Skip to Local Navigation
Skip to Content
California State University, Long Beach
Print this pageAdd this page to your favoritesSelect a font sizeSelect a small fontSelect a medium fontSelect a large font

From Nineteenth-Century Stage Melodrama to
Twenty-First-Century Film Scoring:

Musicodramatic Practice and Knowledge Organization

Presented by the Society for American Music and the
California State University, Long Beach College of the Arts

April 12-14, 2012

Registration, Hotel and Travel Information


The musicological study of film is exemplified today by interpretive “readings” of individual films, of film genres, or of some narrative aspect of film, thereby following the lead of literary criticism and film studies more than musicology. Because of that proportionately less attention is devoted to examining musical practice in film within the traditions of dramatic musical art. There is a need now for historical analysis and synthesis, such that individual studies can be related to a more comprehensive perspective in which music of the cinema is understood in the broader historical context of theater music.

The art of film scoring taught in CSULB’s film scoring curriculum and similar programs in other academic institutions is known to have its historical origins in the musical practice of stage melodrama, which was adapted for early silent film accompaniment in the late 19th century. Original composition for individual productions was the exception rather than the rule in 19th-century stage melodrama just as it was in silent film accompaniment. Much generic “stock music” was written for both, and the agitato, misterioso, and appassionato virtually defined the musical idiom of both traditions. These pieces were called “melos” in melodrama, and a representative selection of titles published in the 1860s illustrates a veritable lexicon of title usage that carried over into early cinema practice in England and the United States: “Mysterious music,” “Dreamy music,” “Thieves’ pizzicato,” “Creeping murderer’s music,” “Triumphant virtue music,” “Hunting music,” “Lively dreamy music,” “Hurries,” “Dying music,” “Wild music,” and even “Angel and demon music.” These repertories of “characteristic music” may well constitute the first “mood music” libraries, whose corollary in the silent film era came to be known as photoplay music (or “Kinobibliotek” in German). These short pieces composed (or adapted) and published for silent film accompaniment thus constitute the first music composed specifically for film.

In the 1920s considerable effort was devoted to the systematic classification of the published pieces acquired by movie theater music libraries (or organists). The two most ambitious works of this nature were the Encyclopedia of Picture Music by Erno Rapee (1925) and the Allgemeines Handbuch der Film-Musik by Hans Erdmann, Giuseppe Becce, and Ludwig Brav (1927), the latter containing a chart organizing pieces according to mood, tempo, and form (genre). This resulted in a system of musicodramatic knowledge organization that was reflected in the classification schemes and that in turn funneled newly composed pieces into the existing categories of agitato, misterioso, and appassionato, et al. By the end of the silent era this system was understood and used (sometimes with regional variations) wherever there were movies and musicians (recent research has discovered published compilations of photoplay music published in Japan).

Sometimes for major film releases in New York, the photoplay music composers were commissioned to write scores, which tended to be very similar to compiled scores of photoplay music. With the coming of sound in 1928, some of these composers were brought to Hollywood. At first the studios continued the practice of scoring films with the existing photoplay music that had been used for silent films. The individual pieces were called “cues,” essentially equivalent to the “melos” of stage melodrama. For a time in the early sound era the same titling practice continued. This was gradually replaced by cue titles uniquely associated with a given film, featuring the names of the characters in the film, or descriptions of film action or locations. But the traditional silent film classification schemes were still employed to classify the cues of newly composed scores: each was assigned an existing classification type (or mood), so that it could be re-used in other films. During the 1930s through the 1950s the original score still remained the exception, as many “B” films and serials, for example, were scored with existing cues. Starting in the 1950s, television music also relied heavily on stock music and has ever since.

This system of classification allowed movie studio music libraries to maintain a high level of bibliographic control over their holdings. It also provides a conceptual framework for musicologists to use in studying and teaching film music. The system furthermore illuminates a tradition too often defined pejoratively in terms of conventions, formulas, and clichés. In addition to music manuscript material, the classification schemes, card catalogs, and associated instruments of bibliographic access (such as cue sheets) now form an integral part of primary source materials as preserved in the film music holdings bequeathed to various academic repositories including CSULB.

The Symposium will focus on exploring this system of musicodramatic knowledge organization and on understanding both its origins in stage melodrama and how the practice continues as a living tradition in film scoring today. To a greater or lesser extent current practice can be seen as “new wine in old bottles,” because while musical styles have changed, the same underlying musicodramatic schema has remained relatively unchanged.

Organizing Committee: William H. Rosar (University of California, San Diego, editor of The Journal of Film Music), Roger Hickman (California State University, Long Beach), Richard Smiraglia (School of Information Studies, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee), Leslie Andersen (California State University, Long Beach) and Mariana Whitmer (University of Pittsburgh, Executive Director of the Society for American Music).

The Symposium will be held at the Cole Conservatory of Music at CSULB from April 12-14, 2012.