Sounds are defined by the silence that surrounds them. And, in this way, silence itself becomes a key element in composition.
The Power of Silence
Imagine an orchestra in a packed concert hall. Think of the pause where the conductor holds his baton raised and the timpanist in the percussion section holds his mallet aloft above his instrument.
This moment is full of expectation, of anticipation for the sound that will follow.
In this scene, the conductor is using silence to articulate and emphasise the start of the piece. He is making the audience wait, so that when the sounds do emerge, they will appreciate them more.
We can use silence in exactly the same way, to emphasise sounds at any point within a composition. The absence of sound, therefore, becomes just as important as the sounding objects within a piece.
The composer Claude Debussy, believed strongly in the power of silence and once wrote, “Music is the space between the notes”.
Listen to these two audio examples:
How is the emphasis different between these two sound files?
In the first sound file, the beeps are very steady and constant.
BUT, in the second example, the final beep has a lot more emphasis (it could be described as a downbeat) and acts somewhat like a full stop.
Did you hear this? If not, then listen to the two sound files again.
Silence in Composition
Often, if composers feel that their piece is not quite right, they rush in to add more and more sounds. When really, it is just as likely that their piece might require fewer sounds and more silence.
Sometimes taking sounds away can be a better compositional choice.
Silence gives the audience a chance to pause, absorb what has come before and to prepare for the next sounds.
The Power of Silence
Silence can be really strong. It can emphasise your sounds by providing an extreme contrast.
The jump between silence and sound, will make the sound itself appear louder and more impressive.
It also gives the audience time to absorb previous sound events and to prepare themselves for the next.
Try creating gaps and using silence as a compositional tool in your own pieces.
Identify key sounds within your piece and emphasise them by inserting silence, either before or after them.
Does Silence Even Exist?
John Cage recognised that there was no such thing as complete silence in the real world. Even if you don’t make a sound, there will still be the whir of the computer and noises from outside. Cage’s piece 4’33″ used this fact to its advantage, encouraging people to listen to the sounds outside of the performer, highlighting the everyday sounds of the audience as compositional material.