Sound in Silent Horror Films
a paper by
The term silent film would lead many to believe that these films had no sound. However, silent films around the world were rarely silent. Silent horror films used sound to help make the film experience a complete artwork. The use of narration, benshi, music and sound effects all led to the aural experience of silent horror films. With either original music or found music from the classical repertoire, silent horror films used music to add a great depth to these films to complete the dreamlike experience of the silent horror film.
Sound in Silent Horror Films
Sound. Right now you are hearing sound. We are surrounded with sound whether in an urban or rural area. There may be music being played. Perhaps birds are singing birdsong. Maybe you hear the ambient sound of an air condition or heater in your living room. Or are there children playing off in the distance at a playground?
Hearing is one of senses. Even if we are watching a movie with the sound off, the sound is still there. Many might think that watching a film would only be a visual experience. However the movie viewer is uses all of their senses while viewing a film.
Take any popular film of today. Then watch it without the sound turned on. It is a different film. Perhaps it would be better to say that it is a different experience. Music, foley and ambient sounds help lift any film. Sound adds to the emotion of the moment on screen. Without sound in a film, it would be like exploring the world with ear muffles on while wearing a plastic suit with gloves. Sure you can see every thing, however you are missing everything else from the wind on your skin to the sounds in the air.
My first degrees were in music theory and composition. As an undergraduate and graduate student studying music composition, I had dreams of scoring films. Film music had a major impact on my life and in many ways was the reason I studied music composition as my major.
Over the years composing music from a symphony, large scale band music as well as hundreds of small chamber and solo compositions, I realized that all of the arts combined together. So I studied playwriting, screenplay writing, dance, acting, and then started work on an MFA in cinematography.
While on my quest for the complete artwork, I found that cinematography combined all of the arts. Music in many ways was the glue that held all of these arts together. Because of my former training in music, I could see the connections to all of the arts in a unique way. In films, I could combine all of the different arts I have been working on to become the total creative person that I survive to become. Now I compose more short film soundtracks since I have been working with other filmmakers on my quest of creativity. My understanding of music composition with the skill of filmmaking, makes scoring a film a fun and unique challenge. How sound and music works in films is well, very interesting indeed.
Films have been made for over hundred years now and in many ways the silent film is still the high art of filmmaking. Even with the Computer-generated imagery (CGI), and millions of dollars that major Hollywood films use today, can not compare to art masterpiece films like Metropolis, The Cabinet of Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera and Nosferatu, made in the 1910’s and 1920’s. Films made hundred years later many times look worst than a film made in 1923 due to so much CGI garbage on the screen. Many modern films have so much clutter on the screen, you can not even tell what is going on.
Movies are visual. Silent films didn't have a lot of boring talking, you had to see what they are doing to understand the story. If you cannot watch a film with the sound turned on and understand what is going on, you have a play with moving pictures. In fact the early talkies were so bad, many audiences wished the films would go back to silent. All talk and no story makes for a bad film.
Of course silent films had great sounds that would also move an audience. Full orchestras would play music for the house as the film was projected. The Roxy Theatre in New York City had 110-member symphony orchestra in its prime. Film, music and a few intertitles were all that where needed to have a great film during the silent film era. Movies that would change your life after watching and with sound, experiencing them.
In some ways it was like going to an opera, save that the singers on stage were replaced with a projection on a screen. Images of light bouncing off the silver screen was an experience that at the dawn of the early cinema, was like something from another world, perhaps even the dimension where dreams and fantasy come. Silent films were more dream like, because the audience could see people talk and have to read what there were saying. Reality was burred with the surreal images projected not only on the silver screen, but as well as the sounds the audience heard. Silent horror films were full of surrealism, which the audience would clearly understand a difference between the dream like images they saw on the screen and after the film was over, what was real.
They argue that because of these characteristics silent film has an uncanny, dreamlike quality. Its representations are ghostly, an uncomfortable reminder of human mortality, and carry with them a kind of psychological shock. Music exorcises these negative effects, smoothing over the gap between the experiential world and the world of the film. (Kalinak, 1992, p. 44-45)
Perhaps this is why music is such an important part of silent films, the dreamlike features of a silent film that helps the viewer step out of reality. Silent films were visually two-dimensional, mostly black and white, at times with some tinting and toning, moving pictures. Since this was still a relatively new visual medium, audience fell to what they knew and could relate to, dreams.
Silent films were not a play, an opera, a vaudeville show or anything else they have ever seen before. Having music that was not part of the story would fit just right into a dream. Having music that was not part of the reality in a silent film worked and in many ways was needed to complete the film experience.
Before we go on, we need to define the term diegetic music. Diegetic music is music that apparently comes from a source within the narrative film. (Gorbman, 1987, p. 22) So the music we hear mainly in a silent film is not from the narrative. In The Phantom of the Opera we have an example of diegetic music, when the Phantom plays the organ or when the cast is singing in the opera. However the rest of the film, the music is nondiegetic.
Nondiegetic music does not emanate from or occur within the world posited by the film. (Kalinak, 1992, p. xiv) Most of the music we hear in a silent film or any other type of film is nondiegetic. This is music that helps with the escapists dreamlike nature of silent films. When we hear music in The Phantom of the Opera other than music that is being played on the organ or preformed on stage for the opera, that is nondiegetic music. The music by Gustav Hinrichs used both original as well as found music for The Phantom of the Opera for both the diegetic and nondiegetic music used in the film.
When The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had the American premiere, music chosen was “calculated to heighten its exotic character, to underline its fantastic aspects.” (Hickman, 2006, p. 93) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari original score composed by Giuseppe Becce was not used in the American premiere, instead excerpts of works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev, and Richard Strauss was used. (Hickman, 2006, p. 93) This film help bring modern music into the American cinema, which influence other serious composers to score for films. The use of Schoenberg and Stravinsky in a film score would have been out of placed only a few years before this movie premiere. However since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, was a dreamlike vision of insanity, the works of Schoenberg and Stravinsky fit the film’s sprit.
Unfortunately Giuseppe Becce's score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has been lost. In the liner notes of the CD Cabinet of Dr Caligari: Music to 1920 Silent Film "Virtually nothing is known about Becce's score, which is lost." The music constructed for this CD used "Becce's authenticated short pieces for the silent cinema were taken as a starting point and focus and were then combined with other film music by the same composer in the interests of stylistic authenticity." (Beece , 2005, Linear Notes)
Looking at some of the cues that Giuseppe Becce had for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , cues like: The mysterious night, Mysterious observations, and The secret of the book, all fit well with the dreamlike music that is nondiegetic for this German Expressionistic film. If The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari used music that was pretty and standard, the film and music would have not worked together. The audiences might have been even more confused with a normal soundtrack.
Apparently during the American premiere of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at Rothapfel’s Capitol Cinema in New York, the use of another sound technique was used. A narrator was used “both before and after the show, mirroring the frame within the film itself.” (Hickman, 2006, p. 94) At the end of the film, the “narrator assured the audience that Francis was now cured, happily married, and working as a jeweler in Hostenwall.” (Hickman, 2006, p. 94)
This brings us to the use of benshi in silent films. Benshi was used primary in Japan.
Actors would read and act out the titles for the characters in the silent film and even played multiple characters and make a performance out of this. The traditions of kabuki and Noh theaters help influence the benshi. (Standish, 2005, p.22)
Benshi formed a central part of the “silent movie” experience in Japan by explaining what the motion picture was about, either before, during, or after the show. While one can find examples of similar motion picture narration elsewhere in the world, Japan is the only place where narrators proved to be an influential and integral part of silent cinema.
During the initial decade of motion pictures, benshi typically appeared prior to the films, giving audiences rather detailed introductory remarks (maesetsu) about the content of the movies about to be shown. Since most of the motion pictures were foreign imports, benshi primarily spent their time explaining Western exotica, customs, and places contained in the film. As movies became more narrative, benshi began summarizing film plots and characters in their introductory remarks. (Dym, 2008)
The use of benshi makes sense since most of the Japanese cinema audiences would see many foreign films and understanding the tradition of kabuki. Going to the film with the use of benshi, allowed the audience to understand the cinema experience, it was kind of like going to a play, an opera or the kabuki. “The vocabulary used in Japanese discourse clearly distinguishes the role of the film narrator in films derived from kabuki as providing literally the shadow dialogue and the narrator’s role as mediator of imported films.” (Standish, 2005, p.22)
Metropolis premiered in Japan during March 3, 1929. Apparently Metropolis was presented with traditional Japanese music and was seen during its initial release with narration. (Organ, 2011) The benshi was able to help the Japanese audience understand what was being seen in this German expressionist film. No doubt that the Japanese viewer had never seen the world of Metropolis before and the use of a benshi helped the audience member understand what was going on. Every since Metropolis appeared in Japan, many Japanese has had a fascination with robots. (Makela, 2008, p.91) One could speculate that without the use of some creative benshi, some of the neat gadgets that have came from Japan may not have ever been produce.
A Page of Madness directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa made in 1926 is one of the rare silent horror films made in Japan. Sadly due to the Kanto earthquake 1923, the Pacific War bombing raids of Tokyo during World War II, and the humidity of Japan on the inflammable and unstable nitrate film, most of Japan’s 7000 silent films have been lost. (Sharp and Arnold, 2002) A Page of Madness is compared to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, due to the surrealistic, expressionistic and avant-garde nature of the films. Both films deal with mental illness and staged in a mental facility and are non-linear. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was popular in Japan. (Sharp and Arnold, 2002) This German expressionistic film could cross over and be appreciated in another culture, with the use of benshi and music.
Surely there was music performed when A Page of Madness was shown in the movie theater, however the original music has been lost to time.
I have not found any information about the original musical accompaniment. Cinema orchestras in Japan usually combined Western and Japanese instruments, and the solo piano so frequently used in Europe and the USA seems to have been much rarer. (Sharp and Arnold, 2002)
It is interesting that both Western and Japanese instruments were used in the Japanese orchestras in movie theaters during the silent film era. The use of tradition Japanese instruments, which have their own tuning and scale systems, with Western instruments that have their own European tunings and scales, must have made for some unique music to accompany the silent film. Also with the use of benshi, the combination of Western and Japanese music would be an additional part of this silent film experience.
Benshi was used when A Page of Madness was screened. A Page of Madness does not use any intertitles. The use of benshi was important for the audience to understand what was going on in the film. Since A Page of Madness is non-linear, avant-garde silent film, it would have been difficult for any audience at the time to understand what was going on without the benshi to lead them with their narration. A Page of Madness, without the use of the benshi, would have been confusing and an important part of this avant-garde silent film would have been lost to confusion. “In general, silent films in Japan were visual props of a live performer. This is true for any film shown at the time in Japan, either Western or Japanese.” (Sharp and Arnold, 2002)
In many ways the benshi is a guide to the silent films in Japan. Japanese audiences understood it was not kabuki, however they could relate to the paradigm of a narrator in the use of cinema. “Unlike their Western counterparts, Japanese filmmakers, due to the benshi, were freed from the restrictions of intertitles for character exposition.” (Standish, 2005, p.87) Japanese filmmakers did not have to stop the action to insert an intertitle to explain what is about to happen or what happened. However there was a down side for filmmakers to rely on the use of benshi.
In the West, filmmakers had devised numerous cinematic techniques, such as editing and framing, which allowed them to tell a story visually. Yes, intertitles were used to help the audience follow along, but Western filmmakers tried to keep them to a minimum. In part because of benshi, Japanese filmmakers were slow to adopt and develop cinematic storytelling techniques. Japanese filmmakers knew that whatever they could not convey visually would be explained aurally by the benshi. (Dym, 2008)
There is no doubt that a form of benshi was used in other countries. In the United States of America, where the illiteracy rate was10.7 percent in 1900, 7.7 percent. in 1910, 6.0 percent in1920 and in 4.3 percent in 1930. (Bureau of the Census, 1992) At the time of silent films, about ten percent of the US population was illiterate. Surely many of them went to movie theaters and had someone read the intertitles aloud to them. Also the blind and visually impaired as well as those that may have needed corrective glasses also had the intertitles read aloud or at least told the jest of what was going on.
In Japanese cinema music was an important part of the film experience. The benshi needed to be heard over the music, since the benshi was crucial for the Japanese audience to understand the silent film. However music worked with the benshi in a way that was unique.
In Japan, music also accompanied the film, but was used in a symbiotic relationship with the benshi. If music was playing, then the audience would not be able to hear the benshi. Thus, the orchestra had to coordinate with the benshi when to play, when to play quietly, and when to remain silent. (Dym, 2008)
With the use of benshi in Japan, music was there. However music was not as critical to understand the story, so if it was a choice between hearing music or the benshi, the benshi always won out. This is a contrast to the Western cinema where you could read the intertiles and hear music, in America and Europe you could hear music and understand the story. The music in Japanese silent films was performed live, much like in the Western world’s cinema.
In some ways the benshi became the stars. “Famous benshi were well known for embellishing narratives and thus transforming their meanings.” (Balmain, 2008, p.20) In many ways the benshi could transform a film from a bad film to a good film or vice versa. A music score can do the same thing to a film in the Western films of the time.
Audiences in Japan may have gone for the film however they would go where their favorite benshi was performing. Choosing the theater with the best or more famous benshi was what most Japanese audiences would chose. In the Western cinema world, the choice of going to the better theaters that had the best piano and organ musicians was an easy choice as well.
To many “silent” cinema fans in Japan, benshi were a major attraction. It was usually the film that drew people to the theater, but it was often the benshi which determined which theater a person would attend. Benshi were huge cultural stars of the time, with benshi earning as much, if not more, than many actors. Benshi had huge fan followings, particularly among women, and were often both fashion and vernacular trend setters. (Dym, 2008)
One of major reasons to go to a certain theater in Japan was to go hear the benshi. “The benshi became so powerful that Japan was later than other countries in introducing sound to film.” (Balmain, 2008, p. 35) As time went on, the benshi tradition slowly faded away due to the stars on the silver screen. Actors wanted to gain their own fame in thus get paid for what they were worth. The star system challenged and coexisted with the benshi tradition. Little by little, the actors or “stars increasingly gained control over their image and how it was projected onto the screen.” (Standish, 2005, p.34) Over time, the cost and how the movie industry changed in Japan, signal the end of the silent film era in Japan.
The end of silent film in the West and in Japan was imposed by the industry and the market, not by any inner need or natural evolution. To put it clearly, there is no progress in pleasure and no progress in art - there are only different ways of doing things. Silent cinema was a highly pleasurable and fully mature form. It didn't lack anything, least in Japan, where there was always the human voice doing the dialogues and the commentary. Sound films were not better, just more economical. As a cinema owner you didn't have to pay the wages of musicians and benshi any more. And a good benshi was a star demanding star payment. (Sharp and Arnold, 2002)
Perhaps if America developed the use of a benshi or narrator, talking films and the soundtrack as we know it may not have happen. Sound is an important choice for the silent movie going audience. The more expensive the organ or gifted a pianist a theater had in the Western world, the more likely an audience would attend that cinema over a less financed cinema. One magazine reported in 1910 that one theatre manager doubled his attendance when he hired a competent pianist. (Hofmann, 1970, p. 6)
The silent film and sound worked together to help the audience escape from reality. Plays, novels, operas, vaudeville, and carnivals are all entrainment. Silent cinema provided the same outlet. However with the use of the narrative, music and other sound techniques, silent films were the Gesamtkunstwerk, German for total art work, of the time.
Richard Wagner developed the use of the leitmotif for use in his operas. The Wagnerian opera, such as the Der Ring des Nibelungen, uses leitmotifs to signal a character or an idea. Leitmotifs works so well in large scale operas that when film composers were drawing on material to use in their film scores, the technique of the leitmotif worked so well.
Given the affinity so often cited between Wagnerian opera and silent film, it is hardly surprising that Wagner’s concept of the leitmotif became the musical glue which joined the disparate musical selections comprising the silent film score. The leitmotif or leading theme is a musical phrase, either as complex as a melody or as simple as a few notes, which, through repetition, becomes identified with a character, situation, or idea. The notion that the silent film score should be a structurally integral discourse with a unity separate from that imposed by the narrative is derived from Wagner’s model in which leitmotifs served to unify lengthy and often convoluted material. The concept of unified form (as opposed to a series of random selections) was integral to the development of the silent film score, and the adoption of the principle of the leitmotif coincides historically with the industry’s earliest efforts at standardization. (Kalinak, 1992, p. 63-64)
One of the earliest silent horror films that have survived is Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein released in 1910. The Edison Company sent out a musical suggestion sheet for Frankenstein to help the pianist have an idea what to play. (Hofmann, 1970, p. 14-15) In many ways these cues are like leitmotifs. The pianist could use the cues to trigger an emotion or support an idea or feeling in the film.
The cues from that the Edison Company sent out had suggestions for the pianist:
At opening – Andante – “Then You’ll Remember Me”
Till Frankenstein’s laboratory – Moderato – “Melody in F”
Till monster is forming – Increasing agitato
Till monster appears over bed – Dramatic music from “Der Freischütz”
Till father and girl in sitting room – Moderato
Till Frankenstein returns home – Andante – “Annie Laurie”
Till monster enters Frankenstein’s sitting room – Dramatic - “Der Freischütz”
Till girl enters with teapot – Andante – “Annie Laurie”
Till monster comes from behind curtain – Dramatic - “Der Freischütz”
Till wedding guests are leaving – Bridal Chorus from “Lohengrin”
Till monster appears - Dramatic - “Der Freischütz”
Till Frankenstein enters – Agitato
Till monster appears - Dramatic - “Der Freischütz”
Till monster vanishes in mirror - Diminishing Agitato (Hofmann, 1970, p. 14-15)
The cue sheet and the suggestions would give any musician an idea what to play and when. Information on how long to play a particular cue was given ‘till’ something or someone did something. This was good for a rough idea of the timing to play each selection or cue.
Music compositions suggested from the cue sheet consist of Der Freischütz an opera by Carl Maria von Weber, Lohengrin an opera by Richard Wagner, “Then You’ll Remember Me” is a song from The Bohemian Girl an opera by Michael William Balfe, Anton Rubinstein Melody in F Opus 3 Number 1 for piano, and “Annie Laurie” an old Scottish folk tune. The range of musical selections in Frankenstein range from grand opera to a simple folk tune, the pianist would have to jump from an arrangement of an opera to perhaps a single melody of an old Scottish folk tune.
What are interesting are terms like “increasing agitato” or “diminishing agitato”. That is so vague that any pianist could play about anything for that whole cue. “Increasing agitato” would mean in music to increasingly play agitated. “Diminishing agitato” is a bit more unclear for a musician. The “diminishing” part could mean reducing the playing, however the term “diminish” is used for a chord made of minor thirds which sounds dissonant or the diminish scale, which also sounds dissonant. Perhaps the pianist could play less with a diminish chord or scale while agitated?
Even when the opera was cited the pianist would read “Dramatic music from “Der Freischütz””, which of the dramatic music from this opera was used? The Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin is easier to figure out, however do you start the beginning, middle or end of the work? Do repeat the music once it was played and the cue was not over? Also depending on the skill of the pianist, will the arrangement be full or just the melody? There are many questions even when the musician knew what piece of music was to be played or suggested.
Even though some of these terms are open to interpretation, the musician could use them as a guide to what the musical director wanted. With Frankenstein, it is safe to say that no two movie houses played the same music. Most of the time if you saw the film more than once, each time you saw the film, the music would be altered, even in the same movie theater.
However even thought the music is vague and would be different each time the film was projected, the fact that a music cue sheet was sent out shows how important music was to early silent films. Since the 1910 Edison version of Frankenstein, is one of the earliest silent horror films, it is interesting that music was so important to the film that some specific musical selections and timings were given to make sure the film would be enjoyed, or horrified by the movie audience. With Frankenstein the visuals where shocking, now add “dramatic music from ‘Der Freischütz’ ” and the movie audience will have an experience they will never forget.
Some movie theatres had full orchestras to accompany silent films. However most movie theatres had either a piano or organ to accompany films. Some had other instruments to accompany films, such as a solo instrument. Other theatres that could not find a competent musician to perform could buy a mechanical and electrical player piano or organs the held two rolls so that the music never had to stop. This quote is from an ad for the Marquette’s Cremona Theatre Orchestra-Organ: “Any girl or man, after simple instructions, can operate the Cremona with the most enchanting results.” (Kalinak, 1992, p. 50) This is sort of what a deejay does today in a dance club or event.
Later silent films would have a piano reduction sent out with the film. Also there were books written on how to play for silent films. Music books were also published that had music for different emotions that a silent film pianist could use to make their own soundtrack if none were provided.
In one of the books on how to play for silent films, they express that popular music of the day was to be avoided. Instead of popular music, they were to use music that was composed from the master composers of the past. Even in the early part of movie music, there were musical snobs trying to make all musicians sound similar.
Since the prime of the silent film age coincides with the prime of the jazz and ragtime eras, many skilled ragtime and jazz musicians could make an additional income playing piano or organ in a movie theatre. The backbone to jazz was improvisation, so these jazz pianists had a lot of experience making music on the spot. Surely this helped the jazz pianist play for silent films. They could watch the silver screen and let the music flow from their fingers.
Fats Waller played theater organ for silent movies and stage shows at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater. Count Basie and Sam Allen are some other jazz pianist that played in theaters for silent films.
Many of the films shown could use sound effects to enhance the movie experience. The percussion instrument called the slapstick has been used in comedies when someone got hit since the beginning of silent comedy films. Coconuts striking on wood sounds like horses galloping used in cowboy silent films. Some movie theatres had some instruments that could be played as sound effects. In the bigger movie house there were often a second musician that played these sound effects instruments. The pianist, in the small movie houses, may have to double and play a percussion instrument while playing piano. Some of the movie houses that had more expensive organs had stops that had a variety of instruments for the musician to use while playing a soundtrack for the silent film.
Robert Hope-Jones developed this versatile instrument as called it the ‘Unit Orchestra.’ It could do anything with its thousands of pipes, a battery of drums, marimbas, pianos, glockenspiels, xylophones. It could imitate banjos, harpsichords and mandolins. There were sets of bells, cymbals, castanets, tambourines, tom-toms and gongs. The versatility of the organist brought out any effects inspired by the pictures on the screen. (Hofmann, 1970, p. 37)
If your movie theatre had this ‘Unit Orchestra’, the musician could mimic a full orchestra. Of course there were many organs that silent movie theatres could buy. “The Fotoplayer Style 50, made by the American Photo Player Company, was twenty–one feet long and capable of a wide variety of effects, including the lowing of cattle, street traffic noises, crackling flames, and the sound of machine guns and cannons.” (Hickman, 2006, p. 67) With the addition of percussion instruments and string instruments, the musician could use different tone colors or timbres to create the feeling and emotion that was need in the score. The choice of many different instruments would allow the musician to match the feeling of what they were watching to the music they were playing. This would help the musician to add to the surreal, dreamlike feeling of these silent horror films. In the case of ‘The Fotoplayer Style 50’, the musician could also become a sound effects performer.
Sound added to the complete experience of the silent horror film. Whether it was music, narration or the use of sound effects, all helped make silent horror films increase the emotion of what was shown visually. The use of nondiegetic music with diegetic music took these films out of reality. In Japan, the use of benshi helped the Japanese audiences understand the Western silent horror films they saw as well as the ones made in Japan.
Without sound, a silent horror film is only half a movie. Sound, added to the escapist impact of these silent horror films. Recently I had a chance to watch The Phantom of the Opera twice, one with a looped soundtrack that didn’t match the film at all, then with the score that worked to enhance the film. Needless to say, the matched soundtrack the film was better. It was like watching two different films, one that was an escape from reality and the other one you could not wait to escape the film.
Music, narration and sound effect all crossed over in the sound film era. Today, if you watch a film without the sound on, you may not have any idea what is going on. What is more important is the experience would be different. The reasons we watch horror films are varied, however for most they are viewed to escape to another place, another time or another dimension. Horror films break from reality so that you can question who and what you are as a human being. Sound is a very important part of any horror film, without sound you are only partly fleeing from reality.
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