Silence: A Music Lover’s Second-Favorite Sound


The sound of music is invariably made richer by the silence which precedes it.

This is true in so many ways. I’m reminded of the scene from Amadeus and Salieri’s words as he describes the sublimity of the scene he envisioned for Mozart’s funeral:

And then, in that silence…music!

And just as the great F. Murray Abraham knew to pause for effect before delivering the last word of the line, his character was describing the greater profundity music gains when it follows profound silence. It’s another type of “pause for effect.”

Since as a mobile DJ my job entails several consecutive hours of inundation by loud music, my routine of preparation includes, when time and circumstances permit, either a short nap or at least a period of time spent lying in a quiet room. I may have been listening to music in some form for most of the day, but I try to fast from it for at least an hour or two so I can come to the main course hungry. I can’t say that it makes the music I subsequently play sound any better to anyone else. But certainly seems to sound better to me, as I’m listening with “fresh ears”. And if I’m into what I play, I think that does somehow transmit.

mozartSilence within a song’s arrangement is an often overlooked artistic device. And even relative silence is an effective tool in the hands of a skilled songwriter. John Hiatt is one of the true masters of “breaking down” a song. As his “Thing Called Love” demonstrates, he usually gives you a few bars of sparely-arranged reprieve just prior to the final chorus, thus giving the song its most powerful climax near its ending–just like a well-written piece of fiction (which by the way most good songs happen to be).

In fact, on Hiatt’s classic Bring the Family album song after song follows the same breakdown-before-final-chorus template. Two more excellent examples, “Thank You Girl” and “Your Dad Did” can be heard here.

lou gramm

In more hit songs than you may realize, intermittent silence is foundational to the hook. Guitar bands of the “classic rock” era knew the value of dynamics, even if the average listener didn’t give a conscious thought to the fact that what made many of those riffs so gnarly was what Lou Gramm has described as the “air in between” the notes. From earlier hits such as Free’s “All Right Now”, Gramm and songwriting partner Mick Jones of Foreigner certainly absorbed the lesson that it’s silence that gives the power chords their power, and the pause that lends drama to what follows.

And although fewer artists are building hit singles with guitar power chords in the 21st century, the dynamic interplay of sound and silence is still a major ingredient in the top 40 sound. Synth samples have never been more pervasive in the pop charts as electronic dance music enjoys its golden era. And nothing incorporates silence better than a synthesizer, since generally synth sounds don’t ring or resonate like a piano key or guitar string.

The distinctive sound of “Techno” and other electronic dance music styles is more than a sound–it’s also a feel. Namely, the feel of sharp variations of the pressure on your eardrums several times per second. It can be part of an exhilarating listening experience…or persuade you to dance…perhaps it can even convince you that a song is good when it’s rubbish…

And I can think of no better example of the power of “musical silence” than what happens at :15 here. I can’t help thinking even Salieri would have wanted to shake his butt a little.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Zack Cyphers
    Jun 14, 2013 @ 16:18:43

    “Fasting” is a great way to describe periods of rest from musical sound. If it’s your JOB to play and listen to music, and that is how you spend most of your time, I imagine that, no matter how much you love music of all kinds, you’d come to value periods of silence. A celebratory meal, perhaps shared with family, tastes better after a period of fasting. Imagine how sweet music would sound after periods of silence. Imagine how good your favorite albums would sound if you were deserted for a time without your iPod or stereo!

    Hemingway described this “coming to the table hungry” when he talked about his approach to writing. In interviews, such as one he gave the Paris Review, he described stopping writing each day just before he ran out of ideas. He wanted to go on, but would force himself to stop, so that when he approached the work the next day he was ready for it, bursting with ideas accumulated during his “fast”. Thus he always came to the paper “hungry”.

    I truly do believe that it’s important to come to music with “fresh ears”, as you put it so well. That can make a stale piece of music sound new again, or can change one’s perception of a song that takes some time to grow into an earworm. Jethro Tull’s entire Songs From the Wood Album didn’t speak to me until I had properly fasted and readied myself.

    Silence within a song is a brilliant way to give the piece more impact. In an age of loud mixes, when everything is recorded “hotter” than it was decades ago, many recording artists fail to realize that the uniformity and audible “inflation” of constant relative loudness in music actually makes for dull listening. “Breaks” have always been used by masterful songwriters who know when to introduce contrast to make an impression when one is needed.

    Consider the metal genre. These days it seems that all music in this section of the record store (haha I know, what is a record store?) is nothing but uniform noise, something that would look like a straight line if loud and soft were graphed on an axis. Not to get all Spinal Tap, but loud doesn’t make an impression unless it’s contrasted with soft, not necessarily silent, but something of a “wind down” or a break. Jazz musicians know this. Great jam bands know this, and certainly guys like Mozart and Salieri knew this.

    Alice Cooper, macabre master of metal, knew how to craft an impactful song (he had some great help, from guys like Bob Ezrin). His catalog is a great example of this. Consider the song “Only Women Bleed”. On the outside this is a socially conscious power ballad and a departure for Alice. Look more closely and you find sections of placid guitar and keys building to manic musical mayhem that plays out the drama of the abusive husband before our very ears. If the horns had come in any earlier than four minutes in, they lose their impact.

    What other bands do you consider “metal”? I think many would consider Led Zeppelin the grandfathers of the metal genre. Well wait a minute, I say. Isn’t metal supposed to be a bunch of shred-ready fuzz-faced head-banging noise? How then does one account for the relatively un-metal mellow of the opening to a song like “Over the Hills and Far Away”? It’s contrast! Sweet contrast! When those drums come in and the bass pipes up we know we’re being rocked and perhaps even, yes, rolled. It is this sin wave up and down that makes me pound out the off beats on my car steering wheel at 5:01pm. We need contrast! If those loud parts made up the whole song the listener’s ear would become fatigued and we’d have no signal that this is an important part of the song.

    Billy Squier’s riffs rely on the stark contrast between light and dark, hard riffing and dead silence. His riffs have impact years after they were first printed on tape. ELO’s “Do Ya” relies on the same effect. Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky” capitalizes on the loud/soft phenomenon by introducing Neil Schon’s electric guitar after a docile chorus-effect laden fingerpicking intro. Van Halen is heads above any of the bands Amazon recommends to buyers of their albums because of what you hear after the two-minute mark in “Dance the Night Away”. Songs like that impress me more than all out eardrum audio assaults because the artist rocks so hard they actually have the balls to break it down. It’s like they’re saying, “[let’s] take a little break and we’ll be back after a while,” to borrow lyrics from Elvis Costello, who, by the way was good at this sort of stuff, too. Check out songs like “Big Boys” or “45”.

    Sometimes an artist will completely deconstruct a song and then build it back up for impact. See Bob Seger’s “Night Moves”. This song gets so soft you’d practically reach for the radio dial before the drums kick back into gear and final choruses come back for one more nightcap. Sometimes the soft parts of a song occur as a soulful a cappella as in the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight” and others.

    I’m sure you can think of your own examples of loud and soft used masterfully. I found countless more just exploring my own music collection: James Taylor’s version of “How Sweet It Is” makes a bigger impact over the original because of the deliberate, almost cardiac blockage after the word “stop”. Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” stops the clock in the last third of the song to make an indelible impression, and one of my personal favorites is the British band Delirious’s song “Follow” that actually includes complete, seemingly erroneous silence after the lyrics “there’s no sound”.

    In short, let us have silence. Teach your children well. Teach them the value of a break, of silence. In music, as the Tremeloes told us in ’67, is golden.


  2. Ed Cyphers
    Jun 14, 2013 @ 16:38:56

    Great examples! The riff in “Do Ya”, the break in “Dance the Night Away”, and Billy Squier. How did I not think of those?

    Basically, I should have asked you to write the piece.

    Thanks for giving me a lot more to think about.


    • Zack Cyphers
      Jun 14, 2013 @ 16:40:59

      Hahah. Nah, you brought up the idea. What a great idea for a post! I’m sure if we put our heads together we could think of so many more examples. I tried really hard, and I couldn’t think of any more examples of the dead stop in pop songs, though I know there are so many.


  3. Ed Cyphers
    Jun 14, 2013 @ 16:43:05

    Well, there’s “That’s Not My Name” by the Ting Tings…but the less said about that the better.


  4. Ed Cyphers
    Jun 14, 2013 @ 16:44:34


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: