Silence: An Illusion?

May 3, 2016

"Silence" is defined as "the absence of any sound or noise; stillness," but is it really achievable?

Silence. Does it really exist? I mean in an abstract, philosophical sense – is it something tangible, or is it the lack of something existing?

In 1952, the American modernist composer John Cage undertook an effort to challenge musical audiences’ perception of silence with his piece 4’33” (commonly pronounced “Four Thirty-three”). The work is comprised of three movements of varying duration that instruct each performer to "tacet" for the duration of each section. In other words, all performers play absolutely nothing, for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

The point Cage was trying to make becomes apparent when one starts to recognize unplanned ambient sounds during the piece’s silent performance; invariably, sounds such as coughing, children screaming, and pipes rumbling in the walls begin to fill the concert hall. Eventually, those inadvertent sounds become the piece – that is, Cage’s piece is actually not the silent performance itself, but rather the symphony of unplanned noises that occur.

If you’re curious as to what a performance can sound like, here’s my favorite recording, from the K2Orch of Japan:

Now, if you’re still convinced that pure silence isn’t impossible, check out this article from the Smithsonian Magazine. Even if placed in an anechoic chamber resting at negative nine decibels, you will hear things as quiet as your own circulatory system.

Finally, it is worth noting the crucial role “silence” plays in every piece of music. Musicians achieve different phrasings and accents through the variance of space between notes. Think about it – you never hear a slew of hundreds of notes linking faultlessly together. Silence is even prominently embedded into one of the most well known classical works of all time: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 begins with a rest (denoted in blue) – a pause, or “silence.” Here’s the score, if you don’t believe me:

So, ponder, stir, contemplate – tweet me at @ClassicalCB with your thoughts. And no, WCRB will not be playing 4'33" on the air any time soon.