The Power of Silence
Music in your mind
Julie Jaffee Nagel, Ph.D.
Music is not a verbal language. Yet music can speak to us. The nonverbal notes that comprise the vocabulary of music convey multiple messages. The many functions of music enable us to feel both elevating and disquieting emotions simultaneously and can allow us to put feelings into words that may not have been verbalized previously. Interestingly, unlike words which are spoken one at the time, music allows us to feel many things at once. Music speaks to us and allows us to speak.
Music is comprised of a number of elements that contribute to its communicative power. Notes are its metaphorical alphabet and there are fewer of them in the scale than the 26 letters that make up the written alphabet. Also when talking about the specific qualities of music besides the notes that allow it to speak, we think of the formal elements rhythm, harmony, phrasing, dynamics, and melody.
Music can provide accompaniment as well as accompany and enhance important life events such as weddings, funerals, parties, and official ceremonies. It intensifies the mood in movies and is played as background noise, in varying decibels, in places such as restaurants, department or grocery stores, coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and elevators. Music is everywhere if we tune into it both inside and outside our minds.
Music can evoke a variety of moods. Think of a favorite song or composition. Don't focus on the words, but let the music resonate in your mind for a few minutes. The sounds you hear in your head can result in you feeling happy, sad, energetic, calm, agitated, and many other emotions. These emotions may be tied to other events in your life that the music evokes. Music can help you feel what you cannot articulate.
Music can also function as a beloved object, similar a child's teddy bear or beloved blankie, to provide comfort. Just think of a lullaby or a favorite love song. I have heard patients talk about music this way this over many years in my clinical practice. Out of sight is neither out of mind nor out of earshot.
But what about the spaces between the notes - the silences? For the infant as well as the adult, sound can be threatening or soothing, creating tension and/or relief. Mother's voice ideally becomes associated with gratification, tension reduction, and pleasure, while silence (and/or certain noises) may be threatening and anxiety producing, and may evoke, by extension, abandonment and aloneness.
Conversely, mother and father can be responsive to or ignore their child's earliest nonverbal gurgles, coos, and cries, thereby establishing a foundation for psychic attunement to intimacy and safety, on the one hand, or anxiety and danger, on the other. Following a long pause in her session, one of my patients recounted, " I get anxious when it is silent here . . . a song in my head eases anxiety."
Unlike silence, mother's or father's voice - and, by extension, fantasies about the analyst's voice - can be loud and frightening. Such was the case for this patient, who feared her father's explosive temper and his thunderous voice, highlighting the various meanings inherent in sounds as well as words.
A column by Maureen Dowd in the December 7, 2011 New York Times is titled "Silence is Golden". (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/07/opinion/dowd-silence-is-golden.html) . Dowd writes about a new film, "The Artist", a silent movie at the Cannes Film Festival. It is poignant to read that some teenagers thanked the screenwriter, Michel Hazanavicius for "letting me (them) hear the silence....it was touching to discover that these young people, always with their iPods, could like real silence" ( to read full article see New York Times, 12/7/11, p. A 31).
What are you listening to today?
Julie Jaffee Nagel, Ph.D. is a psychologist-psychoanalyst in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is a graduate of The Juilliard School with a major in piano performance and a minor in stage fright. She is also a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute. Nagel publishes and presents on the topics of performance anxiety and music and emotion. Visit her website at julienagel.net.