Research Tips and Resources

For the most part, the documents showing what music was played with silent films are lost. Based on the University of Ottawa Silent Film Music collection, even when cue sheets and sheet music with silent film markings exist, they often only reflect their last use, with title or action cues written above several rounds of erased markings. Furthermore, collections related to theatres, impresarios, and theatre musicians are scarce.

This page provides three lists of tips and resources. These are intended both for academics starting research in the field and for members of the public who would like to contribute or learn more. The first list includes suggestions for primary research based on Marshall’s 2017 case study of practices in Ottawa, Canada. The second list includes digital projects currently associated with silent film music. The third list provides titles of research on silent film music and cinematic exhibition in the literature. We welcome additions to this resource list.

This lack of collections relating to silent film exhibition practices and music exemplifies why discovering, preserving, and retelling histories is important as this practice brings awareness and credibility to topics, subjects, and materials that are currently overlooked. These discussions can lead to the preservation of older documents and to the practice of archiving recent historical documents. Furthermore, on this website and in some of the following resources, the diversity of the people mentioned is slim. From initial research on Ottawa, it appears that the practice of playing music for silent films was primarily white and male, although there are a few mentions of women playing (particularly singers before films). Nonetheless, in the case of Ottawa, looking at the Young Judaea Ottawa fonds at the Ottawa Jewish Archives, contemporary French-Canadian newspapers, and other resources are not likely to give much more information directly relevant to silent film music practices, but they should be looked at in order to understand additional significant musical communities which sometimes overlapped with the network of theatre musicians.

The following suggestions are based on this thesis:

Marshall, Elsa. “Silent Film Music Research as Local Musicology: A Case Study of Musical Practices and Networks in Ottawa Theatres from 1897 to 1929.” Master’s thesis. University of Ottawa, 2017.

1. Primary Research Tips (using Ottawa examples)

The first three suggestions here are somewhat fanciful. They are the first collections you should look for but they often do not exist. In Canada, an archival collection is often called a “fonds”, but these groups of documents can also be called “papers” or “collection”. Furthermore, when looking for these fonds you need to determine the theatres (be aware that many other types of venues also showed films in the silent era) that existed in your region and the musicians that played in them. Look for local cinematic histories, and, when none exist, look through the entertainment or moving picture sections of local newspapers of the time for a set of theatre names. Musician and ensembles names are sometimes found in theatre advertisements and related articles. A good starting point for finding theatre names is Early Cinema Filmography of Ontario's "Ontario Theatre" page.

  • Theatre fonds
    • Example: The only theatre fonds available in Ottawa is of the Centre Amusement Co. Ltd., currently housed at the City of Ottawa Archives. Within this collection, the musically relevant material is limited to a set of receipts for piano and organ rental and maintenance dated from 1918 to 1919. This may be important in light of other information, but on its own it does not tell us much.
  • Musician fonds
    • Example: Only one Ottawa theatre musician has a fond; however it is not directly relevant to silent film music in Ottawa. Milton Blackstone, music director and violinist of Ottawa’s Centre Theatre Orchestra in 1919 and 1920, would become the founding violist of Toronto’s Hart House String Quartet, and so the University of Toronto archives houses a “Milton Blackstone fonds” that contains materials relevant to his time in the quartet.
  • Union fonds
    • Example: The only union fonds relating to Ottawa musicians is The International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 95 fonds. It is housed at the City of Ottawa Archives and contains several small details on Ottawa theatre musicians of the 1900s to 1920s who were part of the American Federation of Musicians from 1907 onwards. It also includes five letters from the Theatrical Federation of Ottawa and District which comprised of the AFM, IATSE Local 95, and IATSE Local 237 (Moving Picture Machine Operators). Although the fonds only contains a few mentions of musicians, it suggests a larger network of entertainment unions and employees in Ottawa and provides us with an idea of how these organisations operated.
  • City Directories
    • Directories can provide some indication of when a musician arrived or left a city and their additional sources of income. For example, some Ottawa theatre musicians were also listed as music educators in the Ottawa City Directories. If you are looking at names, looking under music subheadings in the directory is one place to start. Likewise, theatre names are listed in these documents and searching for specific names may lead to discoveries about a person’s other occupations.
    • Resources: Library and Archive Canada’s Canadian Directories Collection and Internet Archive
  • Trade Journals
    • Trade journals provide many interesting stories about the development of the production and exhibition ends of silent films, and on the expectations and concerns of musicians during the silent film era. In the case of Ottawa, they also include some descriptions of novel instances of film exhibition. However, these stories often need to be taken with a grain of salt. Music trade journals, such as Carl Fischer’s The Metronome, were sometimes created by sheet music publishers, and cinematic trade journals were intertwined with the moving picture business. As such, although these journals provide much information about cinematic and musical trades of the time, they need to be understood in terms of the possible business interests of the editors, writers, and publishers. For further discussion of the critical interpretation of cinematic and musical trade journals, refer to Chapter 3 and 4 of Marshall’s thesis and to James Buhler, “The Reception of British Exhibition Practices in Moving Picture World, 1907-1914,” in The Sounds of the Silents in Britain, ed. Julie Brown and Annette Davison (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 146.
    • Resources: Lantern is an online search engine for the digitized collections of the Media History Digital Library.
  • Digitized newspapers.
    • These can provide bits of information about movie showings and advertisements that may mention musicians and musical accompaniment alongside a film. In the case of The Ottawa Journal, musicians were rarely mentioned. However, a survey of musicians names, instrumentation, and mentions of film and music relations during a set time in the silent film era can shed light on practices and networks. Furthermore, non-digitized newspapers are also an option and equally important, though more difficult to search for with instant results. For a discussion of how to critically approach digitized newspaper collections, refer to Chapter 1 of Marshall’s thesis.
    • Resources. Please check your local library or education institution to see if they can provide you with access to the first two of these databases: ProQuest Historical Newspapers,, Google News Newspaper Archive
  • Department of Labour’s Strike and Lockout files, Library and Archives Canada
    • These files provide information of the number of employees and organizations involved in a given strike, sometimes describing wages and working conditions as well as the gender of employees. For the research on Ottawa silent film music, these documents have provided specific information on the size and compositions for several theatre ensembles in specific years.
    • Some of these files have been digitized and are available on the website Héritage. To search the collection, it is best to use the Library and Archives Canada “Archives Search” and use keywords such as “musicians” or “stage hands” along with the name of the city or town you are researching, setting the date range from 1890 to 1930 or narrower. Once you have retrieved the microfilm reel number from this database, then refer to the digitized documents on Héritage.
  • Other

2. Related Digital Projects

Amateur Cinema is an online database of films which were "winners of amateur movie contests or works that have been identified as significant by archives and historians." Amongst the entries are several silent films.

Early Cinema Filmography of Ontario is an online database that "provides data on all films made in Ontario between 1896 and 1930. It is run by 

The Originals, run by Neil Brand, includes a collection of interviews and printed documents pertaining to silent film music practice.

The Silent Film Sound & Music Archive is an American based online collection which includes many digitized pieces of sheet music, instruction books, and cue sheets written for silent film. The collection is a fruitful resource for learning about the composition and publishing side of silent film sheet music and cue sheets. It is also a useful inventory for musicians wanting to perform their own accompaniments. The pieces in this large collection are not tied to use in a specific place or by a specific musician or ensemble.

Silent Toronto provides many articles on silent film showings and cinemas in Toronto, ON. There are several posts about the musicians, music, and sounds that accompanied Toronto's silent film showings.

3. Secondary Literature: Silent Film Exhibition and Music

Abel, Richard and Rick Altman. The Sounds of Early Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Within the above volume, the following article discusses Toronto sound practices in particular: Braun, Marta and Charlie Keil. “Sounding Canadian: Early Sound Practices and Nationalism in Toronto-Based Exhibition." 198-204. 

Altman, Rick. Silent Film Sound. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Anderson, Gillian B. Music for Silent Films: 1894-1929. Washington: Library of Congress, 1988.

———. “The Presentation of Silent Films, or, Music as Anaesthesia.” The Journal of Musicology 5, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 257-295.

Anderson, Shana. "Ideal Performance Practice for Silent Film: An Overview of How-to Manuals and Cue Sheet Music Accompaniment from the 1910s - 1920s." Master's Thesis. University of Ottawa, 2013.

Braun, Marta, Charlie Keil, Rob King, Paul Moore and Louis Pelletier, editors. Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Publics of Early Cinema. New Barnet: John Libbey Publishing Ltd., 2012.

Brown, Julie and Annette Davison, editors. The Sounds of the Silents in Britain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Donnelly, K. J. and Ann-Kristin Wallengren. Today's Sounds for Yesterday's Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Leonard, Kendra Preston. Music for Silent Film: A Guide to North American Resources. Miiddleton: co-published by MLA Music Library Association and A-R Editions, 2016.

Marks, Martin Miller. Music and the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Tieber, Clause and Anna Katharina Windisch, editors. The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History. Theory and Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.


Created by Elsa Marshall, December 2017