Silence is an integral component of sound.  Without silence, there would be less contrast in the realm of sound, and music would be a completely different thing.  I’m not looking to get into a Cageian discussion of what music is compared to sound or the virtues of having silence in today’s world, but I’d like to promote the use of silence as a composition tool.  Below are 10 ways that sound can help out a composition:

  1. Contrast: The use of silence contrasted with varying forms of loudness can bring contrast to a piece, and give a new character to a section of a piece, or add significance to an event.
  2.  Drama: Closely related to contrast, drama is created in part by extremes of contrast, for example a loud, busy, and raucous passage followed by a few sparse notes with silence in between, or a big ensemble moment with a quick cutoff into silence.
  3. Time Spacing: If you want a phrase to be extended, or for an idea to continue on, consider adding silence as part of the phrase, or at the end of it.  This can create a phrase that feels more complete by the time you move onto the next event in your composition.
  4. Finality: This combines all previous uses listed above: silence can be used in dramatic contrast to create an ending to a section/movement/piece that feels complete.  I’ve taken up the habit of writing in silence at the end of my recent pieces to help indicate finality and give a sense of closure.
  5. Setting Markers/Form Divisions: Related to finality, finality can close more subtle aspects of a piece.  If you want a phrase in a the clarinets to come to a close but have the flutes pick it up in a different mood, you might consider putting silence as a mediator when you juxtapose those two elements.  The silence could signify the end of a mood in the clarinets and the beginning of a mood in the flutes.  It also can create movements that aren’t played attaca.
  6. Time for performers to recover and logistics: Let’s be practical–performers need a break, and it takes a while to transition to new parts of a piece sometimes (stage changes, mutes, instrument changes, etc.).  Silence in one musical part is integral to many of these changes.
  7. Time for audience to digest the recent musical events: If something significant has happened onstage, or if a particularly important aspect of the piece has just been performed, giving some silence after it can give the audience time to digest it, without bombarding them with new information.  This helps in dramatic events where it might take a while to figure a plot out, or when a solo instrument/voice has just performed a virtuosic cadenza.
  8. Making the audience more aware/suspicious/involved: Silence can create questions: “Why is there a sudden cutoff right now in the music?”  “What was the role of the music that just happened?” “What comes next?” “What is the composer trying to do right now after this silence?”  Silence allows for not just digestion of the previous musical events, but prediction of/speculation about future musical events.
  9. Letting things reverberate:  A choir in a Cathedral might need to have their sound reverberate in the luciously alive church after their notes have been sung.  The acoustics in a concert hall might necessitate on-the-fly adjustments by the conductor that you should recognize if you’re at the dress rehearsal.  This contributes to the aura of the ringing notes in the space in which they’re played, and planning silence into your piece can allow for this to happen more naturally, and not require the performers to insert silence themselves.
  10. Motivic development: Putting bits and pieces of silence into a motive when you are creating and/or developing it can really help.  It can be as short as one rhythmical value, but probably shouldn’t be too long; if it’s too long then the motive might break apart into pieces that you might not desire.  But, adding an eighth note rest to a motive that has a stream of eighth notes can really help develop the idea and add interest to your development.

Silence is golden especially in music, and can be just as important as the music itself.  If you have any good ways of integrating silence into a piece, please do comment!

Thanks for reading,

Dan