The History and Mechanics of Screen Music: the Early Days

From the very start of civilisation, music and drama has been closely connected. The Aborigines and other cultures used music to accompany ceremonies and spiritual gatherings. The Greeks, Romans, Japanese, Indonesians and Indians used music to accompany dance and dramatic plays. In the medieval era music was used in pagan festivals and liturgical dramas. The Renaissance period utilized music in specific scenes in Shakespearean plays on through the Baroque operas and ballets to modern day theatrical productions such as plays, musicals, cinematic films and television. Music for the screen has always played an important role to heighten the emotions and to clarify the interpretation of a storyline by interacting with the visual to form a cohesive interplay between the auditory and visual senses for the audience. Music is capable of swaying the viewer into a desired mood based on the content of musical language utilized.

Music and sound can affect a film’s audience subconsciously. It can manipulate the viewer’s emotions in various directions. Mostly, its function is to guide the audience on what to feel and when. It has the ability to create a mood that may not necessarily be the obvious. It can provide a depth unlike any other form of communication and it can move us into the inner thoughts of a character on screen without a word being spoken. Music is able to put us on edge or it can create a calming effect. It can provide emotional and atmospheric shading that is not unlike the brush strokes of an artist and the various hues that one paints onto the canvas. It also has the ability to help with transitional elements within a scene and to help focus a point of view. It is interesting to me that certain musical clichés have appeared in cinemas since the beginning of the film era. Even though music can be subjective from listener to listener, the foundation for an intended uniform result is much the same. Deep low frequencies, whether in the context of a single drone, or close voiced higher frequencies, such as intervals of a second, create feelings of a threat or uneasiness. There are many theories for further research, such as whether these frequencies, or the combination of layered frequencies, cause mood related effects due to an association with our ancestral roots. It may also be possible that the frequency vibrations of our planet and galaxy cause us to respond as we do. Or, are our emotional responses simply due to our continued exposure to similar musical language. Music for the screen is an invisible character – an alternate dimension that can enhance the film like no other element.

A good score sits well within the film and does not jump out to the audience as being too obvious. It should be like an accompanist to a vocal artist, never attempting to take over the stage unless it is called upon to do so.

Very little has been documented about the early history of Australian screen music. Whilst there is some information available about the early Australian cinema, it is limited compared to the details available about Hollywood. I spent 18 years working in Los Angeles as a session guitarist, music arranger, orchestrator and screen composer writing for such television series as Santa Barbara, Guiding Light and incidental music for The Love Boat. Much of my information has come first hand from talking with many of the older schooled composers and orchestrators that were working in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. I have noted various publications where other information was obtained.

Whenever I make no direct reference to a location I am referring to Hollywood.

It is just over a century ago that the silent film era began. On December 28, 1895 the Lumiere brothers screened their first silent film in a basement café in the Boulevard des Capucines, Paris. The program was accompanied by a solo piano. February 20, 1896 was the first public screening of a film in England entitled The Arrival of a Train in a Station, produced by the Lumiere family. The film was shown at the Regent Street Polytechnic and was accompanied by an old harmonium that was brought in from the chapel. This is also the beginning of a concept we now call “sound effects” where a cylinder of compressed air was used to imitate steam engine noises against the visual. In this same year music hall orchestras provided full musical accompaniments to film shows presented at the Empire and Alhambra Music Halls in England. The music was existing materials (not written specifically for the program) and cued on the fly.

Another concept called the “needle drop” was introduced in the late 1890’s using an orchestral gramophone record. A piece of music was specifically chosen to coincide with a particular scene in the film. Whilst the movie was playing, the projectionist or another person sitting in the booth would physically drop the needle onto a chosen position on the record to accompany the drama. The first film using this technique was called Little Tich and his Big Boots and was shown in England. Between 1901 and 1906 various experiments with the musical (singing films) were produced using the needle drop method to accompany scenes.

Australia produced silent films as early as 1896. The first continuous silent film of any substantial length was The Story of the Kelly Gang, directed by Charles Tait. The film opened at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne in 1906. As the film unwound an orchestra provided music, an actor (or two) provided voices and a description of the actions, and young boys were employed to provide sound effects from behind the screen & Cooper 1981. Music would have been performed and conducted on the fly. There is no specific documentation of the music used.

The first original music score composed to a film was a score by Camille Saint-Saens for a film entitled L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise produced by Film D’Art in France in late 1907. The score was for strings, piano and harmonium. It was cued and conducted on the fly.

In 1909, the American company, Edison Films, issued musical cue sheets with film releases. These cue sheets would detail the type of music required by mood description or sometimes the actual name of an existing musical work was listed. The cue sheets indicated where a musical piece should be used in the film sequence.

Australia continued to produce a trail of films throughout the first two decades of the 1900s. Music was provided by either live ensembles, solo pianists, organists or gramophone records. In 1907 Charles MacMahon directed the Australian film Robbery Under Arms. The initial presentations of the film were elaborate: On May 9, 1908, at the Adelaide Town Hall, Alfred Boothman, a well known actor, stood beside the screen and narrated the story, accompanied by realistic sound effects by George Rocks, and an orchestra consisting of piano and strings. In 1911 a film entitled The Lost Chord was made and at the screening in Melbourne, music was performed live on stage by vocalist Isabella Bull, accompanied by a grand organ & Cooper, 1981.

1913 is a key year in the development of printed manuscript publications of music that could be used for the screen. The Sam Fox Moving Picture Company (Cleveland, Ohio) published music volumes by composer J.S. Zamecnik. Other noted publications were Kinothek by G. Becce and Motion Picture Moods arranged by E. Rapee. These publications were designed specifically for silent movie pianists and tended to standardize the musical and emotional content for the viewers. In my opinion, this was the beginning of the cliché’ approach that we see today with many film scores. These publications contained works that would deliver results for various moods such as ‘Hurry Music’ for mob or fire scenes (Zamecnik, c. 1913), pieces for a sinister mood or a love scene, triumphal, sneaky or burglar music, threatening mood, horror, heroic, combat, joyful, mystery, humorous and the list goes on, covering every mood imaginable. The music director of the film would view the film with a stopwatch and time each scene. They would then find an appropriate piece contained in these music volumes. The tempo and the arrangements of these works would vary depending on the film sequences. As you can imagine this was a very pre-historic approach to synchronizing music to film but nevertheless it was a positive step forward. In Australia during this era, there were local companies publishing similar material. Allan & Co. and Paling & Co. were the major publishers of Australian film music. Their published music consisted of short, episodic pieces of sentimental charm and illustrative music intended to augment the appropriate emotional moments of the film. Originally scored for piano, these pieces could easily be modified (often marked with cues) for ensembles or orchestras (Diane Napthali,1999).

In my opinion, music to silent films served two main purposes. To provide depth of dramatic content, creating another dimension aside from just the visual, and secondly there was no other sound except for the clunky noise of the projection machinery. Music was used to help cover up these annoying audible frequencies.

In 1924 Lee De Forrest produced experimental sound films in New York. The film of notable recognition is Love’s Old Sweet Song. A year later in London De Forrest released sound films with effects, dialogue and music. In 1926, British Acoustics produced the sound film A Wet Night at Weissensee Studios in Berlin. The most recognized film of its time was the Warner Brothers production, The Jazz Singer, released in New York in October 1927, with music playing an intricate role. The film was mostly silent but the audience was shocked when they suddenly heard words coming from Jolsons’ mouth. 1928 saw the arrival of the first Walt Disney sound cartoon entitled Steamboat Willie. Up to about 1931, most of the early sound films produced were musicals.

The production of “sound to film” was achieved by various experimental methods including the sound-on-disc system, a non-editable format on a separate medium from the visual film. In the late 1920’s the production of “sound on film” came into play with the use of sound cameras and optical soundtrack recording, where the entire soundtrack was recorded at the same time as the visual, on the same medium. Sound was recorded by a sound camera directly onto 35mm film. Editing was difficult and mostly impractical, as it would interfere with the audio track.

With recording techniques of this time, there was only one track available for sound recording. The visual was filmed at the same time as the recording of the dialogue, sound effects and music. Musicians needed to be on the set during filming. This was of course a very expensive and problematic process as mistakes from the director, musicians, actors, recordists, camera operators, et cetera would cause “take after take” as there was no way of recording anything independently.

Australian filmmakers were also experimenting with sound films from about 1926. By 1930 Australian producers were adapting their silent films into partial-talkies, and were producing new sound films usually employing the sound-on-disc system or recording sound on to 35mm film stock.

By 1931 magnetic recording advancements made their way into filmmaking. This made the recording process much more practical as music and other forms of audio could be recorded separately from the filming. This technology, called “the pre-record”, would allow synchronization to the visual during production and postproduction. Image contained on one 35 mm film reel has a sprocket hole sequence that aligns to a location. Aligning the visual film to the soundtrack recording(s), recorded on separate 35mm magnetic film stock, allowed fairly accurate synchronization via sprocket hole lock. This allowed for greater control over post-production techniques and helped keep music budgets manageable.

This method of locking the machinery together was fairly foolproof providing the power supply was constant. If a ‘surge’ or ‘drain’ in the power supply occurred, (as often happened in those days) the speed of motors would alter. If the music was recorded at an uneven moment in power it wouldn’t align up with film that was shot during a normal period, and vice versa. This was corrected when power grids were better perfected.

The 1930 Australian film production, Fellers, directed by Arthur Higgins and Austin Fay, was a partial-talkie. Music is credited to Barney Cuthbert. The last reel of the film was synchronized with a few minutes of dialogue and a song, which Everyones (a weekly film trade paper published in Sydney from 1921 to 1937) dismissed as ‘in no way important, moreover the recording is irregular. At one moment the voices come over excellently, only to blur a few moments later’. The song was Boy of Mine sung by Grace Quine. The rest of the film was silent with a recorded music score as accompaniment, and even that failed to impress: ‘the music is far too turbulent, providing for the most commonplace scene a background of such vivid emotions as would be in place only at a grand opera climax’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 August 1930). & Cooper, 1981.

The first commercially viable sound film in Australia was The Diggers (1931), Efftee Film Productions, Melbourne. The musical soundtrack consisted of existing traditional music. Over the next five years Efftee Films produced seven features and numerous shorts. His Royal Highness, made in 1932 incorporated burlesque operetta style that impressed audiences and critics alike with its music and sets & Cooper, 1981. Alaric Howett and George Wallace composed the music score.

Although completed as a silent film early in 1929, The Cheaters, an Australian production directed by Paulette McDonagh, was so long delayed in the director’s search for a release that an attempt was made to improve its commercial chances by adapting it into a partial talkie. Additional scenes were filmed in March 1930 in Melbourne, using the sound-on-disc system. The talkie scenes, none of which remain in the surviving copy of the film, included a fancy-dress party sequence and a romantic interlude in which Paula (played by Marie Lorraine) at the piano, sings a song to Lee (played by Josef Bambach). The musicians’ union, nervous about the implications of talkies, caused further delays by temporarily preventing its members from recording music for the film, but by May it was ready for entry in the first Commonwealth film competition, where it failed to win a prize. On 1 June it was shown at the Roxy Theatre, Parramatta, to a large invited audience of press and trade representatives, but few commercial screenings followed, partly because of the poor quality of the sound reproduction & Cooper, 1981.

The early 1930s saw the rise of the “symphonic style” music score. Noted composers such as Shostakovitch, Schoenberg, Holst, Prokofiev, Steiner, Waxman, Korngold, Britten, Rozsa, Copland, Tiomkin, Jaubert, to name a few, set the stage for what we now know as the cinematic Hollywood style movie score and The Golden Age of Cinema. Music was influenced by the late 19th century romantic period composers such as Puccini, Verdi, Mahler, Strauss, Wagner and Brahms. This genre of music allowed for an effective dramatic vehicle for film scoring, incorporating both underscore style (used mostly during dialogue) and thematic melodic development material (used in heightened and featured dramatic sequences). The operatic musical style, leitmotif (recurring, reminiscent and thematic recollections showing relationships between characters or emphasizing thoughts within a character’s mind), was widely used during this Golden Age.

The composers would view the work print of the reels of film on movieola equipment and would use a stopwatch to time every piece of music so it would fit to a 10th of a second in accuracy. Once they found an appropriate tempo to coincide with a specific scene (with diligent consideration to emotional or mood changes, transitions, hit points, dialogue, et cetera) they would begin writing the music. Every moment of importance contained in a scene had to interact with the tempo of the music. And every moment of music had to serve a purpose emotionally to the picture. The timing information compiled was, and still is to this day, referred to as a “music cue sheet”.

From the time of the pre-record technology (off the set recording of the music) performance synchronization techniques were accomplished by screening the sequence of film in front of the music conductor, directly behind the orchestra, so that the music could be conducted and performed to coincide with the visual. This screening technique is still utilized today. However, in the early days it was extremely difficult to achieve accurate synchronization of music to image due to implications arising from human error when trying to catch music cues on the fly. The conductors on the sound recording stages, not always the composers, had to become well acquainted with each film sequence. They only had “familiarity” as their guide to make every moment of music fit to a specified visual moment. The conductors would use a large clock placed next to the podium to help with tempo and timing. Still this was not foolproof as their performances could not be perfect each and every time. Film studios were going over budget often due to re-takes because of these imperfections.

Then in 1935 a new development began to shape the path for the future – the hole punch in the work print of the film. This concept aided the conductors to some extent as it provided an accurate mark in a film’s sequence to show a specified point, such as the start of music, an important cue point such as a car crash, two lips meeting in a passionate kiss, et cetera, as well as the end of a scene where music is to cut off. The hole punched in the film, accomplished via an office hole punch, created an explosion or flutter of light to appear on screen at a specified cue point, allowing the conductors to re-align their tempo (on the spot) to fit the written music score. Quickly thereafter it was found that a diagonal slash, called a “streamer”, placed on the surface of the film prior to the hole punch, anywhere between 2 and 4 seconds in duration, achieved a warning to the conductor of an upcoming punch or “cue point”. This aided the performances enormously.

The hole cut out of the film made a clicking sound as it passed over the projector’s lens. It was soon realised that punching holes at exact distances from each other would create a constant metronome click. The speed of film runs at 24 frames per second. Musically, this timing equates to 60 beats per minute. Electronically amplifying this sound provided a ‘click track’ that could be fed to the conductor via a set of headphones.

Experimentation played a part but mathematics was the key to accurately create the various “frame ratio” to “beats per minute” charts. Composers Max Steiner, Carl Stalling and editor Ruby Raskin are often credited for the advent of working with this early concept. The charts indicated the various increments of time it takes for X-frames to pass across the projectors lens being cross-referenced to X-beats per minute. Once these calculations were documented, most screen composers, orchestrators and music editors compiled additional charts containing their own tables of timings (musical click charts). Their click charts would include columns indicating the amount of time, represented in seconds, it takes to complete 4 bars of 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and columns of time durations to complete 8 ~ 32 bars of 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4. Their charts usually started with a quick paced 6 frame click on through to a slow 28 frame click, representing tempos that conform to approximately 216 BPM to 50 BPM respectively. There were various charts floating around, however most creators needing this data would compile their own reference guide. Prior to the recording of the music the film music editor would be advised by the composer of the exact frames per second (referenced to beats per minute), for each music sequence. The editor would prepare a click track on another 35mm reel or loop reel. A 12-0 frame click (120 beats per minute) meant punching a hole at the start of every 12th frame. They were able to increase or decrease the various click tempos by moving the hole punch earlier or later with eight possible increments contained within a frame, such as 12-1 frame click (slightly slower than a 12-0 frame click) , 12-2 frame click (slower again), 12-3 through to a 12–7. These variations would allow compensation for all the various tempos. The process of recording with the film punch click was much more foolproof and remained constant to the industry until the development of the Urei Metronome in the early 60’s and then of course SMPTE which was developed in Europe in the mid-60’s.

Writing music to coincide with visual timings is not an easy task. During these early days the work process was much more difficult and time consuming than it is today. The laborious processes of experimenting with timing results on blank manuscript paper, mapping out timings in seconds and 10ths of seconds and the need to have a firm grasp of mathematical calculations surely must have robbed composers in this era of the most important aspects of getting on with the creativity of writing music!

In the late 1960’s a music editor named Carroll Knudson developed a very detailed and concise book created for film composers and editors called Project Tempo. I have a copy of this book as well as copies of some original “click track charts” by Hollywood orchestrators and screen composers. Project Tempo is an unbelievable bible of information relating to frames, clicks, click numbers and tenths of seconds for timing purposes. It provides a quick reference, page by page, to each and every possible metronome and frame-click marking, with seconds displayed at each and every click number. For the allegro tempos the charts go all the way up to 2.5 minutes in timing information whilst the slower tempos go up to 9 minutes and 57 seconds in detailed timing information.

Most composers and editors in Hollywood worked with Project Tempo until the advent of midi in the early 1980’s and a few years thereafter a program called Cue – the film music program created by Opcode Music Systems in the USA.

This is a very broad outline of some of the historical events that have shaped the path of our current working process – technology that has contributed to the way we work today. Much more research needs to be completed and documented about world screen music and in particular Australian screen music.

Some notable Australian films with music credits between the 1930’s and 1950’s:

  • His Royal Highness (1932) – Alaric Howitt & George Wallace
  • The Squatters Daughter (1933) – Frank Chapple & Tom King
  • Strike Me Lucky (1934) – Hamilton Webber
  • Heritage (1935) – Harry Jacobs
  • Thoroughbred (1936) – Hamilton Webber
  • Uncivilised (1936) – Lindley Evans
  • White Death (1936) – Isadore Goodman
  • Orphan of the Wilderness (1936) – Hamilton Webber
  • Rangle River (1936) – Alfred Lawrence
  • The Avenger (1937) – Frank Chapple
  • The Broken Melody (1938) – Alfred Hill (theme), Horace Keats (underscore)
  • Let George Do It (1938) – Hamilton Webber & Maurice Gilman
  • Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938) – Hamilton Webber & Maurice Gilman
  • Gone to the Dogs (1939) – Henry Krips, George Wallace & Harry Allen
  • Come Up Smiling (1939) – Henry Krips, Ronald Whelen, Bob Geraghty and Will Mohoney
  • Seven Little Australians (1939) – Nellie Weatherill
  • Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940) – Lindley Evans
  • Racing Luck (1941) – Rex Shaw
  • The Rats of Tobruk (1944) – Lindley Evans
  • Harvest Gold (1945) – Sydney John Kay
  • Smithy (1946) – Henry Krips
  • A Son is Born (1946) – Sydney John Kay
  • Bush Christmas (1947) – Sydney John Kay
  • Eureka Stockade (1949) – John Greenwood
  • Into the Straight (1949) – Wilbur Sampson
  • Sons of Matthew (1949) – Henry Krips
  • About Horses (1950) – Robert Hughes
  • Mike and Stephani (1952) – Robert Hughes
  • Captain Thunderbolt (1953) – Sydney John Kay
  • King of the Coral Sea (1954) – Wilbur Sampson
  • The Back of Beyond (1954) – Sydney John Kay
  • Long John Silver (1954) – David Buttolph
  • Jedda (1955) – Isadore Goodman
  • Smiley (1956) – William Alwyn
  • Walk into Paradise (1956) – G. Auric
  • Three in One (1957) – Raymond Hanson
  • The Shiralee (1957) – John Addison
  • Robbery Under Arms (1957) – Ronald Whelan
  • Smiley Gets a Gun (1958) – Wilbur Sampson
  • Dust in the Sun (1958) – Wilbur Sampson
  • Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1960) – Benjamin Frankel


  1. Bertrand, Ina (ed.). Cinema in Australia: A Documented History. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1989.
  2. Bulletin of the British Academy of Film and Television.
  3. Davis, Richard. Complete Guide to Film Scoring. Berklee Press, 1999.
  4. Film Music Magazine.
  5. Films in Review.
  6. Harris, Albert. Personal correspondence, 1979 – 2002.
  7. Holman, Tomlinson. Sound for Film and Television. Focal Press, 1997.
  8. Knudson, Carroll. Project Tempo. Carroll Knudson Control, 1965.
  9. McFarlane, Brian, Geoff Mayer, Ina Bertrand and Scott Murray. The Oxford Companion to Australian Film. London: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  10. Parriot, Les. Personal correspondence, 2002.
  11. Phillips, Art. Arranging and Orchestration. Lecture material, writings and booklets: Central Queensland Conservatorium of Music, Central Queensland University, 2001.
  12. Phillips, Art. Dramatic Music. Lecture material, writings and booklets: Griffith University, 1997.
  13. Phillips, Art. Music and Moving Image. Lecture material, writings and booklets: Queensland Conservatorium of Music, 1995.
  14. Pike, Andrew and Ross Cooper (eds.). Australian Film 1900 – 1977. London: Oxford University Press, 1980.
  15. Riddle, Nelson. Personal correspondence, 1976 – 1981.
  16. Sight and Sound Magazine.
  17. Yewdall, David Lewis. The Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound. Focal Press, 1999.


Art Phillips. From Sounds Australian No 61, 2003

Art Phillips is a music composer, guitarist, record producer, arranger, orchestrator and musical director - and delivers original music with a distinctive approach to enhance the stories you want to tell.

Art is also owner and director of 101 Music Pty Ltd - a creative production music label.

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