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.

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