The (Real) Sound of Silence

PhpThumb Meera Lee Sethi in Inkling Magazine:

In the second section of Samuel Barber’s exquisitely mournful composition “Adagio for Strings,” the cellos, violas, and violins join together to build to a rising melodic climax, reaching a thrilling, almost keening peak of grief – and then sharply stop. There is a breathtaking silence that lasts several long seconds. Finally, after more than a few thudding heartbeats, the instruments resume their play with a series of soft chords that now seem painfully delicate, carrying the piece to its sighing, fading conclusion.

When you listen to “Adagio for Strings,” that brief pause two thirds of the way into the music is anything but empty; in fact, it fairly aches with woe. Of course classical composers, jazz musicians, and pop stars alike have always known the power of the pregnant pause. They carefully insert silence in between their notes, using it like a supple extra voice. It can be full of tension, humor, serenity, or dramatic finality, its character conditioned by the shape of the space it occupies. And now psychologists and neuroscientists are beginning to unravel why, exactly, silence speaks so many volumes.

For example last year University of Arkansas researcher Elizabeth Margulis showed that people hear pauses in music very differently based on the specific context of the silence. Using listening tests to investigate people’s responses to silences contained within musical excerpts, she found that participants perceived changes in both the duration and the amount of tension in the acoustic void depending on the music around it. Margulis also asked participants to report whether they had experienced “a sensation of beats” during a musical silence and indeed some listeners reported hearing subtle differences in what they perceive as the meter of the very same silence—an astonishing, yet somehow intuitive finding. Silence, it seems, actually has a rhythm.