From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
"Taciturnity" redirects here. For the concept of taciturnity in law, see Taciturnity (Scots law).
For other uses, see Silence (disambiguation).

Silence is the lack of audible sound or presence of sounds of very low intensity. By analogy, the word silence can also refer to any absence of communication or hearing, including in media other than speech[1] and music.[1] Silence is also used as total communication, in reference to nonverbal communication and spiritual connection. Silence also refers to no sounds uttered by anybody in a room or area. Silence is an important factor in many cultural spectacles, as in rituals.

In discourse analysis, speakers use brief absences of speech to mark the boundaries of prosodic units. Silence in speech can be due to hesitation, stutters, self-correction—or a deliberate slowing of speech to clarify or aid the processing of ideas. These are short silences. Longer pauses in language occur in interactive roles, reactive tokens, or turn-taking.

According to cultural norms, silence can be positive or negative. For example, in a Christian Methodist faith organization, silence and reflection during the sermons might be appreciated by the congregation, while in a Southern Baptist church, silence might mean disagreement with what is being said, or perhaps disconnectedness from the congregated community.

In music[edit]

Main article: Rest (music)

Music inherently depends on silence in some form or another to distinguish other periods of sound and allow dynamics, melodies and rhythms to have greater impact. For example, most music scores feature rests denoting periods of silence. In addition, silence in music can be seen as a time for contemplation to reflect on the piece. The audience feels the effects of the notes previous and can reflect on that moment intentionally. Silence does not hinder musical excellence but can enhance the sounds of instruments and vocals within the piece.[2]

In his book Sound and Silence (1970, p61) the composer John Paynter says that "the dramatic effect of silence has long been appreciated by composers." He gives as an example "the general pause in the middle of the chorus ‘Have lightnings and thunders …’ in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion":[3]

'Sind Blitze, sind Donner' chorus from J.S.Bach's St Matthew Passion.

After the pause, the music continues to the words: "Open up the fiery bottomless pit, O hell!" The silence is intended to communicate a momentary sensation of terror, of staring into unfathomable darkness.[4] Another example of a dramatic silence comes in the "rest full of tension"[5] at the climactic ending of the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s Messiah:

Handel, closing bars of Hallelujah Chorus

Musical silences may also convey humour. Haydn’s Quartet in E flat, Op. 33 was nicknamed "The Joke" because of the comic timing of the pauses at the end of the last movement:

Haydn, closing bars of String Quartet in E flat, Op. 33

Taruskin (2010, p. 552) says "whenever this ending is performed, it takes the audience an extra second or so to recover its wits and realize that the piece is indeed over. The result is an inevitable giggle—the same giggle that overtakes a prestidigitator’s audience when it realizes that it has been ‘had’."[6][7] Barry Cooper (2011, p.38) [8] writes extensively of Beethoven’s many uses of silence for contemplation, for dramatic effect and especially for driving the rhythmic impetus of the music. He cites the start of the second movement of the Ninth Symphony, where the silences contribute to a powerful sense of propulsion:

Beethoven Symphony No. 9 scherzo, opening bars

"The rhythm of bar 1 is incomplete and demands a note at the beginning of bar 2. The substitution of such a note by a whole-bar rest therefore gives the effect of a suppressed sound, as if one were about to speak but then refrains at the last moment. The 'suppressed sound' is then repeated in bar 4, and 'developed' (by being doubled) in bars 7 and 8."[9] Much has been said about the harmony of the opening to Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, which Taruskin (2010, p.540) calls "perhaps the most famous, surely the most commented-on, single phrase of music ever written." However, Wagner’s strategic use of silences between phrases intensifies the troubled ambiguity of the music:[10] "The chord that fills the ensuing silence in the listener’s inner ear… is the unstated – indeed never to be stated, and ultimately needless to be stated – tonic of that key." [11]

Wagner, Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, opening bars

During the 20th century, composers explored further the expressive potential of silence in their music.[12] The contemplative concluding bars of Stravinsky’s Les Noces (The Wedding, 1923)[13] and Anton Webern’s Symphony (1928)[14] make telling and atmospheric use of pauses. John Paynter (1970, p.24) vividly conveys how silence contributes to the titanic impact of the third section of Messiaen’s orchestral work Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964):[15] "Woodwinds jump, growl and shriek. Silence. Eight solemn bell strokes echo and die. Again silence. Suddenly the brasses blare, and out of the trombones’ awesome processional grows a steady roar … the big gongs the tam-tam beaten in a long and powerful resonance, shattering and echoing across mountains and along valleys. This is music of the high hills, music for vast spaces: ‘The hour is coming when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God’. We can feel the awe and the majesty of the High Alps and the great churches. The instrumental sounds are vast the silences are deep. The words of St John are alive in the music, and through these sounds Messiaen reveals himself and his vision."[3]

An extreme example from 1952 is 4′33″, an experimental musical work by avant-garde composer John Cage, incorporating ambient sounds not foreseeable by the composer. Though first performed on the piano, the piece was composed for any instrument or instruments and is structured in three movements.[16] The length of each movement is not fixed by the composer, but the total length of the combination of three movements is. The score instructs the performer(s) to remain silent throughout the piece.[17]

There are telling examples of the use of silence in jazz. For example, the closing bars of Louis Armstrong's recording of Struttin' with some Barbecue (1928),[18] the hair's-breadth pause at the end of pianist Bill Evans' solo on Miles Davis' recording of On Green Dolphin Street (1959)[19] and Shorty Rogers' Martians go home(1955), where unexpected silences intrude into an otherwise conventional "walking bass" line.[20]

In debate[edit]

Argumentative silence is the rhetorical practice of saying nothing when an opponent in a debate expects something to be said. Poorly executed, it can be offensive, like refusing to answer a direct question. However, well-timed silence can throw an opponent off and give the debater the upper hand.

An argument from silence (Latin: argumentum ex silentio) is an argument based on the assumption that someone's silence on a matter suggests (an informal fallacy) that person's ignorance of the matter. In general, ex silentio refers to the claim that the absence of something demonstrates the proof of a proposition.

In law[edit]

The right to silence is a legal protection enjoyed by people undergoing police interrogation or trial in certain countries. The law is either explicit or recognized in many legal systems.

In danger[edit]

Joseph Jordania suggested that in social animals (including humans) silence can be a sign of danger. Many social animals produce seemingly haphazard sounds which are known as contact calls.[21] These are a mixture of various sounds, accompanying the group's everyday business (for example, foraging, feeding), and they are used to maintain audio contact with the members of the group. Some social animal species communicate the signal of potential danger by stopping contact calls and freezing, without the use of alarm calls, through silence. Charles Darwin wrote about this in relation with wild horse and cattle.[22] Joseph Jordania suggested that human humming could have been a contact method that early humans used to avoid silence.[23] According to his suggestion, humans find prolonged silence distressing (suggesting danger to them). This may help explain why lone humans in relative sonic isolation feel a sense of comfort from humming, whistling, talking to themselves, or having the TV/radio on.

In spirituality[edit]

"Silence" in spirituality is often a metaphor for inner stillness. A silent mind, freed from the onslaught of thoughts and thought patterns, is both a goal and an important step in spiritual development. Such "inner silence" is not about the absence of sound; instead, it is understood to bring one in contact with the divine, the ultimate reality, or one's own true self, one's divine nature.[24] Many religious traditions imply the importance of being quiet and still in mind and spirit for transformative and integral spiritual growth to occur. In Christianity, there is the silence of contemplative prayer such as centering prayer and Christian meditation; in Islam, there are the wisdom writings of the Sufis who insist on the importance of finding silence within. In Buddhism, the descriptions of silence and allowing the mind to become silent are implied as a feature of spiritual enlightenment. In Hinduism, including the teachings of Advaita Vedanta and the many paths of yoga, teachers insist on the importance of silence, Mauna, for inner growth. Perkey Avot, the Jewish Sages guide for living, states that, "Tradition is a safety fence to Torah, tithing a safety fence to wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom..... is silence." In some traditions of Quakerism, communal silence is the usual context of worship meetings, in patient expectancy for the divine to speak in the heart and mind.[25] Eckhart Tolle says that silence can be seen either as the absence of noise, or as the space in which sound exists, just as inner stillness can be seen as the absence of thought, or the space in which thoughts are perceived.

Commemorative silence[edit]

Main article: Moment of silence
Soldiers bow their heads during a moment of silence before going on a commemorative march on Forward Operating Base Warrior, Kirkuk, Iraq, Sept. 11. The march gave Soldiers the opportunity to reflect on the tragedy that happened eight years prior.

A common way to remember a tragic incident and to remember the victims or casualties of such an event is a commemorative moment of silence.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Silence | Define Silence at". Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  2. ^ Cox, Christoph; Warner, Daniel (2004). Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. :
  3. ^ a b Paynter, J. (1970) Sound and Silence. Cambridge University Press
  4. ^ The silence occurs at 0:37 on
  5. ^ The silence comes at 3:38 in
  6. ^ Taruskin, R. (2010) The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 2. Oxford University Press.
  7. ^ This passage comes at 3:12 on
  8. ^ Cooper, B. "Beethoven’s Uses of Silence", Musical Times, Vol. 152, No. 1914 (Spring 2011), pp. 25-43 Spring 2011.
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Taruskin, R. (2010) The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 3. Oxford University Press.
  12. ^ Lossef, N. and Doctor, J. (eds.) (2007) Silence, Music, Silent Music. London, Ashgate
  13. ^ This passage starts at 24:06 on
  14. ^ The passage occurs at 2:55 on
  15. ^ This can be heard at 12:20 on
  16. ^
  17. ^ Cage, J.(1952), 4’33", Published by Edition Peters (PE.P06777)
  18. ^ The silences occur at 2:47 on
  19. ^ The pause occurs at 8:30 on
  20. ^
  21. ^ Macedonia, J. (1986). Individuality in the contact call of the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta). American Journal of Primatology, 11, 163-179
  22. ^ Charles Darwin (2004). The Descent of Man. London: Penguin Books. pg. 123. 
  23. ^ Jordania, J. (2009). Times to Fight and Times to Relax: Singing and Humming at the Beginnings of Human Evolutionary History. Kadmos, 1, 272–277
  24. ^ See Stephen Palmquist, Ontology and the Wonder of Silence, Part Four of The Tree of Philosophy (Hong Kong: Philopsychy Press, 2000. See also "Silence as the Ultimate Fulfillment of the Philosophical Quest", Journal Hekmat Va Falsafeh, (Journal of Wisdom and Philosophy), Issue 6 (August 2006), pp.67–76.
  25. ^ Britain Yearly Meeting, "Quaker Faith and Practice" Third Edition, 2005 (?), sections 2.01, 2.12–17 etc., The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, London, ISBN 0-85245-375-2 / ISBN 0-85245-374-4