Silence in Music

Music critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim has an interesting piece in today’s New York Times, concerning silence in music. It is called “How Silence Makes the Music” and she takes us through historical examples, most of which are illustrated with snippets from classical recordings.

She writes the following:

As social beings, we are hard-wired to interpret breaks in the flow of human communication. We recognize the pregnant pause, the stunned silence, the expectant hush. A one-beat delay on an answer can reveal hesitation or hurt, or play us for laughs. A closer listen shows musical silence to be just as eloquent.

I don’t think anyone can argue against this observation. The reason I bring it up in this forum, however, is that I think sometimes we sin against the artful use of silence in liturgy — in music and in the ritual itself.

To be clear, I am not talking about advocating silence in order to minimize or to exclude congregational song and spoken responses in the liturgy, but rather the use of silence that complements sound and completes it.

Silence has a role in music of all kinds. As da Fonseca-Wollheim observes:

In Japanese music, the term “ma” suggests the space in between sounds that a performer must master. Debussy wrote that the music is not in the notes, but in the spaces between them. In a similar vein, Miles Davis said, “It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”

Attention to “the notes you don’t play” can benefit liturgy as well. Yet we don’t always make room for it, or appreciate how important this feature is. Here are a few examples of how we sometimes get it wrong:

  • Timing and pacing is rarely taught to lectors.
  • Presiders may barrel through prayers, without attention to pauses.
  • Is “Let us pray” followed by a measured silence in which to carry out that instruction?
  • Impatience with silent prayer in the assembly often reflects the rushed and noisy atmosphere in which people live their everyday lives. Some may even start chatting or looking at their phones if there’s a silence.
  • Thus there can be a subtle pressure on liturgical musicians and worship leaders to “fill up the space” and “get on with it.”
  • Music accompanying a liturgical action should never merely be “wallpaper” — background music, covering a blank. It should have integrity as music; it should be an artful improvisation using both sound and silence to convey its message.

As with so many things in liturgy: habit and expectations play a role. Once expectations have been set to expect a continuous stream of sound, there is a lurking suspicion that silence means something must have gone wrong.

We all know what an awkward silence feels like. Sometimes things have gone wrong! But the best case scenario is one in which we experience the rhythm of the liturgy, and the arrangement of the music, as an artful combination of sound and silence that has gone profoundly right, and we are included in its movement.

At the conclusion of her article, da Fonseca-Wallheim has an interesting observation, namely that silences within music promote active participation in the music.

What unites music’s negative spaces — whether they are designed for comedy, drama or mysticism — is their power to propel the listener from the role of passive consumer to active participant. As in a limerick recited with the last word missing, the brain jumps in to complete the rhyme.

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, who directs the music cognition lab at Princeton University, writes of “episodes of meta-listening” where composers bring listening habits to the surface “weaving this into the fabric of the aesthetic object.”

What are the factors that make a beneficial silence, a “silence that makes the music” so to speak, more readily available in our liturgical practice? I would say there are a few: consistent habits and patterns that model it, ministry training and pastoral leadership that support it, and respect for the aesthetic elements that help the liturgy to achieve its purpose.


  1. “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them.” (some version of this is most often attributed to Debussy).

    The surrounding culture truly does have an aversion to silence, witnessed by the relentless presence of some sort of sonic input in nearly every moment of many people’s lives.

    Layer on top of this the overall devaluation of music – instrumentalists (vs. singers) know this particularly well – by its omnipresence. Very nearly every environment has become an elevator, complete with its own inane soundtrack. In liturgy, many times instrumental music being played is interpreted as a cue for the conversation to begin.

    It seems some sort of focus on intentionality – intentional silence (vs. the mere absence of sound) and intentional listening – is needed to successfully incorporate silence and an appreciation of the various sonics of liturgy into people’s prayer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *