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My Lifelong Quest for Silence
It may seem strange to hear it from a music writer, but I'm always looking for a quiet moment
My boyhood home was very close to Los Angeles International Airport, and the flight patterns came directly overhead my bed—or so it seemed at the time. As a result, the sound of a Boeing 707 engine was to my childhood what the madeleine was to Proust or a cheap sled to Charles Foster Kane.
Below is a noise map of Southern California—I grew up in that red area on the north side of Hawthorne. Pundits will tell you that it was a quiet time in Southern California in those good old days. All I can say is: Not in my ‘hood.
I grew up in pretty much the loudest place in the USA.
I could gripe and moan about this, but it did bring unintended benefits. I still possess a tremendous ability to block out sounds—a skill developed in my infancy. I can fall asleep with the TV blaring, the dog barking, and everyone on the block partying like it’s 1999. I can keep my head when all about me others are showcasing new boomboxes. In short, I’m pretty much impervious to loud sounds.
On the other hand, I have learned to appreciate silence. I even crave silence. Every year, my New Year’s resolutions include a vow to find more quiet time.
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It’s almost too cruel that at precisely the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, people in my neighborhood—and in every neighborhood where I’ve resided over the years—start firing off guns. I’m told that this is how they greet January 1, but I can’t help thinking they’re mocking my quest for quietude.
Still I don’t give up.
And I’m not the only one. In social situations, you perhaps find silence awkward. But from a biological perspective, the opposite is true. Silence is soothing—and for persuasive evolutionary reasons.
For our earliest ancestors, unexpected noises were a sign of danger. A predator might be near—especially the most dangerous predator of all, namely other human beings. In many instances, people actually relied on loud sounds as weapons—in my last book, I described how choral singing probably originated as a hunting technique, scaring away other predators on scavenging raids.
Silence, in contrast, was comforting for our prehistoric ancestors. It was a sign of safety and security. It still is today. The dictionary definition of quiet actually spells it out for us—the word means both a lack of noise, and a sense of security.
And even in social situations, where we feel a constant pressure to keep up the conviviality and conversation, silence is the pause that refreshes. Perhaps the greatest sign of bonding with another person is the ability to be quiet together.
Some cultures assign a high value to silence, even in conversations. The pause before responding is a token of respect and thoughtfulness. In other instances, silence can demonstrate reverence, agreement, or merely an acknowledgement of the prevailing hierarchies.
People in Nordic countries are demonstrably more comfortable with friendly silences. In Finland, these moments of quiet are so noteworthy that a committee of experts, assigned to come up with a marketing pitch for Finnish tourism proposed various mottoes and taglines evocative of the regional predilection—these included “Silence, Please” and “Not talking, but action.”
The Finnish watch manufacturer Rönkkö seized on this approach with its advertisements proclaiming: “Handmade in Finnish Silence.” The company explains, on its website: “To truly understand a Finn, one has to first understand silence….For a Finn, silence means time for thought; creating something out of nothing.”
Is it pure coincidence that the ECM record label, which has recorded so many albums in studios in Nordic countries over the years, adopted a policy in the 1990s to start each album with five seconds of silence? Or that they also adopted a music critic’s phrase as the company slogan: “The most beautiful sound next to silence.” When filmmakers Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer released a documentary on the label and its founder, they entitled it: Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher.
Even in the busiest cities in the Western world, the intangible value of silence is recognized. Philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle is often credited with the phrase “Silence is golden”—which shows up in his satirical novel Sartor Resartus. But it’s worth sharing the entire passage where the adage appears:
“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule….Speech too is great, but not the greatest. As the Swiss Inscription says: Sprechen ist silbern, Schweigen ist golden (Speech is silver, Silence is golden); or as I might rather express it: Speech is of Time, Silence is of Eternity.”
Curiously enough, the praise of silence as golden is here attributed to the Swiss, famous for their watchmaking—and we’ve already seen a connection between silence and the Finnish timepiece marketing copy. This inevitably reminds us of the soothing sound of a quietly ticking clock.
You probably already know that rhythmic sounds are comforting. In fact, you knew that before you were born, listening to your mother’s heartbeat. And I’ve written elsewhere of the soothing effect of rocking rhythms and metric music on infants.
Perhaps this even gives us insight into the difference between music and noise. That’s a subject that would raise endless debate among scholars—in fact, some would claim there is no real dividing line between the two. But thinking back to those soothing heartbeats and quietly ticking clocks, I’d propose that music only appears when aestheticized organizing principles come to the forefront of sound, and the most basic of those principles is the steady, comfortingly predictable beat.
So we now have moved from praising silence to considering that entire spectrum from quiet to noise, with various kinds of sounds and music placed somewhere in the middle. Or perhaps it’s better to view this as a hierarchy, with music operating at some higher stage than noise, but still below the pure ideal of silence.
The average music fan might be surprised to learn how controversial such a hierarchy can be to certain academic mindsets. At first blush, noise seems to operate beyond the realm of music, perhaps even defining the very boundary where it ends. But that hasn’t stopped influential people from trying to aestheticize noise—just as John Cage aestheticized silence in his 4 ’33’.
These kinds of attempts, even if they fail to convince, will never really go away, if only because noise and silence must always represent liminal points in our conceptualizations of sound. And just as in those escapist movies where the heroes, under attack, announce that they must “secure the perimeter”—with all the overtones of violence and survival instincts implicit in such activities—so, too, do musical theorists get dragged into the same kind of inevitable antagonisms. As a result, defining the boundaries of music inevitably leads to border skirmishes with advocates of noise.
I’ve clearly taken up a position myself by praising silence, but I note that this is as much a medical or scientific imperative as a subject for a music manifesto. Did you know that more than 10 thousand deaths per year are due to noise? There are a host of other medical problems attributed to noise—it increases the risk of everything from diabetes to a heart attack. And that’s even before we get to the huge issue of hearing loss.
But the psychological impact may be even more profound. Prolonged exposure to noise can lead to depression, sleeplessness, anxiety, learning disorders, and even acts of violence. We often describe safe neighborhoods as quiet, but that’s more than a metaphor. The quiet is probably as much a cause of the safety as an effect.
By the way, here are some maps of noise in America—here’s a map of transportation noise and here’s a map of all kinds of noise. This is simply one more type of pollution, and no less deadly for being invisible.
(By the way, if you live in one of those hot spots and are looking for a quiet place, there’s an app for that.)
Musicians might be tempted to take some solace from all this. After all, most musicians like to see themselves as the enemies of mere noise, as the skilled professionals who impose beauty and order on the soundscape.
But, alas, such strutting and boasting is completely unwarranted. The brutal truth is that most of the noise complaints received by police are actually about music. Hardly a week goes by where I don’t read about some violent encounter over music—neighbors resorting to fisticuffs, or worse, in their battle against annoying sounds. One person’s music is, after all, another person’s noise.
As noted above, I’ve frequently written about the weaponization of music, and that’s hardly as rare a situation as many might assume. It’s not just found in enhanced interrogation techniques—what a brazen euphemism!—when Guantanamo Bay inmates, for example, were subjected to repeated playing of the Blues Brothers’ version of the “Theme to Rawhide” (no, I’m not joking). But it shows up in everyday settings, from the local convenience store to train stations, where songs deter vagrants and homeless people. (Here’s one example from just this week.)
But that is where silence is truly golden. I’m not going to claim that silence can’t be harmful—many of us have experienced it firsthand, receiving the silent treatment from a spouse or partner. But it’s not a very dangerous weapon. Some spouses are even secretly grateful for that silent treatment.
For my part, I always crave more quiet moments in my life. But I still love the music. Maybe I love it all the more, for having refreshed the ears with a dose of quiet before returning to that next song. And, honestly, after those formative years under LAX flights, anything is an improvement.