Silent night

Silence is close to noise in its effects. In his study of a Paris housing estate, the sociologist Jean- François Augoyard reports the experiences of people inside an elevator: “Dramatic evocations are set in gear on the basis of noises.” Noises invoke haunted castles, but “the most dramatic images arise with the halt of the noise, at the point where one no longer knows whether one is moving or if one is stuck.”

Rustic structure in a field
Deer Shelter at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2006, by James Turrell: "a calm space for quiet contemplation"

Silences bounded either side by noise are even more potent that silences alone, as are noises interspersed with silence. Silences have boundaries, which contribute substantially to their character. For film theorist Michel Chion, the impression of silence in a film requires preparation. It is the result of the contrast to a previous very loud moment: “Silence is never a neutral emptiness.”

The composer John Cage reinforces the point that “there is no such thing as silence,” often paraphrased as “silence is not nothing.” Absence is noisy and ambiguous. After all, it is a trivial truth that there are more things that can be off screen at any moment than in the frame.

Eavesdroppers picking up on someone’s conversation on a mobile phone have to infer from only half of the conversation what the other party is saying, which is to say, to discriminate from a range of possible remarks. Mobile phone conversations are experienced vicariously as so many bounded silences.

Think of silence not as nothing but as so much white noise containing every possible signal. Here silence is a bit like space: full of potential, given character by what bounds it, and is elusive in isolation.

All is calm, yet all is bright.


  • Augoyard, Jean-François. 2007. Step by Step: Everyday Walks in a French Urban Housing Project. Trans. D. A. Curtis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. First published in French in 1979.
  • Cage, John. 1968. Silence: Lectures and Writings. London: Marion Boyars.
  • Chion, Michel. 1994. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Trans. C. Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press.


  1. chelseyf says:

    The realm of silence is an interesting one, but for me it raises the question of whether or not we ever really experience silence in a true form. Perhaps because my ears are accustomed to a continual stream of noises, when I do encounter ‘silent’ spaces, I seem to hear a residual ringing in my ears, as though to compensate for the lack of actual sound vibrations. Likewise, I become all the more conscious of my own breathing; if I put on noise cancelling headphones, my pulse echoes like a drum in my ears, and the sound of swallowing takes on vast proportions.

    The research described in the video on this , interesting in its own right, makes use of an “anechoic” room that has been specifically created to eliminate as much sound as possible: Dr. Damien Murphy explains that “The walls are…designed to absorb as much sound energy as possible, so that no reflections come back into the room and all you’re hearing is the direct sound between me speaking and you listening.” The implication of this special physical, constructed space is that complete silence is not a naturally occurring phenomenon.

    Does this mean that silence is internal (in our minds) as much as it is external? We observe and recognize the ‘silence’ in a film, though we continue to receive the sound waves from the ambient noise of crinkling chocolate wrappers and crunching popcorn. Is this the same as what happens when, as we take a photo of our friend, our focus is so intent upon the subject of our gaze that all else falls away, ‘preventing’ us from seeing the tree erupting from behind her head?

    Perhaps our perception of silence is contingent more upon our mental state, our ability to focus, than on external stimuli. Even if we have the opportunity to eavesdrop on a phone conversation, do we always? Is it not possible to find internal spaces of silence from which we ‘shut out’ the sound of the world around us? On the flip side of this, can’t a quiet place go unrecognized as such due to the clamour of our mental dialogue?

    I can certainly agree with Cage’s statement of “there is no such thing as silence,” and upon consideration, it is difficult for me to envision or comprehend silence as merely absence any longer.

  2. stelladdm says:

    According to a Greek quote “Silence means intimacy”. This means that when two people know each other very well they sometimes do not need words to express their feeling or thoughts. Silence is an integral part of the conversation between people and it can have several meanings. I believe that nowadays, we don not manage silence appropriately. Silence presupposes that we provide attention to someone else. We need silence to think about what we heard. Do we allow this to happen?or are we so absorbed by our problems that we cannot actually pay attention on what other people say?When we create these silent moments the communication becomes better, because the things you say are often so important as the things you don’t say.

  3. I agree with Stella. And I find quoting a really good idea! Let’s see the following proverbs:

    “You talk to your silence” (Greece)
    “Silence is mute” (Greece)
    “Silence is gold” (Greece)
    “The one who has obedient tongue, usually clams up” (Greece)
    “Our parents teach us to speak, while the world teaches us to be silent” (Czech Republic)
    “One is silent because he has nothing to say, while another one because he is thinking” (Leo Tolstoy)
    “If two chatter, don’t be the third” (Turkey)
    “Words are the seeds of a fight” (Nepal)
    “Best be silent if you don’t have a cannon” (India)

    In all the aforementioned proverbs, we can discover at least two approaches of silence. According to the first one, silence has a negative sign, because it reveals lack of opinion, total obedience, or oppression.

    According to the second approach, silence matches to a mature, wise and prudent mind. Here, silence is not a pause. It is an inner dialogue with one’s self. A reconsideration or an evaluation of what is interpreted and of what should be told.

    Furthermore, silence could be a clear feedback, a means of communication. Sometimes, silence is the only way to communicate strong emotions.

  4. lyyda says:

    The silence for many times is intimately related to noise and the two seem a pair of paradox. The silence use in movie and ads often play the role on emphasis. Silence is intense and mysterious, otherworldly … something narration can never be. Pure silence can be symbolized as an absence. By itself it is nothingness. When juxtaposed against an image it becomes something; a statement, a knock, an announcement… in other words, a matting for the coming. Oppositely, if the movie needs to build a silent scene, it uses some special sounds to contrast the sense of silence. For example, the peaceful might, quiet to death, there’s some slight cricket sound or the friction sound of the leaves. Consequently the silence turns to noise and noise turns to silence.

  5. ddm-Tana says:

    In my opinion, there is no pure silence; we never experience the utter silence as well. When we stay in a quiet room and we cannot hear any sound from outside. But in such case, although we don’t move, we can still hear clearly our sounds of breathe, or heartbeat, or pulse. So, in fact, we never actually feel silence at all. The noise always company with the silence. In terms of noise, what is noise? I consider the concepts of noise could be diverse. Personally, the noise can be divided into many types according to different occasion. For example, when a woman felt very sad and frustrated, the cheerful music, which is melodious for people, but would be noise for her. However, once somebody owns a peaceful heart, whatever noises (such as hubbub, whistle, or street noises) could not affect his or her emotion. Thus, defining the silence is the same difficult and complicated as the noise. There is no pure silence in form only; it depends on different person or different situations.

  6. Xi Ge says:

    I quite agree with chelseyf’s question of whether we ever experience silence in a true form. I personally have similar feelings when the noise around halts: I can hear myself. I can hear my own heart beating or breath literally. Or sometimes I can feel that I hear the noise in my mind which matches what I see, even though what I see is mute. Besides, even if we human beings don’t hear, it doesn’t mean there is no sound. Other animals can hear or it can be heard through advanced devices. To me “silence” itself is an existence. It’s a little bit like the concept of “emptiness”. When we say “empty”, we actually imply that something is there, or a boundary is implied.

    Speaking of silence in film, in a lecture about sound and film I had, the lecturer said that there is very few case of real “silent” scene in films, because sound or noise always get in in shooting or post-production stage accidentally or not. One, or maybe the most, famous “true silent” scene is in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the astronaut is floating in the outer space. As she spoke of that scene, I immediately remembered that scene and hold my breath — exactly what I did when I watched the scene in the film. The silence there made me feel that I should stop everything, even inside of me, to experience it. It may be the closest feeling of a silence in a true form I have had.

  7. Zongping Shi says:

    China has the “Silence is gold” proverb as well.

    I agree with Stella about the silence can have several meanings. I consider the moment when I’m alone and don’t speak also as silence, because even I’m alone, sometimes I talk to myself. Just as now I’m writing this comment with music but I also call it silence. You can’t get 100% absolute silence in this world, I don’t know how it works if people are deaf, but as long as you are not deaf, no way. I remember when I was a kid, one day during the dinner all the sudden I wanted to know how it feels with no sound surrounding you so I asked my parents to stop talking and explored that feeling with me. However, it didn’t work that well. I still could hear something, something really small and subtle. Therefore, since then I think that maybe we can only explore the pure silence in a perfect vacuum. To me, silence can mean intimacy, an intimate moment of me when I’m alone all by myself, and the silence moments with those people you are intimate with.

  8. Yi Yang DDM says:

    In my opinion, the boundaries of silence are divided by people’s subjective sense. You can imagine such a scene, one evening the sky is clear, the moon is at its full, you are walking in the streets and watching the stars. At this moment, you feel it is a silent environment. The same situation for another person, he may be more emphasis on people and cars coming and going, so he believes the street is a collection place of the noise, it is no longer a silent environment. Listening to musics when doing the homework, you may feel this is a perfect model to calm you down and make you feel relax to learn well. However, the person who sit next you may don’t like this approach to learning. In his mind, music is a kind of noise that can disturb the environment of learning. So people have different understandings of the meaning of silence. My understand is that any silence environment is just relatively silence. It can be space range of silence. The noise is small enough around the ear so that people will ignore. It also can be an individual psychological one. When a person have a silent heart, he can ignore the outside world temporarily, ignore the impact of environment and consider himself in a silent atmosphere.

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