I’ve been thinking a lot lately about silence. It’s been in the forefront of my thoughts since a friend of mine posted an article on Lifehack about new research detailing the health benefits of silence on mice (and in theory, humans). But in truth I think this subject had been swirling around inside my head well before stumbling upon this bit of news.
Silence is a popular subject of study in my field. In many fields, really. Musicologist Ellen Harris has written extensively about the “sublime nature” of Handel’s strategic use of silence, particularly in the famed “Hallelujia Chorus” of his Messiah. A 2009 article (and later chapter) by Anne Danielsen and Arnt Massø turned its focus toward the popular realm, using Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me” to examine how the switch to digital media can also signal a switch to new aesthetic landscapes of silence in music. [Review of recent works on the concept of silence in music, predominantly, but also film. Silence as a conscious tool vs. silence as a requirement (deafness)] Ben Brinner at Berkeley chose yet another path in his article from 1989, where he floats the idea of certain sounds as signifiers or carriers of silence. Here, the phenomenon of pathetan in Javanese gamelan inhabits neither the realm of sound nor that of silence, but negotiates a gray area in-between the two. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis approached this part of the spectrum from the other direction in 2007, examining those moments when silence is, in fact, musical. These last two articles are some of my favorites for their engagement with the spectrum of sound and silence, acknowledging a range of middle-ground territory between the two which many people seem either unable or unwilling to acknowledge.
But within any discussion of silence, an important to acknowledge the difference between studying silence as object and silence as concept: while it is certainly possible for silence to be both object and concept, that is not always the case. Conceptual silence has its own kind of prominence in our everyday lives, especially within academia. Recent articles on the silence surrounding sexual harassment and assault—both within the music we study and the places we study it—is one such example. Persistent and widely-unchallenged silence over issues of racism and other structural inequalities in academia are others.
But as that Lifehack article pointed out, silence isn’t always a bad thing; in fact, silence is helpful in many realms of life. Silence as an object can help us differentiate more finely between different gradations of sound by focusing our attention, allowing us to describe not just the sound of something “crunching” but instead letting us differentiate the sharp crunch of gravel beneath a car tire from the cold crunch of loosely-packed snow beneath a snow boot. Silence as a concept (and also an object) helps the brain reset itself, to approach things from a fresh perspective, even issues that are emotionally or psychologically challenging. My own recent spring break holiday, which featured a great deal of physical and social silence, was an initially-uncomfortable-but-ultimately-essential recess from the constant cognitive noise of academic life.
What all of these studies share is an awareness on the part of authors that, in some sense, silence (of conceptual or material varieties) must through its very existence be a sound of its own. Silence is always contextualized by the absence of sound, and is thus constructed by it. As creatures who rely on sounds to navigate our lives, the silences we experience will always be filled in with our awareness of the silence, and what it might mean.
While this idea might seem to fit better for the understanding of sound as concept, it also holds weight for sound as object. After all, is it ever actually possible for a hearing-capable human to experience true silence in our day-to-day lives? And if it were possible, would we find it as peaceful and healthy as that article shared by my friend claimed it could be?
There are a lot of unanswered questions caught up in this line of thinking, in no small part because so much of human philosophy is devoted to the question of silence. But what I keep coming back to is a realization that, while perhaps falling into the category of overbearing faux-depth, is actually quite simple: there really is no such thing as true, objective silence. Or if there is, it’s not something we can experience—the very act of thinking about silence destroys it.
Now, given the common thinking that hearing is the last sense to go when we die, I suppose experiencing silence is theoretically possible through the medium of death. But since, at the end of the day, none of us know for certain what happens after that, I think I’ll keep my thoughts focused on this powerful and pervasive thing we label silence (even though it isn’t) and how we might ultimately find a better name for a phenomenon that has such a profound and far-reaching effect on both our music and our lives.
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs
That voices never share
And no one dare
Disturb the sound of silence