Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Music for the Picture

Probably in response to Clyde Martin's column in Film Index, Moving Picture World hired Clarence E. Sinn to write a column on music, which began on 26 November 1910. In general, Sinn is a thoughtful writer, and he seems to have a much better sense of the choices available to exhibitors than does Martin; but Sinn also recognizes that not all—maybe not even most—choices are available to all exhibitors. Consequently, blanket statements about how something must be done are relatively rare in Sinn's columns. After his first couple of columns, Sinn will also begin to run his column more as a forum, featuring letters from correspondents to which he then responds, rather than producing all the text himself.

Although his column lacks in strong polemics and his guidance is more pragmatic than systematic, I find Sinn to be by far the most interesting writer on music and film in the American trade press until the 1920s.


It is gratifying to see how the broadminded exhibitors, those who aim to show the pictures to the best advantage, are fast taking to the idea good and appropriate music does not only enhance the beauty of the picture but gives it life. From every town we hear that such and such a theater has discharged the music killer, the man or woman at a low salary who believed that any old ragtime music was good enough for motion pictures, to engage more experienced musicians. It is surprising to note how many theaters are improving the sound effects while many of them are adding a violinist; in fact, many other instrument players. The demand for good music is such that it is now as much of a rivalry between exhibitors to brag of their good orchestra as it is of bragging of the quality of their pictures. In other words, the managers are now taking as much interest in the great demand for extra musical accessories, like the Deagan electric bells, xylophones, chimes, automatic orchestras, pipe organs, etc., shows that, in the very near future, moving picture theaters will be real concert halls and that the public will go to the shows not only for the sake of seeing pictures but to hear good music.

A full orchestra costs less than two cheap vaudeville acts and is more profitable to the exhibitor. Good music captivates and pleases, while cheap vaudevill acts give a very unfavorable reputation to a moving picture theater.

Realizing, therefore, the importance of the music, we make no apology for introducing this new department to World readers. We believe that Mr. Sinn will find a hearty response to his suggestions and invite every exhibitor and orchestra leader to write him for particular information or offer suggestions, addressing same to Music Department, Moving Picture World, Drawer 727, Chicago, Ill.

J. M. B.

By Clarence E. Sinn, The “Cue Music Man.”
First Article.

Much has been said in criticism of the music accompanying moving pictures, but so far as I have noticed few practical suggestions have been offered which would put the novice on the right road to “working up” his pictures musically. I am daily in receipt of inquiries whose general purport is: “What shall I play—where shall I play it—and why?” It is the purpose of these articles to try and give a few hints along these lines which the writer hopes may stimulate interest among his fellow-workers in this great field, and invite questions which will be answered so far as lies in his power.

The moving picture is almost infinite in its variety of subjects, but for the present we may divide them roughly into three classes: scenic, industrial, and dramatic—the last including all pictures which the characters enact a story. The moving picture drama (or photoplay) is simply a play in pantomime, and the accompanying music is essentially the same as that of a play given on the stage. There is this distinction, however. In the drama proper, music is only introduced at intervals to heighten the effect of certain scenes, while in pantomime it is continuous, or nearly so. The reason is apparent. The drama depends upon both speech and action to convey its story: the eye and ear of the auditor are in sympathy; we see the action and hear the words. This sympathy of eye and ear must exist else there is no sustained interest—no intelligent appreciation of the story. To hold this double interest the stage manager employs as accessories, lights, scenery, music—always keeping in view this sympathy between the eye and ear.

Pantomime depends solely upon the action to convey its story and appeals to the eye alone. Now the ear demands gratification as well as the eye, and, to this end, music is employed, but whenever possible it should be consistent with the story and not merely a concert program on the side.

Certain forms of music are accepted as suitable accompaniments for certain situations; as soft and plaintive for pathetic scenes, stormy and turbulent for the violent ones, etc. All the emotions have some sort of musical analogy and if there are correctly applied the dramatic effect is heightened and the interest of the auditor is intensified. If, on the other hand, the music be incongruous, the attention is diverted and the interest lessened. Bear in mind that the picture is the show—that is what the audience is paying for—and any accessory (musical or otherwise) should carry out and amplify the impression intended by the producer.

A picture was shown some time ago containing a scene wherein the Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the infant Moses in the bulrushes. The pianist played “Oh, You Kid.” He got a laugh which is probably what he wanted, but at what a sacrifice. The whole picture was dignified and serious, and the music should have sustained that character throughout.

It is the general character of the picture which you must observe. Taken altogether, what is the predominant feature? Is it pathetic, mysterious, tragical or comical? Work up to this general effect whatever it is. The producer takes great pains to convey certain impressions and preserve a certain atmosphere, and it is his due that these unities be preserved so the audience may receive his story in the spirit in which it is told. To begin with, you should have a good library, which in these days of cheap music is not difficult. A few marches and waltzes, though these are indispensible, are not sufficient. Long andantes such as “Tramerei,” “Flower Song,” “Angel’s Serenade” and the like are useful. The intermezzo, valse lento, and gavottes make convenient “fill-ins” where the scene is neutral yet the general character of the picture is subdued or pathetic. Religious music, national airs (of different counties), Oriental music and dances are frequently called for. Popular songs are useful, especially in sentimental pictures and comedies. The titles of these, if well known, frequently carry out the suggestion of the picture, but care should taken that the music is also in keeping with the scene. Don’t try to get a laugh where none was intended, as it only cheapens your work and hurts the picture. Your library should also include some melodramatic music, such as mysterious, agitato, “Hurrys” for combats, storms, fire scenes, etc. There are in constant demand.

Overtures, medleys, popular selections, etc., have their place also, but as a general rule it is not wise to use them in dramatic pictures, as the chances are a lively movement will come at a time when you should be playing a slow one, and vice versa. I suspect this is at the bottom of a great many criticisms that have appeared lately. Some of the scenic and most of the industrial pictures as a rule do not require special music—there’s a good place for your concert music. Once in a long time you will get a picture that runs in a dead level—no high lights or deep shadows—very difficult to shade musically, as nothing in particular happens. An overture or selection is probably as good as anything else, but be careful.

Some intensely dramatic pictures are turned to one picture, yet are full of suggestions as the musical setting. “Auld Robin Gray” is a recent and easy example. We open the picture with the song “Auld Robin Gray” once through, the same as if we were taking up the curtain on the stage. As it would be monotonous to repeat the song over and over throughout the picture, we relieve it occasionally; “My Highland Laddie” in the first scene, Tosti’s “Good-bye” at the parting scene—always filling in with the titular song. I heard the “Wedding March” played for the wedding scene; while this might be criticized, it accented the scene and did not detract from the general effect. After that “Auld Robin Gray” until the end with all the expression possible.

In the next article we will take up this matter of incidental music more in detail.

(To be continued.)

Source: Clarence E. Sinn, “Music for the Picture,” Moving Picture World 26 November 1910, 1227.

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