The Sound of Silence

“The real music is the silence, and all the notes are only framing this silence.”

Miles Davis

In a recent lesson with one of my regular students the subject, and importance, of rests came up. The particular piece of music we were looking at contained perhaps a more complicated series of rests, and involved rhythmical phrases, than we had encountered together up until that point. As a result, they found the rhythm of the piece hugely disorientating, and felt alienated from the notes they were being asked to play.

The same issue became obvious again when approaching improvising over the head of the same piece. Their instrument was in tune, their scalic knowledge solid, their approach tuneful; yet their phrases often jarred with the other instruments and collided with one another, richocheting out of their control.

The problem was not with what they were playing however, but with what they weren’t leaving out. Sometimes it’s the distance between the notes that makes all the difference.

It made me reflect on how often we focus so entirely on the notes we’re playing; and almost not at all on the moments of silence between these musical events. Almost always to the detriment of the overall piece.

“The material of music is sound and silence. Integrating these is composing.”

John Cage

As the legendary avante garde composer of the famous 4′ 33″, which consists entirely of silence, John Cage put it: ‘The material of music is sound and silence. Integrating these is composing.” Silence is both the canvas upon which we paint, and a colour in the musician’s palette. Measures of silence (or, technically, rests) are not mere waiting periods where we physically rest; but times of active participation, of listening.

We should be as involved in the silence as we are in what we play. Just as in a good conversation we are still engaged when we are listening, not merely deafly waiting for our next chance to speak. Actively play the silence. We begin with silence, and add elements from there.

Knowing when to fill a void with notes and when to allow negative space to exist is just as important as playing the right notes. Take any piece of music; your favourite riff for example, and remove all silence and you render it inert. Pure gibberish without the punctuation, it collapses without structure. It loses it’s meaning.

Silence creates an impact on the listener. Our brains prefer contrast. They become attentive when the soundscape changes, and disinterested when it remains monotone. Just a few beats of silence can raise a listener’s expectation of what is about to come. Creating anticipation. It adds emphasis to what you are saying with your instrument and to what other instruments are playing. When one band member pulls back from playing, the passages played by the others move forward in the listener’s ears. We move through three-dimensional space when we utilise silence.

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

Aldous Huxley

Knowing when and how much to utilize silence is all part of listening, one of the most important, and often most neglected, skills of any musician. I would encourage you to develop your ear as much as you would any other aspect of your technique. Both in observing your own phrasing and the dialogue between instruments. How much impact can you have with one, well-placed note? When is the best time for your solo to enter for maximum impact? Are there opportunities for call-and-response phrases between yourself and other instruments, or are you simply muddying the waters by filling these gaps?

A good musician is a good listener. We create music with our ears as much as we do our hands, fingers, strings, bows, skins and reeds. There is no music without the silence, just as there is no object without the background. One gives meaning to the other. The yin and the yang. We ignore this relationship at our musical peril.

“Many people imagine that in listening to music they hear simply a succession of tones, singly, or in clusters called chords. If that were true, as it is in the exceptional cases of tone-deaf people, they would hear no music, no melody whatsoever – only a succession of noises. Hearing melody is hearing the intervals between the tones, even though you may not realize it […] These steps or intervals are auditory spaces, as distinct from distance-spaces between bodies or time-spaces between events.

Alan Watts

I hope you’ve enjoyed this latest post and are inspired to cultivate silence into your playing in a more mindful way. If you’ve enjoyed this article please take a look at our other blog posts, and let me know your thoughts in the comments below. If you’re looking for guitar lessons in Leeds then please get in touch, and I look forward to discussing and applying some of these approaches in your lessons soon.