Number of musical instruments

How silence can make your sound more powerful

Imagine the sound of a baby laughing. Now, a baby crying. The calm bubbling of a gently flowing stream of water, and a harrowing thunderstorm. All of these sounds are vividly different, and they each illicit some sort of emotional response. The laughter, joy; the crying, sadness (irritation for some); the babbling brook, calmness; and the storm, fear. These are just a few examples from a seemingly endless catalogue of sounds our world has to offer, but what about the opposite of these, the absence of sound?

Imagine you are somehow able to float freely, and safely in the vacuum of space, what sound do you think you would hear? As Paul Simon so poetically phrased in his 1964 hit, this is the sound of silence.

Thinking of silence as a “sound” can be a tricky thought process, as it is actually the lack of sound, but in the pro-audio industry, many of us thrive on thinking differently, and we can employ silence in our work in a variety of unique and meaningful ways. This isn’t limited to any specific format in the audio field either. Silence can be used mindfully in music composition, sound design, recording, mixing, and even live performance.

Let’s start with sound designed specifically for film.

When you watch a movie, you might think your eyes are doing most of the work. In reality, what you hear accompanying the video is just as important. For example, many horror films use staccato-like violin or synth strikes for jumpscares, preceded with just foley sounds, or even silence. The next time you watch this type of scene in a film, mute the audio before the jumpscare occurs, and you will find yourself much less frightened. Although the fast, loud sound contributes to the sudden shock in your brain, what helps to built the tension leading up to the scare is in fact the lack of sound all together. The viewer’s eyes take over the senses, their ears quickly adapt to the silence, and out of nowhere a loud strike of music cuts in, effectively shocking the brain. This same technique can be applied in video games, animation, and various other digital media, including music.

For as long as music has been composed, silence has been used as a mode of transportation within the sheets of scores. It is so prevalent in fact, it even has an official name. Within a score, symbols called rests and tacets are used to indicate silence in music theory. In classical music especially, silence can be used to drive the music forward, highlighting certain instruments, melodies, and harmonies over others, and then reintroducing a different music idea where the silence once was. In 1952, famous experimental composer John Cage wrote a piece called 4’33” (Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds) that instructed the performer to enter the stage, seat themselves at the piano bench, place the music on the piano, and turn the pages as usual, but not play any music at all for exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Even by today’s standards, this would be enough to make an entire audience uncomfortable. Amidst the silence, one may expect to hear coughing, shuffling of shoes and paper, quiet whispers, and perhaps even doors opening and closing. This was exactly what Cage intended. He wanted the audience to become the music, and what better setting than that of a solo piano performance. In a way, the performer becomes the audience, and the audience the performer.

The use of silence is not limited to classical music however, and one of my favorite examples is in Jazz and Hip-Hop. Legendary drummer Steve Gadd once said, “Fills bring the thrills, but grooves pay the bills.” In rhythmic music, grooves, or pockets, are terms for rhythmic timing between the beats. Rather than sticking to an exact, perfectly timed metronome, aficionados are known to turn off the click track, and play what feels right and gets people nodding their head. When talking about pockets and grooves, I have to mention one of the greatest drum programmers of all time, James “J Dilla” Yancey. Real hip hop heads know how big of a deal Dilla was (and still is) but that is for a different blog entirely. He was known for his swinging drums that he exclusively played by hand on his MPC. Just as much as he was manipulating the beats themselves, he was manipulated the space between them, reducing and increasing the lack of sound! In my head, I visualize this idea with little ying and yang symbols. He was also very well known for using breaks (not drum breaks) at various points in his music. For example at the end of an 8 bar loop, at the 7.25 bar mark, he might cut all the music, or just leave the bassline, making for a greater impact on the listener when the loop would repeat. If you are new to J Dilla, go listen to “Big City” as fast as you can!

Sound in games

So now that we have briefly covered silence in film and music, it’s only right to touch on the ultimate interactive culmination of all the art forms, video games! While video games are able to utilize silence in ways similar ways to the aforementioned examples in film and music, one element is different, and that is you, the player! One genre of video games that is a perfect case study for moments of silence, is in character controlled RPG’s, and to be even more specific, those which are stealth-based. In the Hitman series, you play as Agent 47, a freelance contract killer who utilizes silence to complete his missions. While in “sneak mode” 47, is able to skulk about the area, making a nearly untraceable audible footprint, and foreign sounds are amplified. This gives him the element of surprise, especially when sneaking up behind an unsuspecting guard. In some games, like the Witcher or Tomb Raider series, in which you play as monster-hunter “Geralt” or world explorer “Lara Croft”, respectively, players are granted a special ability that heightens awareness, and can silence unwanted noise. In the Witcher, this ability is known as Geralt’s “Witcher Sense”, and this skill drowns out extra background noise (like flowing water or wind blowing through forest trees), and can help to progress the player through the game, or help Geralt detect nearby bloodthirsty creatures.

In short

No matter the medium, using silence within your audio can be an effective method at conveying a certain emotion or vibe. As interesting and the lack of sound can be, it is important to use this technique tastefully, and in such a way that it compliments your sound design or music. Now is the time when I would encourage you to go to the studio and get to work, but perhaps you need help with audio for your game or film. Luckily, sound and music is one of the many services we offer at Max Louis Creative. As the audio department expert at MLC, I can personally guarantee our customer’s satisfaction. Having worked on various shipped games and other forms of digital media, I have a lot of experience not only creating sounds and music, but also working directly with clients to capture their vision and translating it into audio. Be sure to check out our sound design and music services, and let’s get your project sounding pro!

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