.When I record at home, I make extensive notes and do multiple takes of my improvisations. Then I laboriously edit the results, correcting mistakes in Digital Performer ( and recording the final product on my MacBook computer that is connected to a Roland RD-700GX digital piano. I have also written fully composed scores for chamber ensembles and orchestras.

Donald Sosin accompanying a film with his wife and singer, Joanna Seaton.

Opportunities to learn the art

In 1993 I was invited to perform at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy, where each October about 800 of the world's leading experts in silent film gather to watch new discoveries and restorations, all accompanied by live music. Pianists come from all over: England, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United States. There are also ensembles and small orchestras for special events.

About ten years ago, the festival's director, David Robinson, instituted a master class that meets for two hours every day during the week-long festival. Five of us take turns coaching two "aspirants." It would be unfair to call them students since their number has included heads of university composition departments, opera coaches, and other seasoned professionals who are keen on breaking into this expanding field and improving their skills.

Each pianist gets coaching in turn from a pair of composer/pianists, each of whose approach and styles are somewhat different. My own class begins with a little warm-up. I ask the pianist to invent some music for a Western romance, a Japanese melodrama, a gypsy dance scene, or perhaps a Russian science-fiction film. Everyone has different levels of ability in these areas, so I try not to concern myself too much with critiquing technique. Instead, my comments focus on the music's stylistic appropriateness.

I then ask for two volunteers from the audience and have them walk in a neutral way towards each other onstage a few times, exchanging a letter as they pass. The pianists take turns creating different moods. I caution the actors never to alter what they are doing. The only thing that changes is the music, which informs the audience as to what is going on. Depending upon what is played, the scene might look like a teenage romance, a spy film, a horror flick, or an announcement of a tragic death. I often have to keep reminding the actors to ignore the music, so strong is their impulse to react to what they're hearing.

Audiences really enjoy this; it's a simple demonstration of how much we rely on music to give us information in a film. The same is true in opera or ballet, of course, and many of the emotions that are evoked in film music stem from the vast repertoire of classical and popular styles that we automatically absorb in the process of watching movies and television or other media.

Then we move on to films themselves, and I might choose something I have recently scored or something that I am about to accompany myself.When working on a film, I usually watch in silence first and let the ideas form in my head. For almost the entire time I've been doing silent film work, I've also been practicing the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique. It does wonders for clearing out any stress and fatigue in my physiology, and makes finding the right music much easier and more enjoyable.

Letting the creative juices flow

The freedom I experience internally facilitates my ability to go anywhere musically in a live situation. The blank screen is capable of reflecting any image, and the musician must similarly be able to produce any possible (and appropriate!) sound on a moment's notice. Through TM, my intuition about what is going to happen in an unfamiliar film has noticeably improved, and the process of watching a film and letting the music flow through me has become as natural as breathing. With a great film and a great audience, it's a synergetic event, and there is a sense that we are all creating together.

For our first-time aspirants, it's probably a pretty stressful ordeal! I start the DVD, and all they know is that it's a British comedy or an Italian newsreel. They have to keep playing no matter what, and it's exhilarating for everyone in the room when the music works well. After a while I'll stop the film to discuss what they played, pointing out places that might have been handled differently. Perhaps a scene change was ignored, or the music stayed too long in the same tempo, mood, or texture. I might also suggest changing registers, dynamics, or accompaniment patterns.

One aspirant I coached had some sweet melodic ideas but all the accompaniments sounded like oom-pa-pa waltzes. I offered her a few other choices, playing her theme in the styles of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Copland and finally, just to demonstrate a grossly inappropriate accompaniment, a punk rock song with improvised lyrics. I'm well aware that many young musicians play all kinds of music for film screenings, but most of my colleagues and I usually find that the focus then turns to the music at the expense of the film. It's not that I don't like all types of music, but a film set in 1760 in a French village generally does not benefit from a score with ambient loops or thumping percussion.

At the end of the week each aspirant will have the daunting task of playing for a feature film at sight in the theater, and a cheering audience is their reward for their week of hard work. Several of the aspirants have gone on to become regular members of our little group, while others have begun playing at major silent film venues: MoMA, Lincoln Center, and the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, where the crowd that gathers for free summer screenings usually numbers over 3,000. It's an unforgettable experience!

Joanna and I lead workshops for high school and college musicians, encouraging the students to do their own thing, with the caveat that the music must always serve the film, to support it emotionally, and not to attract attention to itself. In 2011, I spent three long days with twenty-six students at University of Colorado Denver working on a score for Nosferatu, the classic vampire film. Though I had scored this more than ten years earlier for DVD, I started from scratch, and we worked in a completely collaborative way to create a score that many in the audience at the Denver Silent Film Festival felt was the most powerful and creepy accompaniment they had ever heard for this film. The music is on YouTube at

As I write this in July 2012, we are preparing for a second event with Joanna joining me to create a collaborative score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And though there will be close to thirty of us onstage creating and improvising together, the best response we can get is the sense that the audience has forgotten that we're there.

Career opportunity? 

Can one have a career doing this? Yes, but probably not fulltime. In our case, both Joanna and I teach and do a variety of other freelance musical work. However, we're involved in close to 100 film performances a year, and the number seems to be growing as more people become silent film fans.

In just a four-week period in 2012, I played eight varied programs at Bologna's Cinema Ritrovato festival, recorded close to four hours of piano improvisations in Berlin for DVD releases of two dramas for the Deutsche Kinemathek, then flew to San Francisco for the annual silent film festival—improvising half of a program of Felix the Cat cartoons with the sensational Swedish drummer Mattias Olsson, jamming with two local classical guitarists for The Spanish Dancer—a recent restoration from the Netherlands' EYE Film Institute, repeating a Chinese film I had done in May at the Seattle Film Festival, and revisiting Josef von Sternberg's Docks of New York, which Joanna and I recorded in 2010. That was followed by the Art & Psyche in the City conference in NYC, where I presented my orchestral score for Manhatta (1920), and Joanna and I led a workshop for Jungian analysts in how music alters our perception of film. Then, it was back to Seattle for five more films. 

Yes, a career in this field is possible, but the life of a film accompanist can get a bit crazy!

Penny Lazarus has a B.A. in Piano Performance, a B.S. in Psychology, an M.A. in Art History, Teaching Certification in Secondary Education, and has undertaken Ph.D. work in the Philosophy of Arts from the University of Pittsburgh. She maintains a full private piano teaching studio in Newburyport, MA, and is always interested in teaching music from a visual and historical perspective. She admits that prior to sitting in the Screening Room Art Movie House in Newburyport one sultry summer night of 2009 and wondering about the old abandoned upright piano sitting in the corner by the screen, she knew little about silent movies. She now thinks they are ingenious and priceless works of art that deserve
study and preservation.

Donald Sosin grew up in Rye, New York, and Munich. A piano student of Kyriena Siloti, he holds composition degrees from the
University of Michigan and Columbia University. He has received commissions from the Chicago Symphony Chorus (music by Donald Sosin, lyrics by Joanna Seaton), the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, and other major ensembles. He and his family live in northwest Connecticut.

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