Peter Graff
Case Western Reserve University

Alice Smythe Jay’s Inspiration Music Rolls: An Early Experiment in Film-Music Synchronization

The invention of moving pictures in the late nineteenth century ignited immediate interest for how best to pair sound with the filmic image. By the early 1910s, music became the favored solution, prompting concerns over the insufficient musical training of theater musicians. Alice Smythe Jay, an outspoken film accompanist, grew frustrated with the lack of musicality in the theater and devised a novel system to standardize film accompaniment nationwide. Relying on her early experience as a piano roll arranger at the Melville Clark Company, Jay, in 1915, developed and later patented a sophisticated system for synchronizing music and film by using the player-piano. She named her musical aids “Inspiration Music Rolls” and began producing and advertising them in January 1916.

To achieve the coveted union of image and music, Jay spontaneously improvised a piano accompaniment while watching the action of a film unfold. With the accompaniment instantly captured on piano roll form, it could be duplicated and distributed with the film anywhere in the world. The practical economics of her system captivated the imagination of studio executives and film exhibitors, as she offered a viable solution for sound synchronized—a feat that would not become standard for over a decade. Her invention was unfortunately doomed to fail for numerous reasons, including the varying speeds of player-pianos and film projectors. Yet, despite its practical shortcomings, Jay’s technique intersected two popular developments in film accompaniment during the 1910s: improvisation and mechanical synchronization.

In this paper, I explore Alice Smythe Jay’s innovative methods of production by investigating one of her only surviving film scores, The Storm at Sea. This score, a written-out version of her Inspiration Music Roll of the same name, demonstrates how she constructed her improvisations by stitching together standard musical tropes. With little recorded or written evidence of how silent film accompanists crafted their improvisations, Jay’s music rolls, and this score in particular, ultimately provide a rare glimpse into a common, yet largely undocumented, practice in early film music history.

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Peter Graff is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), where he studies popular entertainment in early twentieth-century America. In 2016, Peter was awarded the Ora Frishberg Saloman Research Grant from the American Musicological Society (AMS) to support work on his dissertation, entitled “Music, Entertainment, and the Negotiation of Ethnic Identity in Cleveland’s Neighborhood Theaters, 1914-1924.” In addition to support from the AMS, Peter’s research at CWRU has been supported by the university’s Baker Nord Center for the Humanities and the College of Arts and Sciences as well as the Film Music Foundation. Peter has presented his work at national and international conferences, including the national meetings of the American Musicological Society and the Society for American Music, and his recent essay, “Re-Evaluating the Silent-Film Music Holdings at the Library of Congress,” appears in the September 2016 issue of Notes: The Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association.