Music Psychology

The music of silence

Rihanna’s shhh tattoo

When thinking about and studying the effect of music on the mind and body, my focus is usually on the music…as you might expect! In reality I have given little if any thought to the impact of the silences in music. This week I was introduced to the power of silences and learned a little about the way they can be used very effectively to maximise musical engagement.

It all started when I got an email from a 6 Music executive producer Mark Savage. Mark was putting together a short feature, all about pauses in music and how they affect the listener. It was all based on a novel by author Jennifer Egan, “A Visit from the Goon Squad”, which has just been shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize. The story is set against the background of the American music scene and apparently there is a whole chapter – written as a PowerPoint presentation – about the pauses in famous songs, like George Michael’s “Faith”, Bowie’s “Young Americans” and Garbage’s “Supervixen”.

Mark wanted to give the feature some context, and wondered whether I had some insight into why those moments of silence are so important in music. I was fascinated by the idea. I had read a little in the past about how the brain is very much active during musical silences (e.g. Kraemer et al. 2005 ) but had never really looked any further into the matter. So I had a dig around to see what I could come up with in order to help Mark with his feature.

Turns out, there isn’t a great deal of research into the impact of silences in music, suggesting it would be a great area for future study. But I got a lot of useful ideas and information from a paper by Elizabeth Margulis, published in the journal Music Perception and called ‘Silences in music are musical not silent’ . The paper is a wonderfully insightful exploratory study into the effects of context on experiences of music pauses.

Silences have a purpose in music – they help to distinguish different sections of the score, they allow listeners to shift their attention from one syntactic unit to the next (Knösche et al., 2004), and they help us lay down memory for the tune (Deutsch, 1980).

In the present paper Margulis argues that while the pauses in music may seem to be simple one dimensional manipulations of a tune (that dimension being time) which only function to divide up a piece, in reality they are important loci for musical expressivity. This concept is neatly conveyed in the following quote:

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides” (p.485, a quote from Artur Schnabel)

The article describes how the same pause can have dramatically different effects on the listener depending on its location within music. Tonal context leading up to the pause has significant effects on the degree of musical tension that participants report experiencing during the pause. If a pause follows good musical closure then participants are able to react more quickly to the pause and reported that they felt less musical tension than if a pause followed music that lacked closure. And all the participants in the study were non-musicians, suggesting that the ability to experience these effects requires no explicit understanding of the musical wizardry going on behind the curtain.

As an aside, I guess this is one musical device that is often used in thriller and horror music as well. I for one, find that a sudden pause in music that seems unfinished can be very unsettling…he’s behind you!

So next time you come across a pause in music, consider its purpose beyond that of a simple auditory bookmark. A skilled composer will strategically place a pause in order to affect the listener in different ways and a skilled performer will embrace a silence, using it as a point of expression for a range of emotions from longing to anger, fear to peace. Personally, I will never again overlook the potential musical beauty of silence.