The music of silence
One question has plagued music theorists since experimentation first made its way into composition: ‘Can silence be music?’. It’s a particularly loaded question, so for now, we’ll take a look at the decidedly less-loaded route.
Can silence be within music? Yes.
For decades, high profile artists across all genres have found representational and practical uses for silence. The most common purpose is arguably the hidden track. One of the first examples (as with most innovations in popular music) comes from The Beatles. Abbey Road ends with the sub-thirty-second song Her Majesty following the fourteen seconds of silence which concludes The End. The silence here wasn’t for effect or emotional impact, but as a compromise. Paul McCartney wanted to remove the track from the album entirely, but when the producers of the release refused, they agreed to hide it at the end of another and leave it off of album sleeves in the process. The trend picked up again during the 1990s, becoming a way for an artist to sneak in a horror film-esque jump scare that couldn’t be predicted like we could now thanks to having Spotify’s visualised track-listing in front of us at all times. Nirvana used the end Something In The Way to hide the noisy punk attack of Endless, Nameless, while Ash did the same, leaving Sick Party to be discovered by unsuspecting listeners ten minutes after Darkside Lightside. I’d could be here all day listing everyone who ever experimented with the technique, but in short, everyone from Janet Jackson to Lauryn Hill to Eels gave it a shot.
Having said this, silence doesn’t always have to have specific function. Kaiser Chiefs included the silent track I Predict Some Quiet (a clever parody of their own breakout hit I Predict A Riot) on the 7” single release of their 2005 track You Can Have It All, while tracks like Wilco’s 23 Seconds Of Silence, Boards Of Canada’s Magic Window and Korn’s [Silence] seem to exist just because they can. The comedic implication of including a song with no music or the idea of parodying the controversial idea of silence as music seems to be the impetus behind a lot of these examples. Coheed And Cambria blur the lines between hidden track and comedic silence. Ten empty tracks separate the eleventh and twelfth songs from the 2003 release In Keeping Secrets Of Silent Earth: 3, but they seem to poke fun at themselves at the same time by titling all ten recordings A Lot Of Nothing.
Probably the most common and least controversial use of silence in music is when it simply appears as a compositional tool. Take Alanis Morrissette’s All I Really Want, the first track from Jagged Little Pill, for example. “Why are you so petrified of silence?” she sings. “Here, can you handle this?”, and we are left with a quickly fading reverb tail and three beats of tranquillity before her voice re-enters. Yes, we can handle it, because the rhythms perfectly meet our expectations. We’ve been bombarded by three minutes full of four-bar phrases set firmly in a 4/4 time signature and we don’t expect this to stop any time soon. This silence is perfectly timed so that the sound returns exactly when we need it to, avoiding any unexpected discomfort and allowing it to remain nothing more than clever word painting. However, if one was to pause for a few seconds/minutes during the silent bar, the impactful and stylish textual drop would become uncomfortable and rhythmically dissonant. As we had built up the 4/4 expectation across the rest of the song, a deviance from the established rhythm might make us lose the pulse, thus interrupting the flow and turning the silence from powerful to jarring.
Alanis Morrissette, “All I Really Want”, Warner
Both The Beatles and Led Zeppelin can provide further notable examples of silent beats. The former’s A Day In The Life ends with the huge orchestral build up and then (save for the reverb of the final chord) a brief beat of silence before the slamming atonal ending. The latter open their very first album with Good Times Bad Times, where only percussion persists between the chordal stabs. In the first bar, for example, the hi-hat sounds once on each beat, with the milliseconds between each press of the pedal remaining silent (again, aside from reverb). Both of these examples would have a similar sense of discomfort and lessened impact if their brief lulls strayed from our rhythmic expectations. On her 2019 track Bury A Friend, Billie Eilish pushes this boundary very slightly by adding two beats more than expected during the mid-track silence. However, as the rigid four-to-the-floor pulse had been established so clearly throughout, the pause remains rhythmic and natural; should the preceding rhythms have been a little less regular, then this could have easily rolled into the realm of discomfort.
Of course, this isn’t exclusive to popular music, with countless classical composers using brief silences or pauses for dramatic effect and emotional impact. Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata, for example, places two brief silences within the first two bars. It also seems almost mandatory to end a classical sonata with a cadence built around a couple of loud, staccato chords (with a few moments of silence between each) just before the tonic chord is sustained. It isn’t hard to find examples of this technique, with the closing moments of the first movement of the aforementioned Pathetique providing just one particularly overt use.
The examples that we’ve looked at so far are particularly clear-cut. The silences are either temporary and musical or presented with practicality and purpose. They all make sense. But now we have to return to the much more loaded, complex and theoretical question. Where’s the limit? There are a handful of pieces from across history that use silence as their only source of sound, but can you truly consider just silence to be music?
John Cage is known for being one of the most forward-thinking composers of all time. He experimented with prepared piano, indeterminacy and chance, as well as total silence. His magnum opus, 4’33”, is arguably the most famous example of silent music, and the protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your viewpoint) of the ‘is silence music?’ debate. The piece was composed in 1952, and can be played by any instrument, in any formation, with any number of performers. It’s split into three movements, with the score detailing that, in effect, the performer should not play their instrument at any point. Cage’s intention was that the listener perceive the sounds they hear during the four minutes and thirty-three seconds as the music. The performer is basically irrelevant, because each listener will be experiencing something totally different, and they have no control over that. It has become one of the most successful indeterminate works of all time because its unpredictable outcome is also uncontrollable. With this piece, Cage pushed forward the idea that any sound can constitute music. It’s an interesting claim, but it raises a few important questions.
Firstly, if any sound can be music, then why formalise it? Surely he’d rather leave the audience to hear every sound around them with no interference. If every sound is music, then what is there to differentiate between the specific four minutes and thirty-three seconds that constitute a performance of the piece and the four minutes and thirty-three seconds on either side of the performance? Or any other, random, non-formalised four minutes and thirty-three seconds in the history of earth, for that matter? Secondly, the claim that any sound can be music is broad and incredibly bold. The ambient sound of the concert hall might create satisfying reflections of things like coughs and footsteps, but is a heated debate about football music? Can we really call the sound of the hoover roaring over the muffled muttering of the TV music? One might encounter some particularly harsh (but certainly fair) criticism if describing the sound of vomiting as a piece of music.
Silence was an important part of Cage’s music long before 4’33”. His 1934 work Duet For Two Flutes, for example, opens with silence, and his Sonatas And Interludes and Music Of Changes both use silence as key parts of their structure. But he wasn’t the only composer doing this. Yves Klein’s Monotone Silence Symphony preceded 4’33” by three years, presenting a single chord sustained for 20-minutes, followed by 20-minutes of nothingness. In fact, Cage wasn’t even the first to suggest a work made up exclusively of silence.
Despite not actually being a composer, Alphonse Allais is considered the first. As a humourist, his Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man (1887) doesn’t use silence in a serious, thought-provoking way, but as a sarcastic statement that undermines Cage’s philosophy. By presenting a work made up of nothing but silence in a comedic way, he basically says, ‘silence is not music’. Similarly, Erwin Schulhoff’s 1919 In Futurum seems to be much more of an anti-musical response to modernism. Rather than presenting a blank or simple score, Schulhoff does his best to mimic the extremes of complexity that the music of his contemporaries was built around, but by only using rests. As such, the piece looks exceptionally difficult, but actually involves no playing whatsoever. Considering these pieces all existed before 4’33”, it seems that Cage, effectively, got lucky. Admittedly, he was the first to present the idea of nothing but simple silence performed with sincerity, but his idea wasn’t exactly original; his fame and notoriety certainly helped with promotion.
Alphonse Allais, “Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man”
Obviously, after 4’33“, various copycat (even if Cage’s own piece was a copycat of sorts itself) pieces arose. The first came from Cage himself, who, in the spirit of the modern day Disney corporation, devised a money-grabbing sequel to his blockbuster hit. 4’33” No. 2 was first performed in 1962, and gives the performer much more freedom to decide the outcome of the piece. Effectively, Cage’s instructions are that they can do whatever they want. This could range from creating as much persistent noise as possible, to remaining completely silent. In theory, one could perform the original 4’33“ and it wouldn’t be against the instructions of 4’33” No. 2. This creates major paradox. If more than one piece of silent music exists, then who is to know which one you’re playing? Imagine you’re attending a concert billed as 4’33”. You hear nothing and go home pleased. However, the entire time, the performer was under the impression that they were performing In Futurum. The audience would never have known, and would have heard the exact same thing either way. If you’d gone to see Beethoven’s 5th and the orchestra began to play his 9th, you’d check the programme to make sure you were in the right venue. The fact that it would be completely impossible to know if you were hearing 4’33” or In Futurum (or even a cover of Korn’s [Silence]) begs the question of whether they’re even different pieces. On a similar note, if performing 4’33” No. 2 in total silence, then why not simply perform 4’33”? Or are you already doing that? Or are you doing both? Or neither?
This issue also appears in popular music, with many of the examples here likely (at least indirectly) inspired by 4’33”, even if many of them are presented with specific, intentional meaning. Metal band Soulfly’s album 3 includes a full minute of total silence. Named 9-11-01, the track is a tribute to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which took place during its recording. Jazz-funk band Vulfpeck have also used silence to make a point, titling their 2014 album Sleepify in reference to the ineffective royalties calculation model used by Spotify. The album lasted just five minutes, was made up of ten silent songs, and was pulled from the service just a month after being released. Brett Black made a similar point, making his 2010 album Silent Tracks Of Various Useful Lengths the first silent album available commercially on the iTunes store. While each of these releases have different purposes, they raise exactly the same questions as above. If someone told you they were playing you the Silence Tracks Of Various Useful Lengths album but played Sleepify instead, you’d never know and your experience would be identical. Can they be considered different? What’s the difference between paying for an album that makes no sound and just... doing nothing? Are they music?
On the whole, silence in music is strange. Practical, poignant and ponderable, yes, but certainly strange. Looking past its practical use (a silent beat or to create a hidden track, for example), one can draw a whole host of conclusions whichever way you end up looking at it, because at its heart, silence is personal. You can never truly hear nothing, so your perception of silence is dependent on various factors. While there are a multitude of interesting rhetorical questions above, none of them really have answers. ‘If I’m at a concert performance of 4’33” but I’m thinking really hard about the theme music to Pirates Of The Caribbean, which one am I listening to?’. Both, but maybe neither. Or maybe 4’33” because the theme to Pirates Of The Caribbean only exists in your head at this point. But then again, 4’33” doesn’t create any sound at all so the manifestation of Pirates Of The Caribbean is still the loudest thing you can hear. See what I mean?
The first thing I asked was ‘can silence be music?’. It seems that most silent music exists primarily to facilitate the asking of the question in the first place. There is no definitive answer to be given. I suppose the only way to answer it is to decide for yourself. If you want silence to be music, then sit back and enjoy an impromptu performance whenever you want. If you don’t, then pop some headphones on and press Play.
Dan Peeke has balanced writing about music, film and culture for the likes of Kerrang! and GamesRadar with work as a composer and photographer. Find him at his website or at @danpeeke.