Music and Melodies

Rex Theatre Clippings, 1920s
The New Rex Theatre had both a high-quality organ and a Steinway piano installed

Movies in the 1920s were quite different than those today. Color movies existed, but they were fairly uncommon until the 1950s. The first movie with sound, The Jazz Singer, did not premiere until 1927. However, that didn’t mean the theater was quiet. Far from it – every showing had live music..

There could be massive variation in these performances. Some theaters only had a piano. Nicer ones, like the New Rex, had expensive, complicated organs. These organs often had percussion and other instruments added on, allowing the organist to be a one-man band. The fanciest theaters booked live orchestras for some performances.

Organists generally had a lot of freedom. The studios gave a range of instructions from a full score for blockbusters (left) to the most basic cue sheet, which only gave a general mood and examples (right), and many fell somewhere between (center). Of course, the organist could always ignore these and improvise.

Now it's your turn. Start the video embedded here and then play some of the different musical tracks below. How does the music effect the mood? (Note: if you want to switch to a different track you need to pause the first or it will keep playing)