Quote of the Day: The Silence of Music

 

“The silence must be longer. This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.” Arvo Pärt, Estonian composer

From his youth, Arvo Pärt was a gifted composer, starting by mimicking the neo-classicists before following the trend of modernist atonality. While the tastemakers insisted this was the proper path, Pärt was disappointed with his output and music itself.

He turned his back on modernity and retreated to an Orthodox monastery where he practiced silence for several years. When he emerged, everything was different. He discovered that music doesn’t arise from avant-garde cacophony but from silence.

When a conductor was rushing through one of his works, trying to fill every gap with notes, Pärt corrected him. “The silence must be longer. This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.”

The conductor was baffled, asking, “Exactly how many beats? What do you do during the silence?”

Pärt’s response: “You don’t do anything. You wait. God does it.”

In the above piece, “Te Deum,” you need the relative quiet of the first several minutes to experience the release that hits at 5:35.

Without a measure of silence, music is often just noise.

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  1. John Peabody Inactive
    John Peabody
    @JohnAPeabody

    Oh, HECK YES. I’ve told my choir to respect the silences in their works. Especially following some anthems…a silence is absolutely necessary, or else the music just sung is severely damaged.  Wonderful post, and an important lesson for all musicians.

    • #1
  2. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I was going to make a substantive comment, but decided that silence is better. 

    • #2
  3. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    Interesting to put this into words. 

    It may not be the same effect that Part was getting at, but silence in the middle of a musical piece can also make some striking statements. 

    One of my favorite [pop] songs from an obscure band I stumbled into is roaring along and then suddenly stops. The listener (me, anyway) hears tension building in the about two seconds of silence – it’s impressive how much tension can build in a brief silence – until that tension is released with a mighty whack on the drum, and off they go again. 

    I have also sung some choral works that put a few seconds of silence in strategic places. One that used silence in several places was a work based on Revelation 8:1 (The Lamb of God opens the seventh seal, and there was silence in heaven for about half an hour). The song did not include half an hour of silence :-) but it did use strategically placed moments of silence to communicate how odd silence would be after all the noise and activity that followed the opening of the previous 6 seals. 

    • #3
  4. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Probably the hardest part of composing is how to finish the music. Pärt wanted a soft ending, but added some dynamic texture before the end. At 22:53, the Te Deum Latin text from the Psalms:

    Miserére nostri, Dómine, miserére nostri.
    Fiat misericórdia tua, Dómine, super nos, quemádmodum sperávimus in te.
    In te, Dómine, sperávi: non confúndar in ætérnum.

    O Lord, have mercy upon us : have mercy upon us.
    O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us : as our trust is in thee.
    O Lord, in thee have I trusted : let me never be confounded. [Amen, Sanctus added]


    This post is an entry in the Quote of the Day series, the easiest way to start a conversation on Ricochet. We have 7 openings on the November Schedule. We’ve even include tips for finding great quotes, so join in the fun and sign up today!

    • #4
  5. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    I think it was Leonard Bernstein who said, “Music is what happens between the rests.” The implication being that without the rests there can be no music. (If it wasn’t Bernstein, then whoever said it was right, I think. And it sounds like Bernstein.)

    One of the truest tells of a nervous or novice musician is the tendency to rush through a piece,   short-shrifting the rests. The confident musician, on the other hand, basks in those little moments of silence. And great pop singers, like Frank Sinatra, actually sing so far behind the beat as to create silence where there was none on the sheet music.

    I’ve come to believe that modern society is, at the least, confused, or, even terrified of silence. Everywhere one goes, there is background sound: blaring TVs, radios, ring tones, and music of every stripe. Even churches, which should be a bastion of occasional solemn silence, are guilty, as pianists and keyboardists are instructed to “underscore” prayers.

    I truly love music, but it is everywhere. The sad result of it being so ubiquitous is that music is now something to be ignored, rather than listened to.

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Songwriter (View Comment):

    I’ve come to believe that modern society is, at the least, confused, or, even terrified of silence. Everywhere one goes, there is background sound: blaring TVs, radios, ring tones, and music of every stripe. Even churches, which should be a bastion of occasional solemn silence, are guilty, as pianists and keyboardists are instructed to “underscore” prayers.

    I truly love music, but it is everywhere. The sad result of it being so ubiquitous is that music is now something to be ignored, rather than listened to.

    Oh, @songwriter, I completely agree. Maybe it’s my many years of silent retreats, but I’ve come to love the beauty that comes with silence. It is so restorative, lovely in its simplicity, and so absent in our times. Thanks.

    • #6
  7. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    Oh, @songwriter, I completely agree. Maybe it’s my many years of silent retreats, but I’ve come to love the beauty that comes with silence. It is so restorative, lovely in its simplicity, and so absent in our times. Thanks.

    I get a lot of silence when driving long distances. I quit listening to radio in the late 90s.  I like listening to audio books, but that makes me drowsy if I do it for a long period while driving. (It doesn’t have that effect in other environments. I don’t know why.)  So, long periods of silence, except when Mrs R and I have something to talk about. And when we do, we don’t have to break through other noise to do it.

    I’ve recently taken to listening to music at times while using my computer, but mostly I don’t, and haven’t for many years.  I do have a mechanical keyboard, though, so there is the loud clicking of the keys.

    • #7
  8. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Songwriter (View Comment):
    Even churches, which should be a bastion of occasional solemn silence, are guilty, as pianists and keyboardists are instructed to “underscore” prayers.

    Yuk! I would concentrate on the (terrible) music rather than the needed meditative state.

    • #8
  9. Nick H Coolidge
    Nick H
    @NickH

    The challenge for the composer (and the performer too) is to create the silence in such a way that the audience knows that there is more to come. That’s probably one of the few ways that a recording is better than live music. When there’s intentional silence in a live performance, someone unfamiliar with the piece will always think it’s the end and start clapping instead of letting the suspense build for the next note.

    • #9
  10. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    There was an excellent program in Peter Schickele’s NPR series, “Schickele Mix,” on this very subject. I remember him playing examples of how Beethoven seemed to have a terrible time figuring out how to end the damn symphony. He contrasted it with the fade-out ending in pop music. I always thought fade-outs were a sign that the composer wasn’t good enough to come up with a satisfying ending, but The Professor changed my mind.

    • #10
  11. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):
    I always thought fade-outs were a sign that the composer wasn’t good enough to come up with a satisfying ending, but The Professor changed my mind.

    Brahms has been criticized for his 3rd symphony ending, but the fade-out here is completely proper, wrapping up the major themes:

    It’s my favorite Brahms symphony, maybe because I played the fantastic low String Bass part at 6:22.

    • #11
  12. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I have always enjoyed the ways composers play with silence. There is no greater emphasis in music than silence.

    Book publishers understand this principle too. The older editors walk around the cubicles solemnly saying to the younger editors, “Less is more, John. Less is more.” :-)

    Even newspapers understand it, though one would seldom suspect they did, given how cluttered their pages are. :-) If someone wants to get the readers’ attention, print one sentence in the upper third of an otherwise blank page.

    I used to tell my kids and their friends, “Think of white space as the black velvet surrounding the single beautiful diamond.” :-)

    • #12
  13. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    A gourmand can become overfull to the point that food palls or becomes sickening. Though it isn’t a physical thing, the music-listener and the art-viewer can also ingest so much that the pleasure disappears. 

    • #13
  14. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: “The sounds are there to surround the silence.”

    I love this post.  Not only because it reminds me of Mr. She who, when he is most on his intellectual game likes to look at the things that “are not there” in the argument, as opposed to the things that are, but because of an old quote I haven’t thought of in decades (and perhaps it occurs to me only because of my misspent youth as an occasional mackerel and lobster fisherman), that “a net is holes tied together with string.”   I have no idea who originally said that, or where it came from.

    Sometimes, the most important happenings can be found in the interstices.

    • #14
  15. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: He turned his back on modernity and retreated to an Orthodox monastery where he practiced silence for several years. When he emerged, everything was different. He discovered that music doesn’t arise from avant-garde cacophony but from silence.

    Even so, you never really unhear what you’ve heard. Composers like Pärt and Lauridsen, who have well-deserved reputations for turning their backs on “avant-garde cacophony” still employ metallic, glancing sonorities understandably associated with modern music, which is much freer in how it prepares and resolves dissonance than older-style music would be, creating a more atmospheric and “open” texture. Now, one way to justify skipping old-fashioned preparation and resolution of dissonance is that, even if you leave it out, people’s tonal sense fills it in. It’s elision, omission, thus a kind of silence, even if often a silence taking as little as zero time.

    Pärt’s “O Schlüssel Davids” begins with a wall of sound that might at first sound like it’s “avant-garde cacophony”, but it’s going somewhere, with pauses to help you digest what you’ve just heard:

    The overall idea of resolution is still there, but it’s definitely a modern execution of it.

    Music is meant to be tonal — as far as I know the most successful “atonal” music still sneaks tonality in through the back door. The absence of other pitch lets the tonal center reassert itself in our mind’s ear. Or you could say the tonal center is the first incarnation of the silence, begetting the rest of the sound.

    • #15
  16. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):
    I always thought fade-outs were a sign that the composer wasn’t good enough to come up with a satisfying ending, but The Professor changed my mind.

    It’s often a sign the song didn’t come from a band that played a lot of live gigs. The first album rarely had fade-outs if the songs were all honed in pub gigs.

    The fade-out on Holst’s “Neptune” is one of the most sublime things ever written. 

    • #16
  17. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):
    I always thought fade-outs were a sign that the composer wasn’t good enough to come up with a satisfying ending, but The Professor changed my mind.

    It’s often a sign the song didn’t come from a band that played a lot of live gigs. The first album rarely had fade-outs if the songs were all honed in pub gigs.

    The fade-out on Holst’s “Neptune” is one of the most sublime things ever written.

    Holst’s ’94 G minor String Trio (Baby, Uh!) was the only good thing he did. Everything after that is just commercial. 

    • #17
  18. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    I usually avoid commenting on a composer whose name requires a diacritical mark. But listening to this guy’s Spiegel im spiegel is the only thing that can bring me down after reading something by Fred Cole.

    • #18
  19. Suspira Member
    Suspira
    @Suspira

    I’ve sung (fortunately beside much better singers!) Pärt’s Magnificat. Sublimely beautiful and wickedly difficult. 

    • #19
  20. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: He turned his back on modernity and retreated to an Orthodox monastery where he practiced silence for several years. When he emerged, everything was different. He discovered that music doesn’t arise from avant-garde cacophony but from silence.

    Even so, you never really unhear what you’ve heard. Composers like Pärt and Lauridsen, who have well-deserved reputations for turning their backs on “avant-garde cacophony” still employ metallic, glancing sonorities understandably associated with modern music, which is much freer in how it prepares and resolves dissonance than older-style music would be, creating a more atmospheric and “open” texture. Now, one way to justify skipping old-fashioned preparation and resolution of dissonance is that, even if you leave it out, people’s tonal sense fills it in. It’s elision, omission, thus a kind of silence, even if often a silence taking as little as zero time.

    Pärt’s “O Schlüssel Davids” begins with a wall of sound that might at first sound like it’s “avant-garde cacophony”, but it’s going somewhere, with pauses to help you digest what you’ve just heard:

    The overall idea of resolution is still there, but it’s definitely a modern execution of it.

    Music is meant to be tonal — as far as I know the most successful “atonal” music still sneaks tonality in through the back door. The absence of other pitch lets the tonal center reassert itself in our mind’s ear. Or you could say the tonal center is the first incarnation of the silence, begetting the rest of the sound.

    Why is music tonal? Why does a G7 sound dissonant and incomplete until a C chord follows?  Why does a G7, whose dissonant tones are the B and F, not logically resolve instead to an F# chord, which is just as logical a resolution of the dissonance?

    I have a degree in music-freaking theory, and I will be darned if I can answer my own questions.  But there is a deep truth here.  There is something inherently human about tonality which composers ignore at their peril.  One doesn’t hear a lot of Schoenberg and Webern in the concert halls these days (and when one does, it’s usually in an “eat your spinach” context).

    • #20
  21. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    One doesn’t hear a lot of Schoenberg and Webern in the concert halls these days (and when one does, it’s usually in an “eat your spinach” context).

    I like spinach, raw or cooked. Always have. I don’t like Schoenberg, though. 

    • #21
  22. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    Songwriter (View Comment):
    Even churches, which should be a bastion of occasional solemn silence, are guilty, as pianists and keyboardists are instructed to “underscore” prayers.

    Yuk! I would concentrate on the (terrible) music rather than the needed meditative state.

    I have a very difficult time not focusing on the music.  It’s as if my brain is wired to process music before human speech.

    • #22
  23. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    There is something inherently human about tonality which composers ignore at their peril.

    Agreed. When I teach the principles of choral writing to new arrangers, I talk briefly about all those “rules” that came about from analyzing Bach’s work: avoid parallel 5ths, never double the 3rd in a 1st inversion chord, the tritone resolves outward, etc.  These “rules” (and they really are merely solid principles) exist because… They work. For some reason, music that violates these rules (with little or no thought or preparation) sounds wrong. And it’s very difficult to explain why.

    I’m no acoustical scientist, but I strongly suspect it has a great deal to do with the overtone series and the physics of acoustics.

    • #23
  24. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    Why is music tonal? Why does a G7 sound dissonant and incomplete until a C chord follows? Why does a G7, whose dissonant tones are the B and F, not logically resolve instead to an F# chord, which is just as logical a resolution of the dissonance?

    Because if you wanted to write the pitches contained in G7 as a resolution to an F# chord, you’d spell them differently, as an “over-diminished” E# chord! ;-P

    That’s a joke answer, but also the truth:

    Transposed up by half a step, the cluster FGBD (G7) becomes F#AbCEb, which resolves to GBD (G major) the same way F#ACEb (a fully-diminshed F# chord) does, only with the added spice of flatting the A, too, to create a “downward leading tone” to G “over-diminishing” the chord. If you were working in the key of C minor, F#AbCEb would be a pretty awesome approach to GBD, the V of C minor (though if you’re avoiding parallel fifths, you’d want to respace the progression to create parallel fourths instead). Now, transposing everything back down by half a step, E#GBD (“just an” enharmonic respelling of FGBD) resolves in the same way to F#A#C#, the V of B minor. (Schlepping up, then back down, by half a step, is of course not necessary to demonstrate this, just easier on those, like me, amateur enough to still find E# kinda weird-looking.)

    I used to think these respelling tricks were nasty sleights of hand musical pedants pulled on poor unsuspecting musicians just to torture them. Really, though, persnicketiness about which spelling to use is supposed to help — help clarify the context in which a dissonance resolves. (Even in thoroughly tonal music, though, it’s possible for even a rank amateur to combine tonicization and modal mixture in a way that temporarily renders the right spelling ambiguous. Momentary ambiguity can be exciting — what offends tonal hearing is the unrelieved ambiguity atonal music is supposed to create.)

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    I have a degree in music-freaking theory, and I will be darned if I can answer my own questions. But there is a deep truth here. There is something inherently human about tonality which composers ignore at their peril. One doesn’t hear a lot of Schoenberg and Webern in the concert halls these days (and when one does, it’s usually in an “eat your spinach” context).

    The best explanation I’ve found for conundrums like you’ve posed? To be found in Mathieu’s Harmonic Experience. The style is a bit hippy-dippy, but its explanations for tonality, from both the standpoint of acoustics (overtone series, etc) and artistry, are the least unconvincing I’ve run across.

    • #24
  25. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Attempting to follow this conversation as best I can, and just glad there’s a place on the Internet where it’s happening, and that I’m here. Thanks. 

    • #25
  26. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Songwriter (View Comment):
    I’m no acoustical scientist, but I strongly suspect it has a great deal to do with the overtone series and the physics of acoustics.

    I’m an indirect (i.e., lousy) acoustical scientist. Having learned radio antenna theory and speech processing, I’m dangerous, but wrote something on the overtone series.

    Maybe @dontillman and @quietpi can help here.

    • #26
  27. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Songwriter (View Comment):

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    There is something inherently human about tonality which composers ignore at their peril.

    Agreed. When I teach the principles of choral writing to new arrangers, I talk briefly about all those “rules” that came about from analyzing Bach’s work: avoid parallel 5ths, never double the 3rd in a 1st inversion chord, the tritone resolves outward, etc. These “rules” (and they really are merely solid principles) exist because… They work. For some reason, music that violates these rules (with little or no thought or preparation) sounds wrong. And it’s very difficult to explain why.

    One thing I’ve noticed? Styles that successfully avoid avoiding parallel 5ths sound more “American” to me.

    Traditional American harmony for hymnody, like in shape-note singing, makes a meal of parallel and similar motion to octaves and 5ths. For example, this Christmas hymn:

    I both appreciate this raucous style — and appreciate it’s not the only style out there (especially appreciating the rules you mention are still as widely-taught as they are).

    For Veteran’s Day in church, we sang a patriotic medley containing My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. For the lyrics “Land of the Pilgrim’s pride”, the composer wrote just about the most obvious parallel 5ths in the world. I wonder if it was a conscious choice to evoke that “American” sound.

    • #27
  28. Jules PA Member
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Songwriter (View Comment):
    I’m no acoustical scientist, but I strongly suspect it has a great deal to do with the overtone series and the physics of acoustics.

    I agree. 

    The same way if you put certain materials together, they will have predictable chemical reactions?

    When paints are mix, they form new colors. 

    The medium of sound is rooted in the nature of acoustic properties. 

    • #28
  29. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    Why is music tonal? Why does a G7 sound dissonant and incomplete until a C chord follows? Why does a G7, whose dissonant tones are the B and F, not logically resolve instead to an F# chord, which is just as logical a resolution of the dissonance?

    Because if you wanted to write the pitches contained in G7 as a resolution to an F# chord, you’d spell them differently, as an “over-diminished” E# chord! ;-P

    MFR, you can spice up your V7–> I progressions by augmenting the fifth of the V7 (the ii of the tonic scale) as in G-B-D#-F to make a very slick double half-step resolution into the third degree of the I chord.  Mendelssohn was fond of this.

    One can also view G7 as a German augmented sixth chord, thus spelling it as G-B-D-E#, which is what you were suggesting in your transpose-up, transpose down argument.  The chord now resolves cleanly to F#. 

    Any tritone resolves up or down to two intervals a tritone apart.  Check it out on your harpsichord.  B–F can go to C–E or to A#–F# equally well.

    Similarly, any seventh chord can cleanly resolve to two (or more) other chords, a dominant seventh can always resolve to two chords a tritone apart.  G7–>C, G goes to C in the bass, B to C, D to E, F to G, G in upper voices remains constant.

    In G (Ger 6)–> F#, G goes down to F#, B at A#, D to C#, E# to F#.  A composer has to do imaginative things to avoid parallel fifths.

    Also not as nice is the bass progression.  In G7–>C you have that lovely strong perfect forth or fifth motion.  In G (Germ 6th)–> F# you have a half step and it’s a half step down which sounds a little squishy.

    So I can theorize my way to an answer to why one archetypal tonal progression is so compelling, but I can’t understand it as a matter of culture.

    BTW, in 2003 my letter in National Review on the topic of parallel fifths in Bach got an admiring response from WFB himself.  My CV says that you can find it in the April 3, 2003 issue, page 16, but a quick search shows there was no such issue.  Likely 3/3/03 or 4/7/03.

     

    • #29
  30. Jules PA Member
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Vectorman (View Comment):
    the overtone series.

    Nice post on overtones. 

    My take away is our ears round the pure math. 

    So when I tune my violin, by ear, it is slightly different than when I tune to the pure math of the electronic tuner.

    Even my young students can hear and feel with their ear when the fifths are tuned perfectly. We don’t need a calculator. 

    • #30

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