The sound of - silence?


Here’s a thought to ponder. What is it that makes a piece of music truly thrilling? One might answer the beautiful melody line, the sumptuous harmonies, a fast and furious tempo, huge crescendos and crashing fortissimo at climaxes or even whispered pianissimo passages. But a teacher of mine once surprised me by saying that, in his opinion. it was none of those. What marked a performance out as something special was the use of silence.

When I gave him a bit of a straight look, he asked me if I ever baked a cake. Yes, I did. So what, he enquired, made the difference between a good and a bad cake? I decided it was whether it had risen or not. A fat spongy cake, light with air, was infinitely preferable to a thin, heavy lump. Precisely, he said. And silence gives the lift to a piece of music, just as air gives lift to a cake. How was I to introduce silence to my playing? He suggested that I left decent gaps between phrases, at the points where a singer would take a breath, that I made sure I observed any rests that were marked in, and didn’t swamp them with sustain, and that I sat still and let the silence work its magic both before I started playing and after I finished.

Perhaps the most famous (and some would argue excessive) use of silence is in John Cage’s piece, 4’33” (the time it lasts), which consists of three movements, all of them totally silent. You can ‘hear’ it if you click here. The recording lasts over 7 minutes, so was the pianist 'playing' at a slower speed than intended? It’s also enlightening to hear John Cage himself talking about his use of silence here. In this video interview (which starts with a short silence, so stick with it) it is interesting that background music is used – John Cage’s own magically atmospheric nocturne, Dream.

At the other end of the scale, a lot of people are put off by the vast amount of canned music played in public places -  restaurants, pubs, even doctors surgeries. They would probably welcome the use of Cage’s silent piece at all venues.

So: Silence as part of music? What do you think?