“Most of the shows have musical accompaniments. The enterprising manager usually engages a human pianist with instructions to play Eliza-crossing-the-ice when the scene is shuddery, and fast ragtime in a comic kid chase. Where there is little competition, however, the manager merely presses the button and starts the automatic going, which is as apt as not to bellow out “I’d Rather Two-Step Than Waltz, Bill” just as the angel rises from the brave little hero-cripple’s corpse.”

The Saturday Evening Post, 1907

Nickelodeon, Pittsburgh PA


The years immediately following the release of The Great Train Robbery were ones of rapid growth in the film industry, prompting an explosion of family-owned theaters across the United States. A particular theater in Pittsburgh gave itself the name “Nickelodeon” (the price of admission- 5 cents), and the name caught on to spur a whole industry of small, cheap theaters. It is estimated that there were eight thousand Nickelodeons by 1908. Further estimates suggested that up to 2 million people per day visited Nickelodeons at its peak popularity.

By virtue of being cheap and accessible (& silent), these venues created an environment of unprecedented class and ethnic mixing- prompting a columnist for The Nation to remarked in 1908 that nickelodeon films, “devoid of high brow inclinations,” represented “the first democratic art.”

NICKELODEON (1905-1915)

Music in the Nickelodeon varied according to location, and was at the discretion of the owner- being a live pianist, player piano, phonograph, small group of musicians, or no music at all. By 1910 there were articles in trade journals criticizing the music in various performances, in most cases saying the the music was inappropriate for the scene, or that the musicians stopped playing as soon as the film stopped. 

A columnist for Moving Picture World insisted that “the moments of necessary change, are the moments at which one large-scale scene is exchanged for another or when something in the action truly warrants a different kind of music. Don’t wait until you reach the end of the piece first, and don’t think you must always stop merely because you have reached the end of your number.”

The first  cue sheet appears in 1909, in a promotional brochure called the  Edison Kinetogram . A section labeled “Incidental Music for Edison Pictures” offered suggestions as to how seven of the latest Edison films might be accompanied. Under each film title, a series of “music cues” recommended music that would either start or end at specific moments in the film.  Typical of the lists, for example, were the music cues for  How the Landlord Collected His Rents , a three and a half minute film:


1- March, brisk.

2- Irish jig.

3- Begin with andante, finish with allegro. 4- Popular air.

5- “ “

6- Andante with lively at finish.

7- March (same as No. 1).

8- Plaintive.

9- Andante (use March of No.1)

Edison’s 1910 production of Frankenstein calls for a mix of known opera works (Der Freischütz, Lohengrin) in conjunction with specific scenes in the film. The use of well-known operatic music became common as accompaniment during this period for melodramatic scenes, and popular music was common in sentimental pictures and comedies.

Thomas Edison - Frankenstein (1910)


Beginning in 1912, film music anthologies became an integral part of film music production and performance. The Frelinger Anthology of “real music that really fits the picture” consisted of “descriptive music to fit all probable scenes, actions, characters, etc., shown in moving pictures”. 

By 1913, film music clichés had become well-established, and Altman notes that:

“Indians were signified by eighth-note drumming of open fifths in the bass. Chinese ambience was created by high treble grace notes associated with discords and triplets. Death scenes were represented by a minor-key melody played in the left hand. War scenes could be evoked by bugle and cannon imitations.The gait of a cowboy’s horse was figured by alternation between quarter and eighth notes in a 6/8 major key. A mysterious atmosphere could be summoned by the broken, pizzicato, syncopated selections known as “burglar” or “sneaky” music, whereas hurry music employed eighth- or sixteenth-note runs of touching notes (chromatic or not) against a regular beat of quarter notes in the bass. Imminent danger could be signified by a dissonant tremolo in either or both hands.”

(Altman,  Silent Film Sound, p. 261)

“The chief difficulty in score writing or arranging is keeping the music subordinate to the action on the screen. It must never obtrude itself. The audience must never be conscious of hearing a familiar tune. To achieve this, the musical director who is obliged to prepare a new score every week must have at his disposal a limitless supply of music. For this purpose the metropolitan theaters maintain enormous libraries, some of them containing 25,000 pieces of music. These are all catalogued, not only by titles and authors, but also by the type of emotion or kind of action which they suggest. When the score writer wishes a piece of music giving the atmosphere of  the opening scene of MacBeth, he refers to the sections marked “Witch Dances” or “Ominous Music.” In the same way he may instantly put his hands on music which suggests the sound of an aeroplane, anger, a runaway horse, a canoe drifting down a quiet stream. A staff of trained librarians is required to keep this stock of music constantly replenished with fresh works. The larger music publishing houses have a standing order to send everything that comes off their presses. Material is sought in France, Germany, England, Italy and even the Orient. The musical scores of every country are assiduously combed for melodies that will create just the right illusion....The compiler or arranger of scores searches down every possible alley, in every corner for something that will give just the right effect.”

(Hugo Riesenfeld, “Music and the Motion Pictures”,  Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science,  1926, p.60)

D.W. Griffith’s epic, controversial, and strikingly racist film established new production standards for feature-length films. Equally advanced was it’s use of a musical score prepared by Joseph Carl Breil (mix of original and pre-existing music). 

The Birth of A Nation (1915)

The Racial Legacy of Birth of A Nation (1915)

Not only was “The Birth of a Nation” the longest and most elaborate example of special music that audiences anywhere had ever heard; with its numerous themes and mid-cue synchronization points, Breil’s music for “The Birth of a Nation” might well be considered the first modern film score.  (Wierzbicki,  Film Music, a History).

Producer D.W. Griffith, who also composed two cues for the film, adopted compositional methods from grand-opera:

“A tremendous idea that of Mr. Griffith, no less than the adapting of grand-opera methods to motion pictures! Each character playing has a distinct type of music, a distinct theme as in opera”. (Grace Kingsley, “ At the Stage Door,” Los Angeles Times,  February 8, 1915)

The climax of the film (Ku Klux Klansmen “riding to the rescue”) is set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from  Die Walküre. The score also includes excerpts from Weber’s  Der Freischütz,  Tchaikovsky’s  1812 Overture , Grieg’s  Peer Gynt , and other well-known orchestral works. The bulk of the music for  The Birth of a Nation is however original scoring, with most of Breil’s themes circulating through the score as leitmotifs. Before  The Birth of a Nation , purposeful transformation of basic thematic material was virtually unheard of in film accompaniment.