“You know where this song is from?” says my friend as we lay out on the grass on the last of Middlebury’s spring days. I knew I heard the song; it was definitely from an epic movie. I could see a tall, brunette hero preparing for battle, and before he leaves he plants one last kiss on his sleeping beloved. But no, I could not name the flick. “It’s Lord of the Rings,” my friend finally reveals. I guess I was close?
The issue here is not necessarily my lack of knowledge of movie scores, but the general opinion that sound accompanies the image. The former enhances the latter either by making the film more cinematic or realistic. Sound and music have become so fused with movies that it is impossible to separate the two, let alone identify a score without the images it was first associated with. It also does not help that moviegoers usually leave their seats right when the credits appear on screen, not bothering to wait for the soundtrack information.
This sentiment is rooted in the myth Rick Altman debunks: “There never was a silent film” (Altman: 648). Altman details this by first illuminating that a piano in the theater did not inevitably indicate that a pianist or singer were on shift or that the theater could even afford the musical accompaniment at the time (662). In addition, if there was music, it may have only surfaced between the films as a musical interlude (664). Moreover, often the music heard in the exhibition site filtered in from the “bally hoo” going on outside (664). This means that the music may not have been to quell the sound of the projector inside but to attract more customers outside.
The uncertainty surrounding early use of music and sound with film may arise from the notion that music has been seen as an accompaniment. If the song is not popular as a separate entity, it is difficult to extract the sound from the image. This might be an overstatement about music’s role in film but it does not change the fact that scholars need to dig deeper into sound’s role, and Altman can attest to at least this much.