Cues, Cue Sheets and Fakebooks

Film music composers today speak about cues when they mean their pieces of music written for a specific film sequence. Cues are pieces of music composed for the film. They can have a length between a few seconds or even reach symphonic proportions. One can therefore say that today’s film music consists of many individual cues that can later be found as tracks on a CD or playlist as individual pieces of the album labeled Original Score or Original Soundtrack


Back then to the time of silent film musician played during the movie show. The problem arouse due to the different music played by each pianist or the chapel master. Since there was no standardized system of musical accompaniment to the film to be shown every musician played what he or she thought was right. Not only happened once that the musician did not see the film before the show, they played by guess whatever came to their mind or they played only by music sheets what notes were available. That caused extremely different reactions to the viewer from cinema to cinema. Even in the same city the moviegoers cheered or faulted the same movie, depending on how the orchestra or the pianist accompanied the film. To avoid this problem, a series of music book collections was created, the socalled fakebooks. They were meant as a guide for the most common emotional atmospheres, what they called moods. So the musician was allowed to quickly find and play the wanted mood. This music books contained a list sorted by required mood like fear, happiness, love etc. and for each of these moods severals popular music pieces were available. For example for ‘Fear and Horror’ there was The Abduction of the Bridefrom Peer Gynt’s Suite No. 2 Op. 55 by Edvard Grieg. For ‘Impatience’ they could use Songs without Words Nr. 1, op. 102 by Mendelsssohn and for ‘Love-Themes’ one could choose between Dvorak’s The Old Mother or Brahms Valse.


It is interesting to note that the fakebooks were based on the theory of affects which experienced its golden age in the baroque period. The latin term affectus means state, condition or feeling. The affect theory assumes that the music can not only represent certain emotions, but also evoke them. A baroque German composer and musicologist Johann Mathesson (1681 – 1764) sums up about 20 emotions and explains in his works the musicals and compositional imitation of these affects. For joyful emotions, for example, major keys should be used or consonances and perfect intervals should be played. To represent sadness musically, minor keys or minor intervals and dissonances should be played. The use of such fakebooks, which were based on the theory of affects and suggested relatively imprecise music for certain emotional states, soon turned problematic for silent film. Each cinema chapel master or pianist had several pieces to choose from for the particular emotion. Therefore he could only play a very subjective compilation of the music from the fakebooks.


Later, Max Winkler (1888 – 1965), an employee of the New York music publisher “Carl Fisher Music”, had the idea that if he could see the film before it was released, he would compile a list containing a precise sequence of specific music. These music lists, the cue sheets – contained an exact order of music pieces, the cues – for the particular film with time instructions, when the piece should begin and how long it should be played. For example, at the opening: Arabian Dance by Tchaikovsky is played and it should be played until the next intertitle appears – then the next track is played, and so on. So the cue sheets contained clues about the movie sequence, with timing for the beginning and the change with the exact indication of which title will be played when and for how long. Some cue sheets even contained notes for each cue with at least 8 to 16 measures from the suggested piece of music. In case the piano player or chapel master forgot, these notes served as a reminder.


The talkies (films with sound) brought with them a new dimension of audibility from 1929 onwards, and with it the musicians disappeared from the cinema halls, but the terms such as cue sheet or fakebook continued to exist. Today the term fakebook is used in jazz to refer to the sheet music book containing jazz standards, in which usually only the musical theme, melody and chords are notated. From an artisanal form of musical accompaniment, cue sheets evolved into the real art – the art of film music.