Silence: The Loudest Sound

Artwork by: Abigail Webster, age 15

“Ma” (a term in Japanese music) suggests that a performer must master the space in between sounds. In a similar vein, Michael David Rosenberg, or Passenger as he’s more commonly known, sings, “All I need's a whisper in a world that only shouts.”

These phrases allude to an important, and often overlooked, aspect of music and art: silence. As Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes in her article for the New York Times, human beings are wired to recognize “breaks in the flow of human communication and 'the pregnant pause' between sentences." From what she describes as "musical silence" to the deafening silence in a horror scene of a film, silence has often been used to accentuate and dramatize visual art.

Cinematic masterpieces such as No Country for Old Men employ complete silence as their technique. As Jourdan Aldredge writes for Premium Beat, the lack of non-diegetic sound (sound that does not take place within the frame, such as narration) "allows for more realness" within the film sequences as onlookers linger with each "echo throughout the scene or film." As the main character strikes up a conversation with the owner of a gas station to determine whether he is a threat, the deliberate prolonging of the protagonist’s words and absence of sound effects imbues this simple conversation with meaning, a clear demonstration of the power of silence.

In fact, examining the history of cinema reveals an inextricable link between filmmaking and the absence of sound: silent films. One of the greatest comic artists and figures in motion-picture history, Charlie Chaplin, rose to fame during the silent film era. Without spoken dialogue and background music, actors like Chaplin during this time relied solely on body language and facial expressions to tell a story. Slapstick comedy and over-the-top movements became common due to their visual nature. Today, silent films are lauded for being masterpieces of storytelling without sound, the most common means of expression today.

While the role of silence in filmmaking seems intuitive, it has played an equal, if not larger role, within other forms of art.

On writing, Sue Goyette, whose work was shortlisted for the Griffin poetry prize in 2014 said, "When it comes to writing, it’s a masterful thing to not spell everything out for the reader. The job of a writer is to take something ordinary and bring it into a state of grace. Adding silence to your writing does just this because the space you leave creates something bigger. A story without silence has no space or depth, nowhere for the reader to enter and create meaning." Much of the appeal of writing and art in general can be owed to its subjectivity. The ability of a reader to interpret the story and recognize or grasp what is alluded to creates both a sense of achievement and relatability, as though the written words are being spoken directly to them. This can only be achieved through deliberate gaps in the storyline, indirect phrases, or the withholding of information.

In songwriting, too, silence has a big role to play. Baroque music, which focused on layered melodies and is considered heavily ornamental, defined the Renaissance period. Rests and breaks between the music were used to exaggerate the dramatic and loud sound of the orchestra. In the prologue of Monterverdi’s L'Orfeo, the allegorical character La Musica’s power is highlighted as Monteverdi "brings the music to a complete standstill," writes Fonseca-Williams. He does so in order to bring the focus of the audience’s ears to sounds, “which he then takes away so that attention turns in on itself, onto the very process of listening."

Beethoven also mastered the explosive silence in his compositions. His specific technique was to build up pace and pitch in his music, leading his listeners to believe a final “drop” was coming. Instead of a drop or resolution via a pinnacle of pitch and sound, came silence. His “Eroica” symphony displayed this perhaps the most elegantly. Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard Meyer, musicologists, call this, “The loudest silence in musical literature.” This silence shocks the listener, who subconsciously predicted another tone of music that was in line with the regular meter or pattern set up. Instead, they get an absence.

Silence has played a great role in art and music, both in its creation and in exemplifying its storytelling abilities. However, is silence more important than sound, or other creative tools, when it comes to art or music? The pauses in between sentences, or the silence before the “drop,” only serves to amplify the sound yet to come, be that the sentence after the pause, or the music following the drop. Thus, instead of replacing it completely, silence accentuates the already existing foundation of sound.


Aldredge, J. (2017, August). Premium Beat. Retrieved from

Corporation, V. C. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Fonseca-Wollheim, C. d. (2019, October). The New York Times. Retrieved from

Steeves, J. M. (n.d.). The Importance of silence in art. Retrieved from

Fizza Raza is a 17-year-old from Lahore, Pakistan. She spends most of her time contemplating the glass ceiling or the ethics of modern-day capitalism.

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