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April 2015
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How Silent Film Star Charlie Chaplin Changed Music


Though many know him primarily as one of America’s most iconic actors and comedians, Charlie Chaplin was also a musician who influenced leading composers like Debussy and Satie, created original scores for his films, and forever changed the history of music.

Born to two music hall singers, Chaplin received his musical training at an early age. During one of his first known stage appearances, he stepped in to sing a song for his mother, whose voice had just cracked and was no longer able to perform.

Later, he joined a clog dancing troupe called the Eight Lancashire Lads before touring the vaudeville circuit with one of Fred Karno’s sketch comedy companies, where his undeniably musical style of pantomime began to develop. Chaplin recalled:

“On this tour I carried my violin and cello. Since the age of sixteen I had practiced from four to six hours a day in my bedroom…As I played left handed, my violin was strung left handed with the bass bar and sounding post reversed.”

The left handed violinist could not read a note of music, however, and learned tunes by ear. Eventually, he said, “I realized that I could never achieve excellence [on the violin], so I gave it up.”

While touring, the young Chaplin encountered Debussy in Paris, and even heard his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in England, “where it was booed and the audience walked out.”

chaplin_playing_cello_widerThough Chaplin was barely 20 at the time, Debussy apprehended his incredible talent and remarked, “You are instinctively a musician and a dancer.” Later, the Ballets Russes, with which Debussy collaborated, would stage Parade, a ballet set to music by Satie which was heavily influenced by Chaplin.

Back in the United States, the Ziegfeld Follies produced a Chaplin inspired number in which the beautiful dancers were bedecked in moustaches, derby hats, and baggy trousers to match the famous performer.

Later, Chaplin founded the short lived Charles Chaplin Music Company, publishing a mere three songs before closing the business. Soon, however, he began creating music for his own film scores, with the help of assistants to transcribe melodies that he would sing and hum.


Chaplin said, “Sometimes a musician would get pompous with me, and I would cut him short: ‘Whatever the melody is, the rest is just a vamp.’ After putting music to one or two pictures I began to look at a conductor’s score with a professional eye and to know whether a composition was over-orchestrated or not. If I saw a lot of notes in the brass and woodwind section I would say: ‘That’s too black in the brass,’ or ‘too busy in the woodwinds’.”

The Gold Rush is perhaps his most famous score, which living composer Carl Davis has noted borrows from Wagner’s Evening Star from Tannhäuser, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz, a melody from a Brahms Intermezzo, and Wagner’s Ring theme for the gold itself.

The Gold Rush does not only borrow Wagner’s music, it borrows his technique of using leitmotifs as well. Ironically, however, when Chaplin saw Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera, the very first opera he saw live, he hated it at first.

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“I had never seen grand opera, only excerpts of it in vaudeville – and I loathed it. But now I was in the humor for it. I bought a ticket and sat in the second circle. The opera was in German and I did not understand a word of it, nor did I know the story. But when the dead Queen was carried on to the music of the Pilgrims’ chorus, I wept bitterly.”

Chaplin’s films, like Wagner’s scores, tend to link certain characters with certain musical themes, which change throughout the story given the particular scenario. In City Lights, there are nearly one hundred cues in which the performers must respond directly to the music.


Eventually Stravinsky approached Chaplin about a potential collaboration. Chaplin invented a scenario for Stravinsky that involved a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion, which Stravinsky thought was sacrilegious, and ultimately the project never came to fruition.

Instead, Chaplin preferred to craft his own music for his films, and music played an integral role in them. His scores are often a pastiche of melodies including excerpts from classical scores, as described above, as well as waltzes, music hall ballads, tangos – an infinite variety of styles that he heard and adopted during his travels around the world on the vaudeville circuit.

Chaplin’s films create an almost perfect synthesis between sonic and visual elements, dramatically affecting the way film producers worked with music to tell stories. Most musical arrangers, Chaplin explained, “wanted the music to be funny. But I would explain that I wanted no competition, I wanted the music to be a counterpoint of grav[ity] and charm, to express sentiment, without which…a work of art is incomplete.”

  • William Eddins

    Having conducted both Gold Rush and City Lights, both visually and sonically I prefer the latter. Nothing against Gold Rush, mind, it’s just that City Lights is a true masterpiece.