The Awesome Power of Silence

Noise is all around us…from the moment we get up in the morning till the moment we go to bed at night. Traffic noise, phones ringing, constant chatter, the kids yelling. We have become so used to a constant stream of noise in our everyday lives that when silence comes, we’re often shocked by it. Some people are so addicted to noise that they must have it around them all the time. They can’t fall asleep without the TV on. They must have music going constantly. To some, silence is the enemy.

I am sitting in an empty classroom that just 5 minutes ago was loud and boisterous, with the voices of 42 young, enthusiastic students getting ready to head out on their first video shoot. As soon as the door slammed with the last student leaving, I was plunged into an almost disturbing silence. Now, I only hear the sound of the building’s ventilation system and my fingers typing on the keyboard. It’s profound.

Earlier in today’s class, our fantastic guest speaker, copyright lawyer Andy Kaplan-Myrth, was speaking of a work of music called 4’33, by 20th century composer John Cage. For anyone who has not heard the piece, it is a three-movement composition performed by any number of musicians and instruments. The catch is, the musical score instructs the musicians not to play a single note for the entire duration of the piece. I remember my Grade 12 music teacher, Mr. Garrett, performed the piece for us one day in class. He sat down at the piano, placed his hands ever so gently on the piano keys, and proceeded, for the next four minutes and thirty three seconds, to play…absolutely nothing.

It was amazing to see our reaction. About 30 seconds in, people started to shift in their seats. At 1 minute, the odd whisper could be heard. Mr. Garrett remained motionless. By 3 minutes, the whispers had turned to murmurs. But we started to notice other things too. A siren could be heard on the street. Someone was walking down the hall outside the classroom. A door closed. Someone sneezed. At the end of the piece, Mr. Garrett gently placed his hands in his lap, stood up, and bowed.

In his piece, Cage was trying to make the point that any sound, or lack of sound, can be considered art. But to me, it’s much more than that.

The observation of silence in your day provides a space, where you can just breathe, and be. At those moments when you notice the silence, is when you start to notice the noises that make up that silence. What you notice is not really silence at all…what you notice is the cat purring, the crickets chirping, or the kids laughing.

Cage’s composition is forced silence. It forces people to observe what they feel when they are plunged into a situation where that constant noise is cut out. It makes the listeners stop and wait, and listen, and really pay attention.

There’s a lot to be said for silence. How do you find the silence in your busy life?

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3 Responses

  1. Suze – it’s difficult, very difficult. My silence lurks in the recesses of my mind most of the time. But every now and I then, I remember to stop. And when I do, I remember why.

  2. Silence is golden. Why do you think I was attracted to learning ASL? And why do you think someone who used to work in tv now can’t stand to have it on when she’s at home after a long day at work of customer chatter, music, tv, phone ringing, email alert bells, iphone hype and the like? When I come home, I want silence. I want peace. I want a break. I want an escape. I want to close my eyes and rest, dammit! 🙂

  3. Sound of silence. I think for me, it’s not the quiet without, but the quiet within, that comes when I’m creating, or just sitting with someone I’m comfortable with, without the need to talk.

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