Silence Listening

by Glenn Buhr  ¦   November 30 2017

These days, I’m listening for silence.  And toward that end, I listen to a lot of music, and sometimes contemplate the difference between music and sound, and the role of silence in music, and the role of silence in our lives.

Here’s John Cage on the difference between sound and music:


Of course, we have John Cage to thank for helping us to contemplate silence too.  He discovered that there’s really no such thing when he entered an anechoic (soundproof) chamber and could still hear a low rumbling (his circulatory system) and a high ringing (his nervous system).  As long as there is motion of any kind, like the flow of electro-chemical energy in our nervous systems, and the flow of blood in our veins, there is sound.

But, as Cage says, sound and music are not the same thing.  For him, music is ‘chattering’, like people talking together at a party.  But for me, music is chattering, like people talking together in a play.

There’s a lot of chatter in this wild and wonderful Beethoven work, but I’d associate it more with the chatter in a Shakespeare play than with the idle chatter at a cocktail party:


There are certainly sounds in this masterwork, but they are the richly literate sounds of ‘chattering’ string instruments using the language of music.  So the listener has expectations, like grammar and syntax, that must be acknowledged, and this imposes limitations on the composer.  But, if we can accept those limitations, as everyone who enjoys Beethoven’s work must, then we can accept the concept of silence, relative to the ‘chatter’ of Beethoven’s melodies and counterpoint.  The Grosse Füge is full of event; notes fly all over the place.  But look at all of the rests in the score in the video clip above as you listen.  This wild and eventful Beethoven quartet is also full of silence.


Some critics compare Beethoven’s works – especially his subversive sounding works like the Grosse Füge – with the rock music of the 20th century, because of the pounding loud rhythms and the nose-thumbing lack of obedience in the attitude of the music.

On all of his tours, Neil Young still sings: Hey hey, my my.  Rock and roll will never die.  But I wonder if rock and roll was also never born, and has always been with us in the form of subversive music in every era.  There’s an underbelly under all cultural classes.  Maybe there always has been.

Let’s fast-forward 150 years in the evolution of rock music, from Beethoven’s Grosse Füge (1826) to Led Zepplin’s concert film The Song Remains the Same (1976).

Here’s Dazed and Confused, a stolen blues, expanded and symphonized.

Rock music is rarely associated with silence.  But scroll to the 10-minute mark of this sprawling improvisational performance.  For almost 3 minutes minutes, Jimmy Page holds his audience captive with a guitar solo that contains more silence than sound (other than the sound of the audience’s pent up excitement during those silences).

Silence is a primary structural element in Page’s music.  There’s not much willful silence in the heavy metal music that grew up after Zepplin, but Led Zepplin would not be Led Zepplin without the stops and starts that characterize the flow of the band’s music from one section to the another.  Most of the ionic rock bands from the 60’s and 70’ had at least one member or two – like Jimmy Page – who went to art school.  And it shows when you listen to their best work.

Here’s an epic performance by the Rolling Stones and its central section has just about as much silence as sound.  (Keith Richards want to art school too, before becoming a rock star.)  Listen from 5:10 to 7:30.

And Neil Young’s no slouch when it comes to artistic songwriting.  Here’s one of my favourite songs.  It uses silence as deftly as Stravinsky does in his iconic ballets and concert works, and is also wonderfully orchestrated with fretted and bowed string instruments against the vocals.


T.S. Eliot ends The Waste Land with a chanting of a Sankrit word from the Upanishads: Shanti – Shanti – Shanti.

The translation of Shanti: The Peace which passeth understanding; a state of being mentally and spiritually at peace, with enough knowledge and understanding to keep oneself strong in the face of discord or stress.

I think that what we’re really seeking when we contemplate silence, is that inner experience when we are absolutely still in our minds (mentally and spiritually at peace), while the swirl of surface events – even our own thoughts – still flow forward.  To that end, the music that we seek out is like a mantra, so that when listening, we are moved to a state of spiritual stillness.  The music is a vehicle, drawing us toward that ‘peace which passeth understanding’.

This is the Bill Evans Trio performing Evans’ composition Time Remembered.  Look at the young woman in the audience at 0:20.  The music has obviously had that effect on her.

I’m drawn to Bill Evans’ music and performances, because of its affect.  His work has a spiritual centre of some kind, and we’re drawn to that when we listen, and really do find our way to quietude, even though the music plays on.  That’s a quality in music that I’m always seeking.


© copyright Glenn Buhr 2017




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