The importance of silence in music

We don’t get silence anymore, there is a constanct buzz of music around us, whether its on headphones or stereo system, background music at the supermarket or on TV or mood music in films. There are some around that believe there is so much visual learning around in schools now that the power to listen is being seriously diminished in children. This may or may not be true but we are bombarded with noise, musical or otherwise, which often doesn’t give us the time to think, and even when we do get some quiet time to ourselves we frequently put on headphones or the radio to fill the void.

Yet silence is important, particularly in music. Listen to any piece and you will find space for silence, after all where would some of the great works be without rests? and of course we take for granted the breaks between the movements of symphonies without thinking about how important they are. The fact that it is often frowned upon to applaud between the movements of a Symphony illustrates how deep seated the need for silence is at that particular moment. John Cage’s most famous work, 4 minutes 33 seconds is complete silence- arguably- and despite all te theories about it relating to absolute zero it is in fact the standard length of a recording track at the time it was written. Far more importantly though it is designed to highlight how noisy the world is. By making the music silent it highlights all the other ambient sounds that are there all the time but we don’t normally hear.

Even at a fundamental level though silence is important, i was recently teaching a student who was struggling with some off beats. She hadn’t encountered this before and found it really difficult to get the concept. After a few minutes of stumbling through this quagmire I remembered that we had discussed silence briefly at a recent seminar and I decided to ask her exactly what a rests were. After a short period of thought and some obvious mental confusion she said that they were some kind of pause! This was very illuminating and I wonder in retrospect whether she had really grasped the concept of silence in music before. Anyway, after explaining that rests were actually periods of musical silence and that she should not really be playing at that point she almost immediately got it and the off beats suddenly started to appear.

This is a lesson we probably all need to take on board, we – or I? – sometimes tend to take it for granted that students know what things like rests are and what purpose they serve, but it is perhaps the case that actually students don’t always understand and it’s up to us to make sure that they do.

Whether it’s at the macro or micro level silence has an important place in music, and for all the hustle and bustle that life throws at us we would miss all those minute moments of silence that make the notes so brilliant.

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