Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sound Effects and the "Thematic" Treatment

In this column, Sinn first addresses the issue of sound effects. Responding to a complaint about sound effects that are not sufficiently realistic, Sinn somewhat uncharacteristically criticizes more broadly than his correspondent, seeing the problem not just in a lack of fidelity but in their generally undomesticated quality. Nevertheless he also makes the important claim that learning to play sound effects was a first step toward the current practice of playing the pictures, because rather than being indifferent to the picture, as the ragtime piano apparently often was, the effects attempted to find motivation in the picture. Music for the picture, he implies, is a domestication of the old, crude sound effect.

The second part of the column is devoted to the leitmotive, what Sinn here calls the "thematic" treatment. He gives a brief account of the technique and then offers Gaumont's three-reel feature, The Vengeance of Egypt as an example of how the thematic treatment can be applied to a film. Importantly, Sinn does not associate a theme with the ring per se, but rather with its effect of bringing death. In this way, the thematic treatment serves the "dominant idea of the picture," and for Sinn locating and retracing this dominant idea is the main priority of all musical accompaniment.

Here’s that old complaint again, this time from New England: “Dear Sir.—Won’t you please give the exhibitors a jolt? Several Boston picture houses permit their drummers (or some Eastern product) to beat a tumpty-tum as of horses trotting on asphalt pavement—a terrific racket—during the army and Indian pictures, when it is plain the horses are on soft or sandy soil—the dust flying so they can hardly be seen. It’s anything but “Western,” is ridiculously absurd and intensely annoying to the audience. Many people speak of it.—C. D., Dorchester, Mass.”

One would have a right to hope that this sort of thing belonged to the past. Whoever is to blame, but it manager or drummer (and I fear it is usually the latter), he can hardly plead ignorance as an excuse. Noisy, silly and incorrect “sound effects” have been so often criticised by the public, the daily papers and the moving picture trade journals—particular the Moving Picture World—that even the most thoughtless and careless out to know better. I believe “sound effects” had an immense value a few years ago. I think they contributed largely to the awakening of managers and others to the importance of appropriate music for accompanying the picture. Previous to the sound effect period anything in the shape of a ”bally-hoo” was good enough for the musical part of the show; phonographs, mechanical pianos and rag-time “thumpers” amused (?) the easily entertained patron of the moving picture novelty. Then the sound effects were introduced adding a new element of interest. They were generally noisy, crude and misplaced, but the average picture of six or seven years ago was not harmed to an appreciable extent. Even then the better element among the picture patrons resented the incorrect and noisy “effects.” To the best of my knowledge the value of appropriate music began to be advocated at that time by critics, patrons and musicians. Music for the picture has advanced to a much higher plane in the past six years; the “sound effect” idea (with many) is practically the same now as it was in its crude beginning. It must either change for the better or be doomed to oblivion.

Music Programs.

Gaumont’s three-reel feature entitled “The Vengeance of Egypt” gives an opportunity for the “thematic” treatment which occasioned some comment in this page of a couple of years ago. Some musical theme may be chosen to represent the mummy’s ring and its malignant power (as Wagner uses a motif for the Shield, Fire, Sword or other important object), and this theme should be repeated each time the ring changes hands—that is, when it is developed that the ring has found a new victim. This theme should be of a weird, mysterious character; the third movement (doloroso) of Theo. Bendix’s “Hindoo Priest’s Incantation” is offered as a suggestion. If this is used it should be played slowly to end of number if necessary; if not long enough repeat from the same place (3rd movement doloroso). I believe it would be a good idea to use one plaintive also for the death of each victim of the ring; though not really necessary, it would still further carry out the “thematic” form and emphasize the dominant idea of the picture—the vengeance following the ring.


  1. Marseilles. Begin softly; swell as Napoleon entersl diminish when slaves stoop to raise mummy casket. When casket is upright change to:
  2. First part of “Sultan’s Dream” (Bendix) or any Oriental of mysterious character. At title: “Lieut. Berard, Officer of the Guard,” very softly until case is opened. Swell to mf until “The Mummy is Despoiled.”
  3. Mysterious until he takes ring from mummy’s finger, then:
  4. Theme of ring. I have suggested the third movement of Theo. Bendix’s “Hindoo Priest’s Incantation” for this. It will be referred to as “Theme” whenever it occurs. Repeat until title: “The Home of Charlotte Gartier.”
  5. “Daisies” (from Bendix’s Floral Suite) until “A Weird Dream.”
  6. “Theme” till vision; then:
  7. First part of “Sultan’s Dream,” until vision over.
  8. “Theme” again until after newspaper item shown.
  9. Plaintive until end of reel.

Part Two.
  1. Gavotte until he takes ring from cabinet.
  2. “Theme until next title.
  3. “Lilies” (or bright light waltz) until: “The Ring’s Second Victim.”
  4. “Theme” until burglar enters behind girl.
  5. Mysterious till change of scene.
  6. Waltz lento (“Devotion”) until title: “The Antiquary Loves to Descend to His Shop.”
  7. “Theme” until: “The Ring’s Third Victim.”
  8. “Miama” (by Neil Moret) until: “The Ring’s Fourth Victim.”
  9. Waltz until man is scene with gun.
  10. Mysterious until “The Empty Boat.”
  11. Pathetic (some [sic] as end of first reel) until end of reel.

Part Third.
  1. Waltz or Novelette until he puts ring on girl’s finger.
  2. “Theme” until title; “Paul Is a Daring and Successful Aviator.”
  3. Lively Intermezzo till machine starts.
  4. “Theme” (faster this time—agitated character) until machine is seen wrecked.
  5. Crescendo until title: “From the Fingers Cold in Death.”
  6. Pathetic (same as before) until title: “The Journey.”
  7. “Passion” (by Hager) until: “Into the Depths of Doom.”
  8. Agitato until: “The Fisherman’s Discovery.”
  9. “Passion” again until mummy case is opened.
  10. First Part of “Sultan’s Dream” until close.

Another fine picture with the atmosphere of ancient Egypt is
  1. “Autumn (by Losey) until letter is shown.
  2. “Egyptian Love Dance” pp and crescendo until: “Off to Battle.”
  3. Soft agitato until: “The Return From the War.”
  4. “Isis” (Witmark). Begin soft and slow through two scenes, then crescendo and quicken to march tempo until they are about to drink at the table.
  5. Agitato (soft) until change of scene.
  6. “Egyptian Love Dance” until old man awakes.
  7. “Heartsease” (by Moret) until close.

Through favor of W. E. King, of the Orpheum Theater, Chicago, I offer the musical accompaniment (as played by his orchestra of
  1. “A Little Story” (by Zimmerman; pub. by Carl Fischer) until title: “Hopelessly in Love with Romeo.
  2. “Reconciliation” (Bendix) until reception scene.
  3. Gavotte (Harp effect) until all exit but two.
  4. Barcarolle from “Tales of Hoffman,” until they enter church.
  5. Religioso until: “Provoked By His Rival.”
  6. Soft agitato until he is brought before the duke.
  7. Rather slow and solemn. (Could use introduction of “Poet and Peasant.”—Ed.) “Romeo Takes Leave of Juliet.”
  8. The Roses Honymoon” (Bratton) until end of reel.

Part Second.
  1. “Roses and Memories” (Ted Snyder) until: “Friar Laurence Gives Juliet.”
  2. “Melody of Peace” (Carl Fischer) until title: “Romeo Ignorant of the Death of Juliet.”
  3. “Pansies” (Witmark) until funeral procession seen coming down steps.
  4. Funeral March (Sousa’s “Our Honored Dead”) until Romeo is left alone with bier.
  5. “Longing” (Pathetic) from Theo. Bendix suite until close.

Source: Clarence E. Sinn, “Music for the Picture,” Moving Picture World 25 January 1913, 352.