Welcome to the Silent Film Sound & Music Archive. Established in 2014, SFSMA is building a robust archive of music for silent cinema (c. 1895-1930) and related film technologies for research and performance. The archive includes sheet music for film, cue sheets, instruction manuals for film accompanists, and a bibliography of resources on silent film sound and music. All of the silent film music archived here is available to download for free. It can be used for scholarship and research, lectures, to accompany showings of silent films, as the basis for the creation of new scores for old or new movies, and a myriad of other projects calling for music from the silent era.  If you are interested in contributing material to the archive, please contact us at director@sfsma.org. SFSMA is a 501(c)(3) organization.

What We Digitize and Archive

SFSMA digitizes and archives music that was published specifically for use in the silent cinema; music from collections related to specific cinemas or silent film musicians; and music that was clearly marketed to cinema musicians and managers for use in the theater. Music on the site has been researched for intended use and provenance.

Searching the Archive

Users can search for items by creator (composer, arranger, or editor), title, mood (“Hurry,” “Mysterioso,” “National”), instrumentation, publisher (including place and date, when known), contributor, and format (book, sheet music, cue sheet). New materials are posted regularly. In some cases, you will find multiple copies of a single work; these are usually from different sources and show performance indicia or contain other information that makes the various copies valuable to researchers. All items in this collection are tagged using Dublin Core metadata.

If you have information on works in the archive that go beyond these categories, or can help us fill in missing information on a work, please include it in a comment and we will incorporate it into the file. If you’d like to be credited, please include your name, initials, or other preferred identifier.

The vast majority of materials posted here are in the public domain. All works are posted under an ODC-By (Open Data Commons Attribution) License.

SFSMA gratefully acknowledges support from the Grammy Foundation, the Society for American Music, and individual donors and sponsors.

About Music for Early Film

Although we commonly call the films made between 1895 and 1927 “silent,” these works were almost universally accompanied by music and/or sound. In his 2013 report on the state of silent film preservation, David Pierce estimates that American filmmakers made nearly 11,000 silent feature films—a feature being define as any film that is four or more reels long—between 1912 and 1929.[1] Of these, only about twenty-five percent survive in some form today. After an early argument about whether motion pictures should have musical or other sonic accompaniment was settled by the overwhelmingly positive calls for music and sound by critics, audiences, and performers, new musical industries sprung up to serve the needs of cinemas and motion picture production houses. As Richard Abel, Rick Altman, Julie Hubbert, Martin Marks, and other scholars of silent film sound have documented, there were no standardized practices for supplying music for films. Music for accompanying films initially came from vaudeville music libraries, popular song, pre-existing art music, and original compositions, only some of which were committed to paper. In the 1910s, publications of music expressly for film accompaniment began to proliferate, offering what is called genre music or mood music for actions, events, and emotions commonly found in film scenarios. Using published collections of genre music, called photoplay albums, cinema pianists, organists, or ensembles could patch together a handful of pieces to create a compiled score of generic pieces that provided music that broadly matched the action on screen. These pieces provide the earliest documentation for the use of musical mimesis in films. Works for “hurry” or “gallop” were quick in tempo, mimicked the sound of hoof beats or heartbeats, and employed short note values, all of which suggested the associated speed of motion given in the title. In Motion Picture Moods, an enormous collection of generic pieces selected and arranged by film score composer and arranger Erno Rapée, “Aeroplane” is represented by Mendelssohn’s “Rondo Capriccio,” in which a three-measure passage of rapidly alternating thirds in the piano’s right hand is apparently meant to stand in for the sound of high-speed propellers; one entry for “Sea Storm” is Grieg’s “Peer Gynt’s Homecoming/Stormy Evening on the Coast,” which musically imitates choppy seas through the use of alternating low and high As in the bass in sixteenth notes.[2]

At the same time, some performers improvised throughout an entire film, created their own motifs to use for each picture they accompanied, and composed entire scores that often went undocumented or for which the creators’ notes are no longer available. Cinema organist Rosa Rio, for example, often had to accompany films without previewing them, so while she accompanied a movie for the first time, she worked to compose motifs or themes for the characters or events in the picture, upon which she would then improvise and elaborate in following showings, ultimately creating a consistent score that she would play from memory each time she accompanied the picture.[3] Other performers preferred to work from a list of suggestions for music, known as a cue sheet, which lists a film’s major events or cues next to the title or incipit of a piece that would go well with the action. As the demand for music for film grew, studios began issuing cue sheets for individual films, prepared by in-studio composers or score compilers. The Edison Film Company began issuing cue sheets with all of its feature-length films in 1913;[4] Mutual Film Company did so in 1917;[5] and other companies followed. Around the same time, film magazines also began publishing cue sheets created by the editors of their music columns or music departments.[6]

During the 1910s and early 20s, only the most prestigious films with the largest budgets received fully original, completely synchronized scores for their presentation in cinemas. These “special scores,” as they were marketed, generally eschewed pre-existing music of any kind, although some did include a single notable pre-existing theme or popular song, often for marketing purposes. The special score existed from the beginnings of film and film music; Nathaniel D. Mann composed the first such score for the 1908 film The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays.[7] As Martin Marks notes, the genre blossomed in the United States between 1910 and 1914, and following the success of Joseph Carl Breil’s fully synchronized score for Griffith’s 1915 picture The Birth of a Nation, more studios began producing full scores for their pictures.[8] Breil applied a Wagnerian approach to scoring his films, starting with his now-lost score for Queen Elizabeth in 1912, assigning leitmotivs to characters and places as a means of connecting all of the elements of the film through the music and developing a coherent musical narrative that was carried throughout the score. Although it had been used before, this technique was made popular by the success of Breil’s score and was widely adopted by film composers.

Nonetheless, the completely original and synchronized score remained far from the norm. Of the full-length film scores produced during the late teens and early twenties, many remained compiled scores with only a few original sections: that is, they were comprised of pre-existing pieces that were connected to one another with original transitions and sometimes contained a new song or tune for a romantic or climactic scene. During the silent era, songs associated with individual movies were often sold as sheet music, on rolls for player pianos, or on records as a means of promoting the film and capitalizing on it beyond cinema ticket sales. Photoplay albums and single-work generic music and cue sheets continued to be used by most motion picture accompanists until the coming of sound between 1927 and 1929, although original full scores became increasingly common as the 1920s progressed.

Even the terminology for film music was flexible. In a cue sheet, each individual action on screen that demanded new music was called a “cue.” But in full scores, “cues”—often numbered—ranged from a single short piece for a scene to a longer composite work that changed one or more times during its length and included numerous synchronization points—indicated by “D.” (for directions or actions on-screen) or “T.” (for text or title cards) markers in the score—within it. In films in which the director frequently used cuts, these composite cues were common. Music for film requiring externally-produced aural accompaniment continued to be written and published until about 1931, after which “talkies” became the norm.


[1] David Pierce, “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films, 1912-1929” (Washington, D.C.: National Film Preservation Board, with the Council on Library and Information resources and The Library of Congress, 2013), 1, http://www.loc.gov/film/pdfs/pub158.final_version_sept_2013.pdf.

[2] Erno Rapée, Motion Picture Moods, for Pianists and Organists; [a Rapid-Reference Collection of Selected Pieces, Adapted to 52 Moods and Situations.] (New York: G. Schirmer, 1925), 2, 655.

[3] Weekend Edition Saturday, “Making the Music for Silent Movies,” NPR.org, accessed January 15, 2015, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5559593.

[4] “Edison Issues Music Cues.” Motography 10, no. 8 (October 18, 1913): 291.

[5] “Mutual to Provide Music Cue Service with Features.” Motion Picture News 15, no. 12 (March 26, 1917): 1847.

[6] Early cue sheets in magazines include those by Ernst Luz for Motion Picture News in 1915; George W. Beynon in Moving Picture World starting in 1919; and L. G. DelCastillo in American Organist in 1922.

[7] Eric Dienstfrey, “Synch Holes and Patchwork in Early Feature-Film Scores,” Music and the Moving Image 7, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 43. Mann’s score predates Camille Saint-Saëns’s score for L’assassinat du duc de Guise by just weeks.

[8] Martin Marks, 62.