Since my Morphagene arrived I’ve been thinking a lot about silence and fragmented sound versus continuous sound.
It seems to me that, especially in the world of synths, ambient and modular, sound is generally intended as a continuum. Many patches, tracks or records use wide ranges of continuous sounds but I can’t think of many examples of “fragmented” or silence-based approaches. I’m sure that there’s plenty of artists I still don’t know that use it, but right now I can’t think of many examples in the synth world.
Out of the synth world, beside the obvious reference to Cage, I really really really can’t stress the importance and the influence of Wadada Leo Smith on my thoughts. Also reading Stockhausen On Music by R. Maconie is influencing me.

I’m creating this thread both to stimulate creative thinking and to exchange ideas about the use of silence in compositions: how do you use it? How do you approach it? Are you scared of it?

Sometimes I feel that I tend to be scared of the thunderous nature of silence when inserted abruptly in a context. Then I remind myself it can sound as soft as petals or leaves falling from a tree. And that every breath has a pause between inhaling and exhaling where you can get a glimpse of the universe.

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I don’t have anything usefully cogent to add, but thank you for this thread. Two things immediately came to mind:

  • The Alex Ross article that turned me onto Wandelweiser, and
  • The album that came out of MOCA’s exhibition about Cage and the cultural reverberations that he initiated. There’s a lot of good there.

Whenever I make something for the “composed” folder, I try to do an accounting for whatever “silence” means for me at that time. I still feel that, if it were a koan, I would be flunking.


I have been thinking a lot about this recently after listening to Jürg Frey.

Also, Luke Martin.

They are a part of Wandelweiser which is a collective of musicians that focus on the use of silence.

I have been trying to implement this in my own compositions but am often faced with the anxiety of the silence itself. I question whether it is cohesive or if it is boring. Just with any new compositional tactic I think that there is trial and error needed to find a way to use it that works for me. Morton Feldman is also a big influence on me and uses silence or “space” beautifully.


Silence for me is yet another color. I don’t like thinking about it too much and prefer that it comes out naturally, which, funnily enough, it does.

(Not meant as a self promotion, only wanted to give you an example of what I mean)


Thanks to @sandettie and @Alfred_Fred1 for Wandelweiser collective. I’ve never heard of it though I probably seen/heard the name of Jürg Frey probably on some flyer/newsletter but never heard anything, I’m gonna check them out.

Thanks, how could I forgot Feldman’s work!

That’s great! Your description gives me a feeling of a flow, so that leads me to think that improvisation plays a great part in your process. Is that the case?


Truth be told, it does. But now that I think about it even when I studied composition my phrasing would sometimes end on a pause. I guess I enjoy allowing the sound some space to breathe and things just be; or maybe it’s because I appreciate having unique events as musical tools. I don’t see why music needs to be continuous, unless it serves a purpose like dancing.

As I write this I’m inclined to rephrase my initial statement: silence is for me just another dynamic level. And because I really enjoy sounds that are dynamic, and I believe contrast in music is of high importance to help you construct a narrative, silence naturally emerges, as it does in every day life.

Thanks for bringing that up, I never made the association before.

PS: I guess with classical orchestration, the idea of silence, in the form of pause, is a natural phenomenon, even if the music never really stops. Instruments start and stop and on some level we might perceive that even among a continuously evolving sound. I wonder to what extent that is important :thinking:


I think that one thing to “blame” for continous sound is disconnecting sound generation from our breath. When you play wind instruments or sing you often need to stop to take breath (until you learn circular breathing :D) and they kind of feel most “natural” so sometimes I would consciously try to connect overall flow of (or at least one part) song to my breathing and this often would leave more space.
Of course this is only one dimension of silence - making phrases feel more “natural” and there is a lot of different ones like making sounds stand out in a way of contrast etc


I think it’s crucial for every musician since the body is wholly engaged in the act of playing. To limit myself to my own experience, as strange as it may sound, breathing plays a big part in playing string instruments too, as when for example having to tune a note on a fretless keyboard, bowing, articulation, dynamics…
Thanks for bringing the breathing aspect to the table, you point of view really resonates :slight_smile:


Very interesting topic !
Thanks to bring this up.

I think silence is also hard to use because it can quickly be mistaken for an accident :
In radio for exemple, if there is a silence that is to long, a default music will play (in france as far as I know)
We are used to silence being an error and sometimes I suprise myself reaching for my phone to check if the music has been paused for whatever reason, when in fact it was just a silent moment.

All of this brings to another thought: designing the silence, what sounds evoke silence ?
In the same way that tinnitus can be used in movie to signify the character is deaf
When editing sound for cinema there is always this question “réel contre vraisemblable”, what is acousticly and physically true, and what seems true throught the screen and culture/ear training with which we look at it.
So obiously for musical purpose (and synthesis in particular) drones quickly comes to mind but I think there is a lot to search for in this “silence emulation”


Some great conversation in here. I wrote this pice about silence for Electronic Sound magazine which I thought might be of interest to some of you. It focuses on some very personal issues relating to silence too


This reminded me of an old concert experience— Sigur Ros at Benaroya Hall, Seattle. There was an almost 10 second silence that was so intense. To be in a room with so many people — and no one made a sound. Feels a bit strange to say that it might be the most powerful moment/feeling I’ve ever had seeing live music.


I love using silence as a mapping in sonification. In the “The End of the Road” episode of Loud Numbers, we used a growing silence to represent the mass extinction of insect life in Denmark. The start of the track, is full of electronic chirping noises, but over the course of the song’s timeline those voices die out and you’re just left with an empty audio landscape, with field recordings of cars whooshing by.


I would say the reverbaration is a good substitute for actual silence as it gives a sense of empty space. So it’s silence by proxy.


That’s a gorgeous use of silence :sparkles:

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Working as a film sound designer I slowly developed lots of ideas to help clarify the directors intent for the soundtrack during our first spotting session, and one I used to really enjoy was I would ask them what they thought the loudest moment in the entire film would be. They would usually have no trouble identifying loud moments/scenes as they were usually based in action, and action scenes take a lot of planning & shooting…
Next I’d ask them what they thought the quietest moment might be. This often made them pause to think much harder, and I often had already come up with a few potential moments and I would pitch them, with the aim that we not just have quiet moments but aim to reach complete silence, motivated by character & emotion… And in many, many films I worked on, we found a moment of silence in the final mix. And later, reliving and experiencing that effect with an audience is so powerful.

One favourite was in a film by Gaylene Preston ‘Perfect Strangers’ (2003) and we went from the loudest moment in the film to silence across a sequence where a fishing boat is swamped at sea during a storm… It took a lot of work in the final mix to shape all the elements and slowly deconstruct the soundtrack but OMG that moment hits emotionally like a ton of bricks!

In a later film O le Tulafale (The Orator) (2011) I had some ideas about where we could push to silence but the director and I hadn’t committed to any… But the FX mixer came up with an idea and again it was near a very dramatic loud moment: the hero is digging a grave for his wife, hoping to bury her body before her family come & try to take her body back… The shot is from deep in the grave watching him work digging, and a spot of rain hits. For a moment all falls silent - no ambience, foley, nothing. (This makes the audience suddenly listen like the protagonist… what is coming?) Then one of those torrrential storms begins that you only get in the Pacific islands (they sound like a freight train!) and he proceeds to fight for his life as the grave fills with water & starts to collapse around him.

It still amuses me but many years ago I mentioned this approach in a ‘sound design’ forum and received a lot of unwanted and misguided advice and I realised people are almost afraid of silence eg “You can’t go to complete silence - people will think its a mistake” (me: FFS, no one is randomly cutting to silence. Rerecording mixers are artists and they can make anything happen, given the right resources and a director who is open to such approaches. The transition as a dense soundtrack is stripped away with a form & shape that makes emotional & story sense, is what I consider some of the best work I’ve ever been involved with)
Of course, having a brief moment of silence before an explosion is also an overused film sound technique, but for different reasons (ie briefly relieving your ear, to maximise dynamics)

But I also noticed it with music. Also many years ago I was in Japan and saw a fantastic lineup of what I considered some of the leading minimalist musicians (not Japanese) so I went to the gig with great expectations, and left somewhat disappointed: every track by every artist started, varied and ended. And at no point was silence even approached, let alone engaged. All spaces were filled. I wondered if this aversion was more a practical issue/fear live eg will people think this track is over if I place silence in it? idk.

One last anecdote: I remember reading Jim Morrison talking about The Doors and with that song When the Musics Over and how when they played it live they would keep extending the gap just before the crescendo… and the greater that gap became, the crazier the audience became…

"We want the world and we want it…


In film sound design silence is perhaps ‘easier’ to engage, as there is no master tempo telling you when the next note or bar should fall… With that Doors song, you would expect the gap to be x beats long, and extending that is potentially breaking tempo and delaying the instant gratification of a crescendo that every fan knows… powerful psyops!!