Matching Music: Dramatic Boost or Overkill

In selecting “appropriate music” for a scene in silent film accompaniment, there’s a fine line between support and simply mirroring what’s onscreen. It’s something I learned and developed during the first few years I was accompanying silents at NYU. It’s a question I still grapple with today.

What do I mean by mirroring? This may not be the best word for it, but it more clearly defines an aspect of “matching” music to a scene.

The go-to idea is one most people think of, and which many accompanists either start with or employ regularly, and is one I certainly started off with. The idea of playing a piece of music that more literally lines up with what’s seen onscreen. Playing “By the Sea, by the Beautiful Sea” for a beach scene, or “In the Hall of the Mountain King” for a shadowed scene of people sneaking around, or “To Spring” (if that’s the name) for scenes of spring or people dancing in a garden.

This practice may very well have its roots in vaudeville, where the pit orchestra would play “The Whistler and his Dog” during a dog act, or slamming into a diminished chord arpeggio when the villain in a pre-cinema stage melodrama enters the stage. Part of this conversation involves the use of recognizable music, a subject for another post, and another bugaboo of my mentor Lee Erwin’s (and, consequently, mine).

The core issue for me is that the mirrored choice often merely reinforces the obvious, something we’re already seeing on screen and don’t need help decoding. It can be redundant, and in being so pulls the audience out of the emotion of the moment or the dramatic action at hand.

My first gig at MoMA, right after I graduated film school, was accompanying MoMA’s then-new restoration of Way Down East. I was told I would be using the film’s original score, composed and compiled by Wm. F. Peters. It possessed what I refer to as “Peter and the Wolf” scoring, a leitmotif scheme where everyone has a theme that gets played when they appear on screen. Even if something tragic and devastating has just happened to poor Lillian Gish and, in the middle of the scene, the jolly and cherubic constable shows up. The score dictates that his comedy-relief rural hick sheriff’s theme be played. It breaks the mood, and has nothing to do with Lillian’s plight or slimy city-slicker Lowell Sherman’s machinations. Sherman’s motif was a heavy-handed diminished-chord something, and the sheriff’s…”The Old Grey Mare”.

This may very well have worked on an audience in the last-century’s ‘teens, but an audience of today has different expectations of film music. What underscore became when it re-entered movies in the mid-to-late ‘thirties, and has continued to be, is as a support of the dramatic action, to draw us up into the world of the film. It’s there to support or help reinforce the emotional moment, and not necessarily be another version of what we’re looking at.

I’ll cover what this means for me in another post at some point.

Oh, by the way, the surviving copy of the Peters score to “Way Down East” is missing the pages that cover the climactic ice floe chase, so I got to play it the way I wanted to instead of sawing through the agitato-hurry music that may have been originally selected.

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Jon C Mirsalis
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These are all good points, and something many accompanists wrestle with. I know exactly what you mean with the WAY DOWN EAST leitmotif score, where you can almost listen to the score without film and know exactly what’s happening because of the constantly recurring themes. It’s an interesting period style, but for film fans who grew up on Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, or even John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, it makes the film seem unnecessarily antiquated. Reuse of some themes obviously works at times, but if you beat it to death, then it just draws attention… Read more »