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Two or Three Things We Thought We Knew about Silent Film Sound

1. Origins to 1928

3. 1915–1928

  1. Rick Altman

Published Online: 13 NOV 2011

DOI: 10.1002/9780470671153.wbhaf018

The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film

How to Cite

Altman, R. 2011. Two or Three Things We Thought We Knew about Silent Film Sound. The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film. 1:3:18.

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 13 NOV 2011


Some years ago I started work on what I expected to be the first chapter of a general history of Hollywood sound. I knew I had to cover the sound for silent films, but I figured that this task would be easily accomplished. After all, didn't everyone writing about silent film sound agree on the basic contours of early accompaniment practices? Right from the earliest years of cinema, everyone seemed to concur, films were accompanied by the ever-present piano playing light classical selections or improvised creations, until such time as the piano could be replaced by an orchestra playing a carefully confected score specifically designed to match each film's shifting emotional tone. Finding one version or another of this same story in one history after another, my first impulse was just to borrow a few references from the many books that devote a short initial chapter to the sounds of silents: London (1936), Manvell and Huntley (1957), Bazelon (1975), Evans (1975), Gorbman (1987), Prendergast (1992), Flinn (1992), Kalinak (1992), Brown (1994), Chion (1995). But I kept hearing my own voice, as I would tell my graduate students never to trust received opinion and to be especially suspicious of widespread agreement on underresearched topics. Enjoying a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship at the time, I figured I could afford a week or two to check out at least the basic references shared by these writers.


  • silent film; silent film sound; film history