Those that know me in meatspace know that most of my waking hours are spent with headphones in my ears. Mostly, I’m listening to podcasts and audiobooks. Music is simply too distracting. However, when I’m in the throes of a particularly knotty creative problem, I find that I have to take a few days or even a week away from that. I need to give my mind enough space to be bored and wander off in search of novel solutions. Some research on the issue of silence bubbled up through social media recently.
A writeup at Nautilus summarizing a few studies leads me to believe I’m not alone in this regard. Studies trying to show increases in certain kinds of brain activity were linked to music ended up showing that the silent control subjects had better results than any of the musical styles tested.
In fact, two-minute silent pauses proved far more relaxing than either “relaxing” music or a longer silence played before the experiment started.
The total absence of input was having a more pronounced effect than any sort of input tested.
And of course, even in an artform constructed ostensibly of sounds, there are many opportunities for us to use silence as impactfully as any other sound.
Even though we usually think of silences as a lack of input, our brains are structured to recognize them, whenever they represent a sharp break from sounds. So the question is what happens after that moment—when silence continues, and the auditory cortex settles into a state of relative inactivity.
This is one of those many great times when something that was widely understood intrinsically is proven by science. It’s a nice reminder all the same: ignoring the space between sounds is a significant abdication of our responsibilities as composers and performers.