Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2012

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Film Studies

First Advisor

Altman, Rick

First Committee Member

Cook, Robert

Second Committee Member

Creekmur, Corey

Third Committee Member

Marra, Kim

Fourth Committee Member

Platte, Nathan


This dissertation traces the history of the early Hollywood sound score for feature films between the years 1926 and 1934. In the growing literature on film sound, no topic has enjoyed more attention than film music. Yet film music scholars have almost uniformly written off film music in the early sound era (1926-1932). Believing the use of "nondiegetic" music (music without a source in the image) in the early sound era to be minimal, scholars have posited a striking narrative in which King Kong, released in 1933, burst onto the scene featuring a score that single-handedly revolutionized film music practices and paved the way for the heavily studied Golden Age of film music (1935-1950). In fact, a host of film scores preceded King Kong, scores which with rare exceptions have received no attention. Due to this inattention, scholars have mischaracterized the nature of late 1920s and early 1930s sound film, overlooked important and unusual early sound film music strategies and failed to offer any satisfactory account for the rise of the Golden Age of film music.

Based on screenings of hundreds of early sound films, I demonstrate that the early sound era featured a wide array of musical approaches rather than a single-minded avoidance of nondiegetic music. Drawing upon musical techniques from opera, melodrama, musicals, phonography, radio, and silent films, the early sound era featured an eclectic mix of accompaniment practices. Though early synchronized sound films largely adhered to a silent film music model, the advent of synchronized dialogue encouraged the use of several other conflicting musical accompaniment models. The late 1920s featured a substantial reduction in musical accompaniment, but the period still contained a diverse array of film score experiments rather than a total avoidance of nondiegetic music. By the early 1930s, a more consistent musical approach emerged, in which music was tied to unfamiliar settings or heightened internal mental states. This tactic exerted a considerable influence on King Kong's score and continued to be influential on musical accompaniment practices in the classical era.

The first chapter surveys a range of musical influences available to film music practitioners in the years leading up to the transition to sound. Chapter two then analyzes the film score in early synchronized films and part-talkies from 1926-1929, while chapter three examines the use of music in "100% talkies" from 1928-1931. After chapter four discusses the special case of the film score in the early musical from 1929-1932, chapter five examines the score for non-musicals from 1931 to just before the release of King Kong in April of 1933. In light of the plethora of pre-King Kong scores discussed in this study, chapter six offers a radical revision of King Kong's contribution to film music history. Finally, the Conclusion examines the early sound score's legacy in the Golden Age of film music.


early sound era, film history, film music, Max Steiner, score


xi, 480 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 467-480).


Copyright 2012 Michael James Slowik