The Music Beat: This UVA Lecturer Turns Up the Sound on Silent Film

April 2, 2024 By Alice Berry, Alice Berry,

The first time Matt Marshall saw a silent film, he felt like he was getting away with something.

The future University of Virginia media studies lecturer, then a child, was up late watching TV when he caught a PBS showing of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” starring Lon Chaney. 

“I thought, ‘This must be something kids aren’t supposed to be watching,’” Marshall said.

He was hooked. He tracked down all of the silent movies he could find and sat in front of the TV with his keyboard. The scores weren’t available – silent films originally were screened with live accompaniment – so he watched the films over and over and tapped out his own “mood music” to go along with the action he saw on screen.

He’s come a long way since then, performing music for screenings of the Virginia Film Festival, as well as commercial recordings for the DVD releases of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” and George Méliès’ “Conquest of the Pole.”

Now, he’s sharing his love of classic silent films with the UVA community through a Thursday night film series. Marshall, joined by student and community musicians, perform the movie score during the viewing – just as audiences would have heard when the films were first screened.

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It's closer than you think. University of Virginia Northern Virginia
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“The 1920s were that great decade of the silent film masterpieces, and we’re back in the ’20s. The most famous silent films will be celebrating their centennials, so I just wanted to seize the opportunity,” Marshall said.

Far from just background music, the scores of these silent films are integral to what happens on screen. They can drive plot or reveal information viewers might not otherwise get.

“It’s like a live music video, except this is feature-length,” Marshall said. 

In April, Marshall will screen silent horror films including “Nosferatu,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Man Who Laughs,” which served as the inspiration for the Joker in Batman. In March, Marshall played the scores for movies directed by women, like “Hypocrites” and “Toll of the Sea,” starring Anna May Wong.

For most of this series, audiences will hear music that was originally performed at the time of the film’s premiere. For decades, musicians would write their own scores to silent films, since the sheet music for the scores was unavailable. Though institutions like the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art have digitized the sheet music, many musicians still choose to write their own scores. Not Marshall.

“If the original music exists, you are going to hear it. If it doesn't, I write music authentic to the time period and the genre. I never want the music to compete with the film,” Marshall said. 

The screenings give performers the opportunity to work on their musical chops. One student who performed with Marshall at the Virginia Film Festival said it opened her up to the connection between movies and music.

“It’s more fun in a lot of ways,” said Aiman Khan, a 2019 alumna who played the French horn in a recent ensemble with Marshall. Khan now works in music contracting, helping coordinate recording sessions for film scores like “Oppenheimer.” She also has a solo career as a singer.

“It’s a small ensemble, so it feels like every part is more important to the music,” Khan said.

A portrait of Matt Marshall, playing the piano.
Matt Marshall, a film lecturer at UVA, found his passion for silent film as a child. (Photo by Kelly West, University Communications)

Taylor Ledbetter, a first-year student who plays the flute with the Charlottesville Symphony and in the Cavalier Orchestra, recently performed music for “Toll of the Sea” with Marshall. It was her first time playing movie music.

“You have to be confident and brave to be just one of four musicians up there,” Ledbetter said.

The audience’s eyes weren’t on her, though. Unlike other live performances, Marshall and the UVA students who perform during the film screenings won’t be visible to the audience. They perform with their backs to the screen, in a pit mostly out of sight.

“The biggest compliment I can ever get is, ‘We didn’t even know you were playing,’” Marshall said.

Marshall said he wanted to bring people back into movie theaters and make the experience of watching a movie an occasion, instead of a way to spend a couple hours at home. UVA has enabled him to do so.

“At UVA, if you have a good idea and the energy, you sort of have a blank canvas to make it happen,” he said.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications