Published: April 17, 2023 By

For most music students in the 21st century, the idea of silent films seems strangely far-away. One new CU Boulder class seeks to change that. Silent Film Class

The class, a DMA seminar titled Scoring Silent Film, explores the history of silent films while the students also score the films themselves. Professor of Musicology Susan Thomas co-teaches the class alongside silent film enthusiast and artist-in-residence Rodney Sauer. 

Sauer explains that there’s three ways to score a film. “One is improvisation, where you just sit down and make stuff up. The second is composition, where you write new music for a film, and that can be very effective but it’s also very time consuming. The third method is what I’m teaching, which is compilation,” he says.  

“This is where you look at the film, and for each scene in the film, you choose a piece of music that is already in your library, and then you use that music. That saves you the effort of composing and arranging. This is why it was so important during the silent era; a lot of times the movies would change every week, and you just had to come up with two more hours of music every week.”

Students use the Grauman's Theatres Scores collection, part of the American Music Research Center’s archive, to pull pieces they think will work with the films. The collection once belonged to Los Angeles’s Grauman Theatres chain, and houses pre-composed pieces that movie theatres would have in their libraries for the live musicians to use. These pieces are digitally accessible due to a National Historical Publications and Records Commission grant.

“I think my favorite part of the class is just reading all of this music and hearing all of these things that probably haven't been heard for 100 years, or have never been played, because some of it is quite nice,” says DMA student Jonathon Winter. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had to be exposed to a bunch of new pieces.”

Sauer in ClassThe class final will be a concert and film screening, showing off the brand-new compilated scores. The class of musicians will present scores for “Gertie the Dinosaur” (1914), “Get Out and Get Under” (1920) and “Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate” (1915) on May 4th in the Imig Music Building.

For the students, this class has introduced a brand-new way of thinking about music in movies.

“I’ve gained this whole appreciation for the art of silent film making and how unique it is and how different it is. Not just from the musical aspects, but just the overall presentation and that live element to it, it’s such an organic presentation of a film, that I really have come to resonate with,” says DMA student Cameron Holt.

The scores the students create will be available for high school educators who may want to perform these premade scores with their students. Sauer is also creating video tutorials about scoring silent films. Both resources will be accessible on the AMRC website by June 2023. NHPRC Logo

“We have created, using these old films, something new and something interesting, which is not at all what I thought I’d be doing when I picked out this class. But that’s why you should come, because even if you are familiar with these films, on the off chance you are, you’re not going to be familiar with our presentation. We’ve created a new and unique way to present these films that I think will be compelling for any audience member,” Holt says.

For more information about the final concert, click here.