How important is silence?
There is a quote attributed to Mozart that “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” And over a hundred years after Mozart died, Artur Schnabel confessed “The notes[,] I handle no better than many pianists.” But he makes up for that because, in his words, “the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides”
Is silence just the absence of music? Or can silence help a song?
Welcome to Song Appeal, where we dive into your favorite songs to answer the question “Why do we like the music we like?” I’m your host, Hunter Farris. And over the month of December, we’re doing a mini-series where we take a look at why we like 5 Christmas songs – 4 on the podcast and 1 on Patreon. So on today’s episode, let’s take a look at one reason why we like the quintessential Christmas song: “Silent Night”.
Thanks to songwriting coach Friedemann Findeisen for contributing his ideas and voice to this episode. You can find more from Friedemann on his YouTube channel: Holistic Songwriting.
You can help support Song Appeal on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you’ll find some great perks, including the full interview with Friedemann Findeisen.
A few years ago, I attended an event where 50 or so musicians each played one Christmas song. And during the 2-hour event, 4 different acts sang some version of “Silent Night”. If I remember correctly, “Silent Night” was the only song to be performed more than once. And I had to wonder “Why is this song so popular?”
I think it’s partly because of it uses silence in a way that isn’t just silent. Elizabeth Margulis, one of the rock stars in the field of music psychology, believed that idea so strongly that she wrote a paper titled “Silences in music are musical not silent”.
What exactly is a musical silence? Elizabeth Margulis talks about it as a moment when silence adds to the music, when silence increases tension and when “impressions of the music that [just played] seep into the gap, as do expectations about what may follow”. In other words, moments when the silence changes how we think of the music that comes next and the music we just heard. Moments when the silence changes the song.
Author and songwriting coach Friedemann Findeisen came on the show to shed some light on the subject through a similar idea that he calls “implied tension”. [Friedemann:] “What implied tension does is it takes something out of the song and makes us notice that.” And that includes taking out all the sounds entirely to make a moment when all is calm.
What effect does that silence have? [Friedemann:] “I think it has a bunch of different effects.” In “Silent Night”, it creates more tension and release, it makes us pay attention to the music, and it helps us remember the tune.
The most obvious thing silence does is [Friedemann:] “Typically, it’s just another way of adding tension.”
But not all silences are created equal. Elizabeth Margulis pointed out that when music pauses after chord I, the silence that follows isn’t as tense. She described the silence as “inconspicuous” and even “relaxed and at rest”. And almost every single one of the pauses in “Silent Night” comes after a I chord.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t tense at all. Dr. Margulis wrote that “silences are invariably imbued with the… perception of past events as well as the anticipation of future ones.” In other words, It’s not just about what came before, it’s about what we expect to come next. We can feel that the song isn’t over. We can feel there’s something coming next. And that can cause enough tension to make us want to stick around and hear what’s coming next.
I get to experience this kind of tension about once a month. The Church I attend holds a monthly “testimony meeting” where anyone can go to the pulpit and bear a short testimony. And every time, there’s a moment where one person has finished, but we all know someone else is going to go to the pulpit. We just don’t know who it will be or when they’ll do it. And the silence during that moment is pretty tense.
There is one silence in this song that isn’t on a I chord. It’s on a V chord: [“all is calm”]. And Dr. Margulis wrote that putting silence after something that isn’t a I chord, the tension ramps up.
There’s a moment in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol that demonstrates this perfectly when 2 of the main characters are trying to sneak past a security guard. And I mean sneak. They have to time their movements to when he’s not looking, or they’ll get caught and probably killed. And if the security guard hears them, they’ll definitely get caught. So the movie goes silent. No music. No talking. Just Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg breathing as they try to mask the sound of their footsteps. It’s an incredibly tense scene, partly because of the silence.
Every time this song is silent, we feel the tension that comes when we know something’s coming. And generally, the greater the tension, the greater the release.
And when the music does come back, we don’t just feel relieved. We pay more attention to the music. Again, Elizabeth Margulis wrote that “silences are invariably imbued with… the anticipation of future [events].” We can feel that something is coming next, and our brains get ready for that.
David Kraemer and his colleagues showed this when they measured people’s brain activity while playing music, but they muted the music randomly. They found that silence activates the part of your brain that processes sounds. And once the auditory parts of our brains get activated, we’re ready to hear something, and our brains soak up the next bit of music like a sponge.
If you’ve ever seen A Quiet Place, the movie with John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Most of the movie has so little sound that our brains have to strain to hear the sounds that are there. The silence prepares our brains prepare to hear the sounds that come next.
The psychologist Robert Ornstein suggested that expecting something makes us pay more attention to what’s going on around us, including sounds. And that’s exactly what’s going on in “Silent Night” The silence is [Friedemann:] “Highlighting the fact that there is no music. It’s an implied tension, we notice something is missing” and we pay attention to the next bit of music so much better because of it.
And when we’re paying that much attention to the music, we remember so much better.
In her article “Music Perception”, Diana Deutsch pointed out that when we hear music, we don’t just hear one note at a time. We group the notes into phrases. That helps us remember the notes so much better because of a process called “chunking”, where we start to think of a group of information as a single chunk. And it’s a whole lot easier to remember 3 chunks of 3 ideas each than 9 different ideas. And in “Silent Night”, this process is a lot more obvious. The song points out when phrases start and end by giving us the same 3-beat silence so that we can chunk it better and remember it better.
And Robert Ornstein, the psychologist, suggested that when we expect something and start paying more attention, we start putting things in our memory better. Maybe that’s because our expectation tells the brain “This is important” and we start preparing to remember whatever comes next.
Tonight, I’m going to one of my family’s Christmas traditions: Michael McLean’s The Forgotten Carols. After receiving thunderous applause, Michael asks the audience to join him in an a capella version of “Silent Night”, one where you can hear the silence in between every phrase. Maybe the silence is one reason why he calls this song “the one carol that will never be forgotten”.
Now, you might be wondering “All those silences are just notes are held out for a really long time.” And you’re right. They’re notes that are held out for a really long time. But our brains treat those held notes as silence at the end of phrases.
Bradley Frankland and Annabel Cohen put this idea to the test. They told people to press a button as soon as they thought a musical phrase was over. Generally, people pushed the button based on when the last note started, not when the last note faded out.
And they’re not the only ones to test this idea, and this isn’t the only way it’s been tested. As Dr. Margulis put it: “The psychological difference between a short final note followed by a silence and a final note held for the length of the silence may be negligible.”
So whether it’s silence or notes that are held out for a long time, our brains are anticipating the next bit of music, paying more attention to the next bit of music, and remembering the next bit of music so much better, especially in “Silent Night”: which brings us 8 separate moments of silence.
We can learn a lesson from this song. Christmas is sometimes considered the most stressful time of year, with all the shopping, decorating, and travel plans come to a head. And that’s not including finals, concerts, and more social engagements than you could possibly attend.
It might sound stressful to ask you to do one more thing, but it will lessen stress in every other part of the season. This Christmas, I’d like to invite you to take a moment to be silent and to think about the true meaning of Christmas. That way, you can anticipate, appreciate, and accumulate good memories about this season so much better.
For me, I’ll be spending my silent night thinking of a holy night and a holy infant who sleeps in heavenly peace.
Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes.
You can help support this show on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you can get some great perks, including the full interview with Friedemann Findeisen.
Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you next Friday. In the meantime, have a Merry Christmas, and enjoy your music.
This episode was made possible by the generous donations of the following patrons: