The Power of Silence in Music Creation
In a world occupied by sound, it can often be challenging to find a moment of silence in everyday life. In the realm of sound design, however, silence can be a very powerful tool.
The use of silence in film isn’t a new technique, but it is indeed one that makes a bold statement. For example, films like Saving Private Ryan and 2001: A Space Odyssey make great use of silence as a compositional tool. More recently Star Wars: The Last Jedi used the technique to emphasize a colossal explosion of a dreadnaught ship.
Well, I believe it comes from the premise that silence is supposed to be uncomfortable. The phrase ‘awkward silence’ for example is used frequently to describe situations when the conversation runs out, or you’ve just run out of phone battery and need to look up at other people in a crowded train – to name a few examples. We are almost programmed to believe that silence is something to feel uncomfortable about.
In the context of cinema, silence makes the audience hyper-aware of their surroundings. Especially if the entire film up until that point was beautifully orchestrated and every second was underscored by lush sound design and Foley work. To hear silence is almost unnatural.
To quote Mary Shelley “nothing is more painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change,” and silence is almost always used as a dramatic modification to the score. If done correctly, the use of silence can be an excellent way of eliciting an emotional response from an audience. Whether that be to shock, anger or to create a break in the sonic narrative, silence can be a straightforward yet powerful tool to add to any sound designers’ project.
If you’re interested in film scoring or just even want to jazz up the track that you’re working on, perhaps find inspiration in silence. I have tried it a few times when I have been struggling for ideas. On one particular occasion, I added a bit of silence to a track that was getting too repetitive, and I think it worked. The sudden silence definitely makes you re-engage with the what you were listening to in the first place.
If silence is a bit too absurd to add to a track though, you could always try the less is more approach. By stripping away some of the unnecessary tracks in your session, you could be left with a sound that differs just enough so that it offers something new to the listener.
Overall I think adding silence to a project is often overlooked. It’s a great creative tool to use and is also extremely simple to incorporate into any project. Even if you don’t always like the outcome of adding in silence, the main benefit is that it makes you re-engage with what you’re listening to and often adds a different texture and layer to your project.
Jen Athan is a composer and producer based in Glasgow. Her work spans many different styles and genres and typically features her love of sampling and experimenting with new sounds. She has written music for theatre shows and short films and enjoys creating music to accompany a narrative.