Listening to Silence

Last week two of my writer friends zeroed in on the same piece in the New York Times at the same moment from different vantage points. They both referred it to me, although once I’d read it I decided it may have been for different reasons. It was titled ‘The Art of Listening’ and if you missed it you can read it yourself  by clicking on the link:   http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/11/opinion/sunday/in-africa-the-art-of-listening.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

To oversimplify its themes, it states that people don’t know how to listen anymore and that it’s particularly dehumanizing because the art of storytelling is what makes us unique in the universe. The author points out that you can’t tell a story if no one is listening, and of course it’s by way of stories that we make sense of our challenging and mysterious existence. I can’t imagine taking exception to his arguments. Both the importance of stories and diminution of listening seem incontrovertible. Still it seemed to me the piece was limited by its position that listening is primarily meant for hearing what is spoken. The parable about having two ears but only one tongue makes that point crystal clear.

I resonate to the premise concerning storytelling and historical memory in relation to our humanity, but the article instantly flashed me back to past discussions I’ve had (and read) with (and by) musicians about the importance of silence; how the silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. This was Mozart’s well documented opinion as well as that of most composers of any era or genre. Just ask a jazz musician about the power of properly placed silence if you want an earful; but how very different that premise is from the first about listening better to verbal communication.

There’s a wonderful article written by a professor of music at the University of Arkansas that unfortunately can only be read in the Abstract unless you belong to the website, but for that connection just click on this link: http://jmt.dukejournals.org/content/51/2/245.abstract . It’s provocatively titled ‘Moved by Nothing; listening to Musical Silence.’ The body of the article is way beyond the scope of this blog as well as my intellectual grasp of the subject. But the abstract tantalizingly lays out the functions of silence in music with an emphasis on the difference between perceived silence and notated silence (such as a designated rest). It seems as if the context in which the silence appears affects widely divergent perceptions of meaning. Obviously the article takes active and participatory listening on the part of the audience as a given. That subject had a blog entry all its own when this Unblocked! Writer tackled the subject a few months ago in the Oct. 28th blog post entitled ‘Give and Take’ http://theunblockedwriter.com/2011/10/28/give-and-take/.

The article ‘Moved by Nothing- Listening to Musical Silence’ explores five functions of silence: “silence as boundary, silence as interruption, silence as a revealer of the inner ear, silence as a promoter of meta-listening [the ultimate] and silence as communicator.” I have no doubt that silence promotes the skill of listening at a very high level, but I’m most fascinated by the idea of silence as a communicator. Music, writing and art of all kind is surely the great communicator of our civilization, and if we need to learn how to listen to understand our humanity then there can be no doubt that listening is important; but to what? Is it only illustrative stories that we need to hear? How much is said in silence? What can we hear there? I suspect that learning to listen to the silence between the notes and the words is the most important thing we can do. Of course that’s impossible if we don’t stop filling everything up with noise. The art of listening to silence is one most of us have never learned, but it’s a skill we could all use; especially this time of year.

We welcome you to the conversation! Please share your thoughts.