Music is undoubtedly getting louder. From the moment the dial was turned up to 11 in This Is Spinal Tap, musicians and producers have, on the whole, been reluctant to turn the volume down. A recent study in Scientific Report proved that music has, indeed, been steadily getting louder since the mid-1960s, as the belief that ‘louder is better’ becomes increasingly commonplace. At the same time, however, many artists have become more experimental in their use of minimalism and silence in music.
It feels contradictory to talk about music in terms of silence; they are, after all, antithetical concepts. However, the careful use of silence in music can often create some of the most memorable and powerful sonic moments. The composer John Cage pushed this idea to the limit with his 1952 composition, 4 Minutes 33 Seconds, in which the musicians do not play their instruments, rather, the piece consists of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is ‘performed’. Whilst this is an extreme example, well-judged instances of silence in music can offer the listener a moment to reflect on the meaning of a song and therefore enable a more potent connection between artist and consumer.
A recent study in Scientific Report proved that music has, indeed, been steadily getting louder since the mid-1960s
Many already quiet songs buck the trend for volume even further and stand out all the more because of it. The Beatles’ Let It Be is already fairly quiet, but way the music dips at certain points takes it to a new level of poignancy and encourages the listener to engage with the song’s meaning. In music that is otherwise loud or bombastic, silent beats can have the opposite effect, offering the listener a second to ‘recover’ or take a breath. To this end, the beat of silence towards the end of Brianstorm by Arctic Monkeys seems to be readying us for the subsequent onslaught of percussion even more intense than that of the previous two and a half minutes. Likewise, the slight pause part way through the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant serves to make the message of the song even clearer. Would either of these songs, and others like them, leave half as much of a lasting impression without these simple beats of silence?
Minimalism in music is often used to the most obvious dramatic effect in film scores, where the images on screen visualise and emphasise the drama inherent in the music. Think of the climactic baptism scene in The Godfather, for instance, in which the organ music builds and builds during the montage of the baptism and the preparation for the massacre, before falling silent for a few seconds, only to start up again, louder than ever, as the shootouts begin. The beat of silence in the score alone is noticeable and dramatic, but the effect is heightened by the accompanying visuals.
Today’s digital formats cause music to lose much of its dynamic contrast, so being loud is often considered the only way to attract attention and recognition. However, some of the most enduring and affecting pieces of modern music eschew this in favour of either a stripped-down soundscape or by including well-timed moments of silence to encourage active engagement with the music. It might be easier to hear music when the volume is ramped up to 11, but the sound of silence carries with it a meaningfulness that takes feeling the music to a whole new level.