We all know what silence means. Yet how many of us have experienced it? Since pure silence is an ideal, we tend to use the term to mean something a bit less exact. We could say that a “working silence” is a relational state: we consider our surroundings to be silent if they are significantly quieter than what we are used to.
Most people aren’t hankering after actual silence – that is, the complete absence of sound – but something a little more complex and subtle. We want to capture something of the essence. If we interpret silence like this, then it can be found in such places as the dead of night, the solemnity of a place of worship, the middle of a cornfield or at the end of a speech before the applause.
Silence embodies a much richer place in our imagination than simply the absence of sound. It suggests something wholesome and special – reverential, sacred even; a special place of stillness, calm and peace. That’s if we’re expecting it. If we’re not, sudden silence can be the opposite – strange and uncomfortable. These random silences can creep into our everyday world and take on a deeper resonance, and the way we relate to them will often tell us something about ourselves.
Many listen to the radio to “keep them company” when they are alone, to relieve the boredom of driving or to add some interest while gardening or doing chores. When the radio goes unexpectedly quiet, the lack of noise can be unnerving and in some cases even ominous. These unplanned blips are known as “dead air”, and they cause much consternation among radio producers and listeners. When Radio 4 unexpectedly went down during an evening broadcast of Midweek in 2012, a tweeter wondered whether nuclear war had broken out.
Unplanned silences in live performances can be even more uncomfortable. At a recent concert the audience sat in its seats waiting for the music to start – the seconds passed. The silence became palpable. Was there some problem? A creak as an audience member sat back in their chair. What was the conductor waiting for? This slightly prolonged silence had the effect of heightening the tension, so that everyone’s ears were straining for that first chord. Perhaps this was the intention of the conductor, or he might just have been listening for the perfect silence in which to start the piece.
Unmanaged silences, however, can make us acutely uneasy. This is especially the case when an actor dries up on stage. Actors report that the fear of forgetting their lines is the theme of many of their dreams. This may be because it taps into some of our deepest fears. Radio silence can suggest that the world as we know it is disintegrating. To a lesser extent, when we watch a play we agree to suspend our disbelief, so if an actor forgets their lines we are forced to quickly “re-surface” from the world that we have immersed ourselves in.
These kinds of experiences show us how powerful silence can be when we’re unable to control it. When we are confronted with it we can take note of our own response and learn from that. In a brief moment, the absence of expected noise can cut through all of our assumptions about the way our world works and throw everything into doubt. Perhaps this is because in the back of our minds we know that silence has some kind of association with the bigger aspects of life. Silence heralds transcendence, the dissolution of the ego and, ultimately, death. Learning to accept those ideas is no small task.