Stipend holder Carolin Beinroth explores our collection of material on music in the silent cinema.

Music has been an integral part of film productions for a long time, and the combination of music and film is by now taken for granted by cinemagoers. Considering the amount of work and money that is put into film music today, it is hard to imagine that the symbiosis of film and music was not taken for granted in the past as it is today. During the first years of cinematography, the role of music during film screenings was not yet defined and largely depended on the abilities of the musicians, the financial resources of the theatre owners, as well as the location, size, and the pre-existing musical traditions of the performance venues.

To explore the various different roles music took on in the early silent era, I visited the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum for several weeks in 2017. The aim of my Ph.D. project is to reconstruct when, where, and why music was used in early British silent cinema, focusing not only on music that was specifically played to accompany the pictures but also overture music, music to attract customers, and intermission music. I also sought to find out which instances or people contributed to music becoming a standard element in film exhibitions.

Research of the musical exhibition practices during the silent era depends on a variety of primary sources. The rich and diverse collections of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum  provided me with the perfect opportunity not only to study theatre programmes and campaign, and publicity materials, but also an immense collection of sheet music, including most prominently some original documents and scores from cinema conductors, as well as an overwhelming amount of mood music.

During my stay at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum one fruitful resource for study proved to be the collection of theatre programmes. The theatre programmes not only reveal biographical information about the conductors and the different roles of music, but also give insights into whether theatre owners used music as a means to draw more customers. After a first evaluation of the programmes, it can be said that the theatre owners' approach to music varied a lot: while some theatres did not mention music in their programmes, some recognised the attraction of music from very early on and provided information not only about the musicians but also published a separate leaflet listing all the pieces played during the presentation of animated pictures. Other owners even handed out a “request sheet” to cinemagoers, which they could use to request their favorite songs or musical pieces.

EXEBD 18602

As can be seen in this programme of the Theatre-de-Luxe, Birmingham (EXE BD 18602), there is a musical piece assigned to each screened film, in the case of the main film of the evening, two pieces. Unfortunately, without having any information about the films, we can only guess why the numbers were assigned to these specific pictures. An initial examination gives the impression that in most cases marching music or national themes were used to illustrate the news of the day, popular songs were used to illustrate comedies, and very often descriptive classical music was used to accompany romances or pictures of landscapes. This observation coincides with previous research in the field. As part of my research I am evaluating in more detail which kind of music was predominately used in British cinema and if certain music was played for certain genres. I will pay special attention to differences between the choices of music in rural cinemas in contrast to cities. Therefore I am trying to establish, on one hand, if music in cinema was sometimes a regional or even local phenomenon. On the other hand I want to find out which approaches to music might have prevailed throughout the country or perhaps even across the borders. The sources for this examination are programmes stored in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum as well as in the University of Bristol Theatre Archive and the London Metropolitan Archive.

Another angle through which I pursued my research at the museum was through the materials of cinema conductors. Due to the lack of interest from the film industry, the responsibility for the musical accompaniment mostly remained in the hands of the conductors until the end of the 1920s. In the absence of a film score or suggestions for illustrations, most musicians played whatever they regarded as fitting for a certain scene. The music depended completely on the repertoire and knowledge of the musicians and conductors. Therefore, the musical director or conductor is one of the most important sources to investigate music in silent cinema. In movie theatres with an orchestra in residence the conductor had to
develop a compilation of music for every new film, which mostly consisted of pre-existing pieces or mood music. Most conductors had their own “music libraries” from which they chose the pieces for the illustration of a certain film. Unfortunately, only very few of these music libraries still exist. Luckily, the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum’s collection provides some very rare insights into the sheet music of the British cinema pianists and conductors Nat Moses, Tom A. Beaumont, and George Forster. This collection was donated to the museum in 2001 by the late Magic lanternist and optical media expert Mervyn Heard. Nat Moses worked as a musical director in several cinemas including the Empire, Tonypandy in South Wales which opened in 1909. Later on Moses worked, among others, in a cinema in Aberaman and in the Royal Court Theatre, Warrington. Nat Moses’s collection of sheet music is especially intriguing since the scores are still in the original envelopes that were sent to him by the music publishers. This is very valuable since it offers concrete proof that he used these scores. In addition to those, stamps saying “Nat Moses. Musical Director”, or “Nat Moses. Cinema and Dance Pianist” on some of the scores, confirm ownership.

EXEBD 44954 Picture of Nat Moses stamp on the sheet music “Farandole”

The study of Nat Moses' sheet music gives insights not only into the style of music favoured by him but also into his working processes. Apparently, Nat Moses did not compose music for films himself but used mood music by several composers like Gaston Borch, Maurice Baron, and Paul Fauchey who composed mood music, especially for film accompaniment. Mood Music or photoplay music refers to music especially composed to reflect the mood or sentiment of a certain situation. Pieces like the following were, for example, frequently used for scary or dark scenes, in order to evoke feelings of uncertainty and tension in the film watchers. The utilisation of mood music became very popular in the 1910s and was part of the effort of music theorists and composers like Giuseppe Becce, Hans Erdmann, or John Stepan Zamecnik to enhance the effect of a movie by playing music that fitted to the emotional content of a scene.

EXEBD 44680, Mood Music “Misterioso Infernale” page with stamp of Nat Moses and the Empire Tonypandy

In other sheet music, Moses describes directly in the pages what can be seen on the screen.

EXEBD 44954 Farandole p. 2 “Boy and Girl go off on bike”

In addition to Nat Moses, there are also some musical scores that belonged to the cinema conductor George Forster. Unfortunately, at the present moment we do not yet know in which cinema he was active. His scores all seem to underline feelings of nationalism or of belonging to a certain country. He owned pieces called Spanish March, National and Patriotic Airs for France as well as The National Melodies Series called: Hail, Columbia!

As part of my research, I am following the biographical development of these conductors. In the case of Nat Moses, more information can be obtained via the study of contemporary newspapers in which Nat Moses advertised job offers to join his cinema orchestra.

Another valuable observation I made from studying Nat Moses’s sheet music is that he was also in contact with another conductor called Tom A. Beaumont. Several scores that apparently belonged to Nat Moses also bear a stamp from Tom A. Beaumont. Beaumont was conductor at the cinema Pioneer Picture House, Dewsbury. We already know today that the film trade press served as an immensely important platform for conductors and musicians to exchange ideas and opinions. As part of my research, I am planning to find out more about the professional interactions between cinema musicians apart from the trade press, and the relationship between Moses and Beaumont is a very interesting starting point.

Among the sheet music used by Tom A. Beaumont is the piece Traitrise by Delmas Popy. This piece  not only shows some notes Beaumont made concerning the use of the music during the film, but it also details that this sheet music was used for the film The Haunting Fear, a film from 1915.

EXEBD 44964: page with inscription: The Haunting Fear

This is a very rare find: even if mood music can be found in many archives today, it is almost never possible to trace for which film the music was used.

The materials stored in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum provide a lot of information about the different musical accompaniment practices in silent cinema before music became a standard element during film screenings. They also show in how far musicians, theatre owners, and later on the film industry, strived to standardise music to silent films in order to create the most fitting symbioses between pictures and music. As a way to achieve this, several cinema conductors developed their own suggestion sheets and published them on leaflets or in newspapers for other conductors across the country to use as a tool to illustrate films appropriately.  



This is a very elaborate Musical Suggestion Sheet by E.V. Hakin for the 1924 film Daddies. Supposedly, Hakin was the conductor in residence of the Cinema House on 225 Oxford Street, London. As can be seen, his musical suggestion includes a description of the scenes and then proposition for a style of music that should be used for these scenes, followed by a specific suggestion for a certain piece as well as the name of the composer and the publisher. What is very fascinating about this musical suggestion sheet is that Hakin not only proposes descriptive music to illustrate the film, but that he also incorporated two main themes, namely the “Batchelor Theme” (10times) and the “Love-Theme” (6times) which recur several times during the film. This proves once again that some fundamental principles of film music accompaniment were already formed during the silent era.  In this document, there are also some handwritten notes, which might have been made by another conductor who used Hakins’s suggestions sheet later on. As can be seen, this conductor sometimes substituted some pieces for others or noted some words about the frequency.


Between 1915 and 1920 film companies like Fox Film Co. began to realise that a fitting selection of music would increase the audience attending cinemas and started to distribute musical suggestions along with their films. The illustration sheets by film companies are very elaborate featuring short descriptions of each scene along with the suggested number, composer, and publisher, so that the conductors could order the materials from music publishers. As can be seen in the following picture of the musical suggestion sheet to the film The Avalanche (1919) the suggested pieces are mostly mood music, whose title already reflects the content of the scene. In addition to musical suggestions, Fox Film Co. also published “Effect Cues”; the effects were mostly also produced by musicians.


EXEDB: 77573, The Avalanche


Often the music sheets by film companies featured the remark that the suggestion sheet should be handed over to the conductor and that only the suggested music would enhance the effect of the film. By publishing suggestion sheets, the film industry slowly began to claim control over music to films and the influence of local conductors and their artistic license slowly decreased.


In addition to the mentioned materials, the museum also offers a very distinguished collection of handbooks and manuals for musicians from the 1910s, which show how other instances, for example the trade press, tried to increase the quality of music.

Even though music in silent cinema has been a topic of previous research, there is still a need for more regional and local studies to show how varied music in silent cinema was. My aim is to learn more about the local or regional manifestations of music in early silent cinema, and I am therefore especially interested in examining the working methods of small town conductors and theatre owners. My next steps will be to learn more about the mentioned conductors by contacting local archives and evaluating contemporary trade press and newspapers. By researching the life and works of different musical conductors, I am trying to shed a little light on local musical accompaniment practices in Britain as well as their influence on the standardisation of film music. Ultimately, my research at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum will be part of my Ph.D. project, which aims to compare German and British musical exhibition practices in silent cinema before the 1920s.

Carolin Beinroth is a musicologist and archivist currently working in Munich and studsying for a PhD at the University of Giessen in Germany.

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