Looking at Listening

Music and the mind

The Surprising Power of Silence

Why the most powerful moments in your favorite songs may be the quietest.

It’s easy to think of moments in our favorite music that are silent, but expressively powerful: that second before a classical pianist puts her hands on the keyboard; the stop taken by a rock band just before a song's climax. Competing lists vie to chronicle the best musical pauses of all time—Jennifer Egan even wrote a book inspired by their power.

People seem to generally agree that the right pause at the right time can knock our socks off.

Eugene Sergeev/Shutterstock
Musical pauses can also help us understand what listeners are doing when they listen to music. If there’s a two-second pause in one song that we hardly notice and a two-second pause in another that blows our mind, then we know that listening isn’t just a matter of passively receiving the most recent acoustic event: in each case, the most recent event was two seconds of nothing at all.

Instead, responses to pauses help show us that musical listening is actually quite active, with listeners listening ahead and making predictions about what might come next. If a pause happens when listeners are expecting it—at the end of a phrase, for example—they might hardly notice, but if the same pause occurs at a surprising moment—midphrase, just before the climax, on a downbeat—listeners might find chills creeping down their backs.

In 2007, I ran a study of participants who hadn’t had any formal musical training—exactly the type of people who normally swear they don’t know anything about music. But their responses to musical pauses showed that they know a lot more than they think. In the experiment, participants pressed buttons when pauses began and ended; moved a slider to increase perceptions of dynamic fluctuations in tension and relaxation as the music (and pauses) progressed; and estimated they length of the pauses they’d heard.

Despite the fact these listeners were generally unfamiliar with the notion of tonal closure, their responses revealed that it played a large role in their perceptions. Broadly speaking, tonal closure involves a return to the tonic—the home note of the current key. When a pause followed tonal closure, people took longer to register that a silence had started—it was so expected as to be almost invisible. But when a pause preceded tonal closure, people were startled, and able to report right away that a silence had happened.

When a pause occurred before tonal closure, people also reported experiencing the silence as tense and expressively fraught. They even thought it lasted longer than it really had.

Because they’re empty of sound, these silent periods are excellent windows into the active and predictive engagement listeners sustain within pieces of music. This engagement continues beyond the pauses, characterizing the way even people without any formal training process music. But it’s the silent moments that show us how powerful tonal adventures can be—powerful enough to make even silence musical.

 

Margulis, E.H. (2007). Silences in music are musical not silent: An exploratory study of context effects on the experience of musical pauses. Music Perception, 24, 485-506. 

Elizabeth Margulis is Director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas and author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind.

 

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