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Illustration by Maheen Eatazaz

Music Column: Special Silent Issue

From its ability to build tension to its place in the anti-art movement, silence in music can be as meaningful and sometimes more impactful than musical composition itself.

Mar 6, 2023

What does an ellipsis mean? How do you read it? Now that there are words on the page, I wonder whose voice you hear talking in your head. Yours? Mine? Your parents’? Then how does an ellipsis sound?
Maybe it sounds like… nothing. Silence. Or do you read it out loud, “dot, dot, dot” like Amanda Seyfried did in the iconic number in Mamma Mia! based on the song “Honey Honey” by ABBA? Maybe from now on you will…
Ellipses give a reader a break, a breath of air, and a place to insert oneself and reflect on how a written piece has impacted them. Silent tracks on music albums serve a similar purpose — in addition to helping with the arrangement of the tracks on the record for a better musical experience.
You may not know how often they are actually utilized. I was surprised to find out that one of my favorite albums by The Neighborhood, Wiped Out!, features a track called “A Moment of Silence.” It is just what the title says: 30 seconds of complete, uninterrupted silence. John Lennon was also a fan of silent tracks and even included a two minute one on his and Yoko Ono’s joint project Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions. Soundgarden, Wilco, Hladno pivo, Brian Eno, and even the notorious-for-being-noisy Korn have all included a silent track in some of their albums.
In classical pieces, silence is integrated within the composition. It is called a “pause.” Some even go as far as to give it the name “pregnant pause” to emphasize its intensity and tension-building qualities. I find this adjective incredibly hilarious when applied to silence, since pregnancy as a quality is everything but an allusion to nothingness. The silence in classical pieces is usually followed by an abrupt eruption of sounds, usually an all-orchestra crescendo.
Incorporated silences in popular music are also not all that rare. They are usually used to designate so-called hidden tracks. There are many reasons why an artist might choose to include a hidden track on their records. Back in the day when vinyls were the primary carrier of sound “files”, the hidden tracks were last-minute additions or a gimmick and a snippet of unfinished tracks. On the original vinyl of London Calling by The Clash, there is a hidden track because the band wrote the song after the production of their records had started. It was later added as an official song on the list. The Beatles also included many hidden tracks on their records: “Her Majesty” and “Can You Take Me Back” are probably the most iconic of them. By far, my favorite hidden track is “Blood” by My Chemical Romance, which concludes their emo-rock opera album The Black Parade.
Hidden tracks are little presents musicians leave for their most dedicated fans. They usually appear quite suddenly after a long pause, which the untrained listener might confuse for a glitch on their Spotify playlist or an unfixable wear-and-tear on a vinyl. Some artists do ask for a lot of patience from their fans. Deftones, for example, included two hidden tracks back-to-back on their 1997 album Around the Fur. The first one starts 19:31 minutes after the final song on the album, and the second starts over 12 minutes after the first hidden track has ended.
Most significantly, silence has been used by musicians who follow the anti-art movement or as protest art. Anti-art artists are often considered tasteless and talentless vagabonds. However, without them we would not be able to understand the true meaning of art: you cannot recognize the light if you have never experienced darkness. Oftentimes, anti-art pieces are more of a statement and social commentary.
And it is not unprofitable! In 2016, the band Vulfpeck earned over 20,000 USD from Spotify streams of their entirely silent album. They used the money to fund their next project and tour. At the same time, they uncovered a flaw of the Spotify program for creators’ support. The music streaming company even tried to sue the band, but its own laws and regulations acted against them.
While music is about diverse sounds coming together in perfect harmony, silence is just as important for its success. As Catholic poet Thomas Merton put it, “Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm.”
Now go listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s evergreen classic “Sound of Silence” (the cover by the metal band Disturbed is also an excellent choice).
Yana Peeva is Senior Columns Editor. Email her at
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