If you know the quote, you will know that it is attributed to the French composer, Claude Debussy, although there are similar phrases attributed to others from Mozart to Miles Davis. The beauty of music and its emotional outpouring comes not just from the notes, or sounds, but from the silence.
John Cage, an American 20th century composer, took this to the ultimate conclusion with his infamous 4’33”, a piece consisting entirely of silence; not just silence, but musicians sitting with their instruments for 4 minutes 33 seconds without playing.
Most musicians didn’t take it that far, but we can all probably think of music where pauses or a period of silence help create the beauty. Even as I write this, I’m listening to a piano and cello combo where the relaxation is created as much by the gaps as by the flowing music. And not just beauty or relaxation: listen to the end of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in the Messiah and experience the climatic pause before the final ‘Hallelujah.’ And not to focus purely on classical: Led Zeppelin fans will know the power of the 4 second pauses throughout ‘Good Times, Bad Times.’
And not just in music. Professional speakers know well the power of a carefully placed pause and are as in control of their silences as they are of their words, using them to dramatic effect. And even in art: Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch artist, probably most known for his ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring,’ produced a painting called ‘Maid asleep at the Table’, currently hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he removed a man from the room, the empty doorway leaving his final masterpiece with a suggested message rather than the earlier overt one.
The phrase ‘silence is golden’ is one we are all familiar with, but perhaps not with the original, complete, version: ‘speech is silver, silence is golden.’ The origin of the phrase is unclear, although its known that its first use in English was in 1831. Put that phrase together with Debussy’s and we see that meaning doesn’t just come from noise: it comes from the whole, including the silences, however long or short. Pauses where we can see the speaker’s thought processes continuing on; pauses where the speaker is hesitating, unsure; silence where the speaker has finished speaking and we allow the silence to roll on, to feel the weight of what has been spoken. I’m not referring to listening to professional speakers here necessarily, but neighbours, colleagues, people we meet who tell us something on their heart, or recount a story.
A barrier for many of us is that we are uncomfortable with silence: we fill it – in our head if not out loud – or assume they’re done and walk away. But developing an ease with silence is something we can work on – we can hone our ability to hear the golden pauses as well as the words of silver.
So here’s this week’s suggestion: see how long you let other people’s pauses linger before leaping in; count how many seconds go by between you asking a question then offering your own answer; find out how long you can sit in silence with someone before starting to feel uncomfortable. And the challenge? Add on another 5 seconds and see what difference it makes to some of those interactions.
Music is in the notes, just as speech is in the words…………………………………………………………… but also in the silence.