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Silent Film Studies: The Curious Absence of Film Sound in Film Theory

May 9, 2013 | By

Works of film historians like Rick Altman, Donald Crafton etc shows us there was never a thing called Silent Cinema. In fact, the term was not in use before 1927. The journey of sound recording and reproduction started much earlier in the forms of the telephone and music industry.

First-nighters posing for the camera outside the Warners' Theatre before the premiere of Don Juan with John Barrymore.  Pic Courtesy: National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons

First-nighters posing for the camera outside the Warners’ Theatre before the premiere of Don Juan with John Barrymore.
The first film to have sound on the Vitaphone system was Warner’s Don Juan.
Pic Courtesy: National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons 


“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” said Harry M. Warner of Warner Brothers in 1927. Fate of film sound seemed to have been sealed with this very comment.

But we all know history is just the opposite. 1927 is marked as the year when Warner Brothers released their first ‘talkie’, The Jazz Singer (Dir: Alan Crossland), a film that often marks ‘coming of sound’ in cinema[1].

Harry Warner’s words seem like a foolish prediction, but that’s just half the truth. He also said, “The music — that’s the big plus about this.” Warner Brothers were already investing money in film sound with Vitaphone, Western Electric’s 16 inch disc based recording system. Vitaphone, however, did not survive and by 1930 Warner Bros shifted to sound on film[2].

The anecdote at the beginning of this paper points to the fact that often half-truths achieve such mythical status that it becomes difficult to dismantle them. Theories developed on the assumption that cinema is primarily a visual medium are often treated as truisms, without inspecting their inherent bias towards the visual. It is not an accident that film sound has been ignored for so long.

Rick Altman argues, “In fact, the theoreticians who overlook sound usually do so quite self-consciously, proposing what they consider strong arguments in favor of an image-based notion of cinema.”[3]

Altman identifies a few fallacies that guide the study of films without acknowledging the role of sound.  The most important fallacy of these is a historical one.

The general perception among many directors as well as theorists is that sound is an adage to the silent film. This is a debate that dates from around 1920s. Works of film historians like Rick Altman, Richard Abel, Charles O’Brien, Donald Crafton etc shows us there was never a thing called Silent Cinema.

In fact, the term was not in use before 1927.[4]  The journey of sound recording and reproduction started much earlier in the forms of the telephone and the music industry.

Although Edison could not successfully complete his machine before the Lumiere Brothers, he was experimenting with the sound film from the very beginning, as early as 1891.[5] Shows of pictorial slides with music were a regular feature of the vaudeville and music halls before the invention of cinema.

Johnson writes, “As many writers have recognized, the historical fallacy ignores the prevalence of sound during the so-called silent era. In addition to the standard accompaniment of live music, there were experiments with adding sound effects and even live dialogue. Moreover, the prehistory of the cinema had included attempts to marry the recording of images with the recording of sounds… After all, the forms of entertainment that influenced the nascent cinema – theater, vaudeville and music hall – all relied heavily on speech, music and sound effects.”[6]

This may indicate why Warner thought addition of sound on film will be an advantage. All over the world, film industries adapted to sound within a surprisingly short period. This is a clear indication that film has always been an audio-visual medium; it just lacked the technology to record and reproduce sound with image.[7]

So when that promise was fulfilled, makers embraced it even in its crude form. However, it is not to say that this transition was a smooth one. On the contrary there were several law suits over patents, strikes on behalf of artists’ unions, severe resistance from exhibitors and fierce competition between different formats of sound developed by various companies including RCA, Western Electric and ERPI.

But there was a general tendency on behalf of the makers to incorporate sound in some form or the other, there was pressure from the radio and telephone industry and the ‘transition’ was rather quick, despite legal and other blockades.[8]

The historical fallacy, however, can be explained by a lack of research and Hollywood’s construction of the grand narrative of a crisis with a happy ending. It can easily be refuted with the help of a new data emerging from research in the field, but the more complex problem is an ontological one. This strain of argument comes from the influential film critics like Rudolph Arnheim and Bela Balasz.

Assuming cinema is a single object, unchanged through the course of history, they have presented their arguments suggesting cinema is primarily a visual medium and sound acts as a pollutant to that. The effects of their theories are so far reaching that even the present day critics often refer back to them to suggest that sound has a marginal role in film and has little effect on the overall structure of a film.

The problem with such a claim is that it understands cinema as a single, monolithic object and tries to assert ontology without analyzing the structure of actual films and the system that produces them.

The value of image possibly comes from the faulty assumption about the process that gives birth to the two tracks. Film image is usually conceived as a single strip, whereas sound is synthesized from multiple sources. It is often divided in speech, music and effect sound as the process of creating them are different from one another. It undermines the facts that:

a) Image is often conjured up from various sources as well (e.g., stock shots, special effects/CGI, second unit footage, background mattes etc.) and

b) There are enough examples to show the division between speech, music and effect sound are not limiting, in fact, they often blur such boundaries.

William Johnson points out, “For example, any theory based on the concept of film as a kind of language invariably assumes that film consists of a single channel, like a succession of written letters or of spoken sounds, and the syntagmas and paradigms of that channel are invariably taken to be visual scenes.” [9]

One has to look back at the situation around 1930s to understand how sound shapes the object we understand as film today. The most notable change, sound immediately brought to film is that it standardized the speed of the film to 24 frames per second.

Early cinematographers often used slower speed to help the exposure to get better images. Successful recording and projection of sound demanded that the speed of the recorder and the projector must be constant and exact at all places.

The arc lights used at the studios then were noisy and interrupted the sound recording process. Hence the quite incandescent lighting had to be used, which were in the red end of the spectrum.

This meant the blue sensitive Orthochromatic films had to be replaced by the costlier red sensitive Panchromatic film. The Panchromatic film was already in production but the producers were reluctant to use it because of its cost. When they were forced to use it, the Panchromatic film gave the cinematographers superior quality and low lighting possibilities.

The Orthochromatic film was developed by human agency in a low lit room using a “safe light”.  But the Panchromatic film was sensitive to the full spectrum of light. Hence it had to be developed in total darkness, which ruled out the possibility of human judgement practiced for the development of the Orthochromatic film and made it a more mechanized and a precise scientific process.

One must note at this point how sound influenced and determined the structure and quality of the visual. [10] To further dismiss the claim of cinema being ontologically image oriented and an unchanged monolithic object through history, Rick Altman notes,

“During the many periods when cinema was heavily marked by its relation to the music industry, for example, music accompanied by a blank screen has been regularly recognised as cinema: the long overtures to the early Vitaphone sound-on-disk features, the introduction of a film’s theme song before the images or its continuation after the post credits (as in Nashville), and the use of totally black screen in recent music videos.

These examples hardly prove that cinema is regularly taken as a sound-based medium, but they do suggest the historical possibilities of cinema as an audio-visual medium, in which sound-oriented proclivities regularly confront image-based tendencies, thus producing a varied history belying claims of a solely image-oriented ontology.”[11] [Emphasis in original text]

Most film theoreticians suffer from the false idea that film sound is reproduced as it is, whereas the image goes through multiple stages of human intervention. Allan Williams points out that recorded sound is not a reproduction but a representation, much like the image.

The apparatus involved in recording and reproducing sound invariably isolates, intensifies, analyzes the sonic material for us and in the process modifies it. The listening is already done by the machine; we can only hear what is represented of the original sound event to us.[12]

It is merely an accident that the image track can be divided into static and legible units. Hence all the literary theories dealing with similar linguistic units have been used to understand film-texts.

Film theories can and do flourish completely disregarding sound as an integral part of films, imposing a peculiar silence over study and discussions of film as an audio-visual medium.

This imposed silence over film sound has become more oppressive in the recent years with the wake of “visual studies” and “visual theories” that encompass elements from cultural studies, art theory and critical theory, providing the academic terminology a strangely optical turn.

Not only discussions of film sound are pushed to the margins, they are denied the terminology to articulate in academic language. According to Rick Altman writings on the sound film becoming a reality dates back to 1910. The evidence from the century long history of sound studies suggest, it has always been an emerging field and probably will remain so.

Michel Hilmes observes, “Perhaps sound study is doomed to a position on the margins of various fields of scholarship, whispering unobtrusively in the background while the main action occurs elsewhere.

This would echo the position that most writers on the topic attribute to sound itself—constantly subjugated to the primacy of the visual, associated with emotion and subjectivity as against the objectivity and rationality of vision, seen as somehow more “natural” and less constructed as a mode of communication—in essence, fundamentally secondary to our relationship to the world and to dominant ways of understanding it.”[13]

It is disturbing to note, how major film theories are developed on an incomplete and deliberately partial understanding of the medium. Discussion of film sound can only be found in sporadic ‘special issues’ of critical journals and in the writings of a few mavericks of film studies in the last few decades.

Even then Philip Brophy rightly observes that much of that discussion falls on deaf ears, as if reprioritisation of sound is a disability, requiring a special ramp way to the heads of the serious discussants of cinema.[14]


[1] The first film to have sound on the Vitaphone system was Warner’s Don Juan (Alan Crosland, 6th August, 1926). Jazz Singer released on 6th October, 1927. Don Juan, however had only music and effect sound, not dialogues.

[2] Donald Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931, History of American Cinema 04 (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1997).

[3] Rick Altman, “Introduction: Four and half Film Fallacies,” in Sound Theory Sound Practice, ed. Rick Altman (New York: Routledge, 1992), 35-45.

[4] Steve Neale, “Sound and Film Aesthetics,” in Cinema and Technology:Image,Sound,Colour (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 91-106.

[5] Rick Altman, Silent Film Sound, Film and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 78–81.

[6] William Johnson, “The Liberation of Echo: A New Hearing for Film Sound,” Film Quarterly 38, no. 4 (Summer 1985): 2-12; Michel Chion, “Prologue: Raising The Voice,” in The Voice in Cinema, ed. Claudia Gorbman and Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 11. Chion notes there are a number of patents and demonstrations of film sound equipment between 1895 and 1928.

[7]  Johnson, “The Liberation of Echo: A New Hearing for Film Sound,” 2–3. There are a variety of experiments with sound in the first 2-3 years. William Johnson, in fact, claims almost all the uses of sound that can be found in narrative cinema have been invented by 1931.

[8] Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931.

[9] William Johnson, “Sound and image: A Further Hearing,” Film Quarterly 43, no. 1 (Autumn 1989): 24-35.

[10] Bob Allen, “Let’s Hear It For Sound,” Association of Motion Picture Sound, n.d., (accessed on May 5, 2010)

[11]  Altman, “Introduction: Four and half Film Fallacies,” 38.

[12]  Alan Williams, “Is Sound Recording Like A Language?,” Yale French Studies 60 (1980): 51-66.

[13] Michel Hilmes, “Is There a Field Called Sound Culture Studies? And Does It Matter?,” American Quarterly 57, no. 1 (March 2005): 249-259.

[14] Philip Brophy, “Where Sound Is: Locating The Absent Aural in Film Theory,” in The Sage Handbook of Film Studies, ed. James Donald and Michel Renov (Los Angeles: Sage Publications Ltd, 2008), 425-435.


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Shubham Roy Choudhury is a Project Fellow at Multimedia Stories project, School of Media, Communication and Culture, Jadavpur University. He is doing his PhD on transition of film sound from analog to digital technology in Hindi cinema from Dept of Film Studies, Jadavpur University. He works on film sound and new media.
All Posts of Shubham Roy Choudhury

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