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One aspect of cinema during the silent era Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 29th, 2019


Despite of the fact that the technology for making movies was discovered as early as 1895 by Frenchman Louis Lumiere, it was only until the late 1920s that the use of sound was introduced (Hunt, 2011).

The movies which were released during this era when the simultaneous use of sound in films is commonly done like in today’s movies are normally referred to as silent movies. This era, which admittedly did a lot in paving the way for the movies with sound that we enjoy today, is commonly known as the silent era (Khoshbakht, 2011).

In this paper, major focus will be on giving a detailed analysis of the use of music in movies from the silent era vis-à-vis the use of music in the current films. In doing so, various similarities and differences of the use of music in cinema industry during both eras — detailing variant aspects and intricacies — will be expansively given. But before delving into such elemental intricacies, what should we primarily know about the use of music during these two eras?

Brief overview into the use of music in the silent and modern era

Essentially, it is worth beginning by stating that even though the directors of movies of the silent era did not manage to find ways of simultaneously using sound in their movies; various provisions were made to include external sounds so as to augment understanding of movies.

According to (//), the use of sound during the silent era was majorly in form of performances by artists. According to (//above), this idea of including sound from performances by artists was majorly pegged on the discovery of the usefulness of sound in offering additional explanations of pictures to audiences creating an ambient mood for various feelings and prolonging productions of movies so as to keep audiences entertained for a long time.

Even more specifically, music, which was the major sound tool used in the silent era, oriented to better understanding of movies by fulfilling the above-mentioned sound roles. To explicate the usage of music during the silent era and the fundamental importance it had, Filmbug (2011) reports that:

Early in the development of the motion picture industry, it was learned that music was an essential part of any movie, as it gave the audience emotional cues for the action taking place on the screen. Small town and neighborhood movie theaters usually had a pianist accompany the film; large city theaters would have entire orchestras.

As time went by, directors from various parts across the world became more creative in the use of music. In addition, more movie audiences were reported as preferring movies with music being used compared to those that utterly contained pictures alone. These two factors facilitated the already agitated need for the use of sound and music for that matter.

By the early 1920s, the use of music had escalated to a point whereby all the movies released during this time entailed its usage in one way or another. A perfect example of a movie released during this time is the famed Charlie Chaplin comedy.

In 1930, most production houses like the Warner Bros had technology allowing the use of sound in movies, that is why they began to release movies containing sound (music) and, soon after that, a standard regulation was put in place ordering the use of sound in all standard films meant for public viewership (Bordwell, 2008).

Today, most, if not all, movies use sound within their music with the very advanced sound effects. The similarities and differences in the use of music during the both eras are analytically discussed below (Sparknotes, 2011).

Main Discussion Music in the Silent and Modern (Contemporary) Movie Eras

In doing this discussion, the similarities and differences of the use of music will be done separately. Then, in conclusion, a rejoinder of the discussions, in form of a summary, will be given followed by a recapitulative conclusion of the entire content of this paper.


To begin with, Holmes and Negra (2011, p.16-20) state that the use of music in movies during the silent era was done for more-or-less the same purpose it is done today. For example, to evoke certain emotions, facilitate understanding and lengthen or shorten timelines in the movies are among other reasons.

For instance, when the Lumieres movies were shown in Japan, music was offered in form of performances by the Benshi using a technique known as Tasuke (Hunt, 2011). The Tasuke technique, according to Hunt, was meant to offer creative exposition and explanations of the films. Similarly, today’s movies use music for the same purpose.

For example, the use of emotional music in the hit movie Titanic is to evoke feelings of love, hate and sadness in various scenes. Essentially, this is the reason why Titanic was and still is one of the most renowned movies of all the times.

Moreover, during the both eras, music is skillfully used in the movies. In the silent era, music was practiced, well orchestrated and used at specific times during the movie. Today, the practice is still the same. However, some cases of miscalculated or haphazard use of music are witnessed mostly in productions that are directed by non professionals (Yahnke, 1996).

Of course, it is inherent to state that today, technological advancement presents better ways of channeling music in movies, thus giving the audience better sound quality compared to that of the silent era.

Speaking of the silent era, Hunt (2011) states that “like still photography, x-rays, air travel, and high-speed land travel, all popularised at the turn of the 20th century, the cinema offered a new perspective from which to view the world.” It, therefore, goes without saying that the music used variably in movies across the globe during this silent era offered insights into how different people viewed the world.

For example, between 1910 and 1930, the use of action, like music in such gangster movies as The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Racket (1928), was reverently received. This, probably, explains that around this time, there were a lot of crimes in the world, thus presenting the need for their depiction in movies (Dirks, 2011).

In today’s world, the situation is hugely similar. For example, the presence of several witchcraft movies in Western Africa with scary or ritualistic songs being used shows the nature of religion in this part of the world. Using such songs makes it easy for the audience not only identify easily the themes in the movies but also offer more insights into the kind of songs normally used on such occasions.

Again, in films produced during the both eras, music was used more in lengthy movies compared to the short ones. To this regard, movies during the silent period were mostly short. In such films, the use of music was very limited. In the today’s world, the same trend of using more music in longer movies is eminent just in the same way it was in the earlier days.

In relations to this point, it is also worth noting that the nature of song used to accompany the movies in the silent era was determined by the type of movie. Similarly, today’s movies tend to follow the same principle (Sparknotes 2011).

Another vital factor considered placing the music in the movies during the silent eras as well as in the world today is the economic empowerment of the people producing the movies. It is for this reason that the selection of professionals to do music performances in the silent era was mainly performed by people directed those movies. thus, the kind and the quality of sound effects were also depended on well-off financing.

In fact, as time went during the silent era, modifications and advancements that occurred in the use of music were mostly eminent in elite movies where producers and directors had enough money to try out various ideas. Very few of the ideas and contributions of rather poor people saw the daylight of success when compared to their well-off counterparts (Filmbug, 2011).

Today, the situation is no different. Advancements in the movie industry with regards to the use of music mostly occur in well-off societies. According to this, creators of the movies that are well-budgeted for are able to hire professionals easily, select quality equipment and try out various ideas when compared to their poor counterparts (Filmbug, 2011).

However, this tendency should not be misinterpreted in any way as the involvement of money leads to good movies. Reportedly, several movies have been produced by splashing lots of cash yet yielded poor results whereas those that had a low budget to operate with have performed admirably. It is just that when money is adequately available, producers and directors have a better opportunity of using the best techniques and innovations and trying out various ideas, thus facilitating a better performance in a myriad of ways when compared to their counterparts (Filmbug, 2011).

Finally, it is inherently important to state that even though the use of music in movies was considered as an important element during the silent era, just like it is still meant today, several good movies were produced without any music at all.


The most noticeable difference in the use of music in these two eras is that, during the silent era music used in the films was from live performances, today’s movies rely on digitized technology that allows music to be synchronized with visuals within the movie.

In effect, errors that might result from distortions during live performances are avoided, thus making today’s movies more reliable and easy to reach the target audience in the same format intended by the directors. Today, variations in audio normally come in form of editing and formats in which the movies are rendered.

To a great extent, music used in films today is hugely advanced compared to that used in the silent era. As a aforementioned, this is based on the fact that today’s technologies are well advanced, and the directors are also able to master ways of synchronizing audios and visuals more effectively than it was impossible to do in the past. Digging deep into the annals of movie history, we can find huge differences in the quality of music used in movies from these two eras (Hunt, 2011).

Relating to the point above, Hunt (2011) states that during the silent era, “The significance was not the content of these films but rather the medium.” For this reason, relatively little attention was paid to the act of blending audios and visuals in movies. On the other hand, today’s movies are judged not just in terms of content but also on the use of music as well.

For movies to be considered as being good by critics today, they must have good music and content as well. As a result, directors have to put a lot of efforts in selecting good content for a movie as well as searching for the best music (Filmbug, 2011).

Another point is that movies during the silent era were overly dramatized and often exaggerated in terms of sound used, and the content relayed to audiences (Hunt, 2011). According to Yahnke (1996), this trend was majorly based on the fact that movies during this era lacked actual actors’ speech, thus necessitating the need to send the intended message through emphatic body language and facial expressions.

Contrastingly, today’s films have music which through modern devices like remote controls or sound systems, can be increased or reduced together with other audio elements in the movie. Resultantly, the need for over-dramatization is eliminated since people can easily understand what is going on in the movie by simply hearing the music being played, words being said by the actors or even reading subtitles that are often customized in several languages to suit various audiences (Hunt, 2011).

In addition, the music used during the silent era relied on performances by people. For instance, performing songs throughout a long movie became challenging greatly since the singers could easily become tired. Also, the reaching ability of movies to wider audiences became hugely impeded by inability of some performers to travel to certain areas. As a result of such inefficacies of the overreliance of performers in carrying on the agenda of music in movies, silent movies were greatly limited (Bordwell, 2008).

On the other hand, audio (from music) and visuals are easily synchronized for today’s movies right at the studio. By the time the movie is released in the market, the audios can be heard very easily without the need of live performers. Also, today’s movies do not heavily rely on live performers to do the audio parts of the movie.

This does not only increase the reach of movies to wider audiences but additionally makes the actors have an easy time of simply acting once. In this regard, the availability of the Internet and the World Wide web as forums for sharing digital information has been praised for facilitating the good reach of movies to the target audiences (Sparknotes, 2011).

It is, however, important to note duly that in spite of the several advantages that today’s technologies present, with regards to giving better music than in the silent era, there are also some down-sides that have been noted as explicatively detailed below.

Firstly, there is an increased usage of modified human voices using technologies like auto-tune and robots which personify the revered human element in movies. Despite the fact that some audiences love to listen occasionally to these modified sounds, a good number of people view them as fake and dehumanizing.

This is, probably, the reason why the ancient practices of live performances of music is slow but, surely, catching up in today’s world. Classic performances in silent movies like Charlie Chaplin have also gained an increased audience in today’s world, especially among children (Yahnke, 1996).

Secondly, being able to modify sounds like music easily has opened a door for a vista of endless hazardous possibilities, such as impersonation, piracy or even copyrights infringement which are the practices that are legally punishable. On top of the fact that such practices are illegal, they also soil the hard work done by the rightful owners of these performances.

During the silent era, such cases were greatly limited since impersonating people could be easily noticed by audiences. Also, the unavailability of the adequate technologies made it difficult for manipulations of music and other audio accompaniments in movies.

Thirdly and lastly, the availability of the Internet as a forum for accessing and sharing pictures, music or even movies has made it easy for adult content to spread easily to wrong audiences such as children. In effect, this corrodes the moral fabric of the society and creates an amiable environment that nurtures the growth of criticized habits like viewing or listening to pornographic content.

Summary of the discussion

Going by the above discussions, it is undoubtedly clear that we have, indeed, come a long way in the evolution of films. Several changes, both positive and negative, have been witnessed in this painstaking evolution. Nonetheless, there is an abundance of learning that has taken place and that is the reason why today’s movies are, by far and large, better than those in the silent era in spite of the presence of some limitations as earlier stated.

If more progress is to be ensued today, it is paramount that the concerned parties like the government, teachers, legal entities, parents and peers will own up to their roles in facilitating change. For example, the coordination of all these parties in curbing the excessive permissiveness of forums like the internet is necessary.

Finally, several initiatives have been made to improve the use of music in movies and, reportedly, some are currently underway to help to reach a better situation while overcoming the existing challenges. A good example here is the borrowing of creative ideas of the silent era and other movie eras as well to help improve today’s movies. If such practices can be continually inculcated, huge progress can be realized.


In spite of the fact that this paper focuses mainly on the aspect of music in movies, it is remarkable to state that there are many other aspects that need not only to be assessed but also improved. To better the aspect of music is undeniably a step in the right direction considering the important role it plays in movies today. However, if overall success is to be realized in the entire movie industry, then other factors and aspects have to be appropriately keyed in.

Also, although the research conducted in this paper is succinctly exhaustive, there are many other intricacies of music use in movies that need to be spotlighted by researchers and academicians. This will not only help in filling the literary gaps regarding the evolution of movies but also lay formidable foundation upon which future researches can be conducted.

Additionally, it is commonly said that those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. If viewed under a negative spotlight, repeating history can be very costly and detrimental. Moreover, a majority of the happenings in the movie industry today are results of past events in one way or another.

For this reason, it is recommendable that in-depth studies are done on the past nature of events in the movie industry so as to be able to understand the present occurrences while intermittently being able to prepare for the future. It is only by doing so we can be assured of overcoming the usual hiccups in the highly competitive market of movie-making and movie-watching.


Bordwell, D. (2008). . Web.

Dirks, T. (2011). : Part 1. Web.

Filmbug. (2011). . Web.

Holmes, S., & Negra, D. (2011). In the limelight and under the microscope. New York: Continuum International Publishing group.

Hunt, M. (2011). Cinema: Film history since 1880. Web.

Khoshbakht, E. (2011). . Web.

Sparknotes. (2011). Film history: contemporary period (1980-present). Web.

Yahnke, R. E. (1996). Cinema history, chapter 1, Films from the silent era. Web.

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