Sounds of Yesterday: Case Study

Taxonomy of Topoi from Dutch Silent Film Music

Usually we think of taxonomy as a form of scientific knowledge organization. But recently there have been several efforts to generate a taxonomy of silent film music. Of course, one of the roles of taxonomy is to shed light on the core knowledge base of a domain. An interesting case of taxonomic research arises from film music history with regard to musical cues, topoi, used for the accompaniment of silent film. These were the cues such as “allegro molto” or “agitato” or “misterioso” that pianists and organists used to accompany silent films. An ongoing case study of music from the Eyl Collection of Dutch silent film music formed the basis of a report to the 2015 Canadian Association for Information Science Annual Conference in Ottawa (June 4, 2015).


The presentation used musical terms from the catalog of the silent film collection of the EYE Film Music Institute, Amsterdam, Netherlands. The EYE Institute preserves Dutch films, and also foreign films that have been screened in the Netherlands, dating from 1895. A 1992 catalog of silent film music by van Houten gives details of the musical resources collected by Ido Eyl, who built on the working collection of the Utrecht Rembrandt Theater (van Houten 1992, 51). The catalog contains entries for 3,235 musical works from the Eyl collection. (The catalog used for this study was acquired by Jasper Aalbers of the University of Utrecht, Netherlands in conjunction with the eHumanities Group of the Royal Netherlands Academy of the Arts and Sciences, Amsterdam.)

This is a page from Sam Fox Motion Picture Music Volume 1. It shows two cues that can be used as “hurry music”, one for “struggles” and one for “duels”

There were 1792 specific musical terms in the catalog film descriptions. At present we are comparing the terms to those in the well-known Rapee Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures. One objective of the research is to discover the degree to which the terms in the Eyl collection populate the taxonomy derived from Rapee’s list. For example, For example, in Rapee “Romances,” occurs with the reference “See ‘Andantes.’” Under “Andantes (Neutral) we find “Romance” and “Romantic Melody.” Research is still underway, based on methods developed by the Knowledge Space Lab. Meanwhile the CAIS conference was regaled with a variety of silent film piano music from the collection Music for Riots and Fights such as “Misterioso drammatico!”
Reference: Rapee, Erno. [1925], 1970. Encyclopaedia of Music for Pictures. New York: Arno Press & The New York Times.