Jonny Best

Silent Film Musician


Symposium of Sound, University of Durham, 3-4 September 2018, The Sound of Silence in Early Cinema: a Musician's Perspective.


This paper will examine the phenomenon of what Melinda Szaloky (2002) has termed the ‘visual acoustics’ of silent cinema - the rendering of sound by purely visual means. To watch a silent film without musical accompaniment is to come face-to-face with the medium’s dreamlike, ghostly qualities; indeed, it is often suggested that the use of live music in early cinema arose partly through a desire to counter this aspect of early film (Altman, 1996; Gorbman, 1987). Taking as my examples shots and sequences from films by Alfred Hitchcock, Murnau, Sternberg, Kirsanoff and Chaplin, I will explore the relationship between silence, sound and the dreamlike sensations of silent film, and argue that these effects are partly a product of the sonic properties of the moving image observed by Szaloky. Furthermore, rather than a deficiency to be overcome, these qualities are central to silent cinema’s distinctiveness as an art form. Finally, I will consider some of the implications for today’s silent film musical accompanists and ask how, as musicians, we can collaborate with the sonic dimensions of the images themselves, revealing rather than obscuring them.

Royal Musical Association Annual Conference, University of Bristol, 13-15 September 2018, The improvisational practices of early twentieth-century silent film piano accompanists.


Among the very first musical accompaniments to silent film was the lone pianist. A commonly held view - to be found in much of the literature on film music and early film - is that silent film pianists of the early twentieth century were called upon to improvise, and for those that could not there existed a library of music from which to select suitable accompaniments, such as Erno Rapée’s Motion Picture Moods (1924). But ‘improvisation’ is a slippery and capacious term which can be applied to a wide variety of musical practices and traditions. Furthermore, the cultural importance of improvisation and its presence (or absence) from piano pedagogies and performing practices is historically contingent and variable. To describe a performance as ‘improvised’ tells us virtually nothing about what is actually being played. With this project I am setting out to understand what improvisation might have meant to silent era pianists and what sort of musical practices and behaviours the term itself signalled. Drawing on silent era instructional manuals for silent film pianists and organists, musical cue sheets, personal testimonies, newspapers and periodicals, I aim to throw fresh light on our understanding of how silent film pianists worked in the UK between 1910 and 1925.

Rethinking the Attractions - Narrative Dialectic; New Approaches to Early Cinema, 9-10 November 2018, University of Ghent, Sound, silence and the dreamlike in early cinema - a musician’s perspective. 


Sources and Archives in Screen Sound Studies, June 1 & 2 2017, University of Huddersfield,  Playing to picture: sources in improvised piano scores for silent film.

British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2017, September 13 2017, De Montfort/Leicester Phoenix, Improvisation in silent-era keyboard accompaniments.

BFE/RMA Research Students Conference January 2018, University of Huddersfield. A masterclass in improvising to silent film.