The power of silence

Lips

A record by the Royal British Legion featuring only silence is hoping to beat Take That to the number one spot this week. It reflects the immense power that - for many people - silence can wield, if only we stopped to listen.

Stop.

Close your eyes.

Take a deep breath.

Shut out the world around you.

Those moments when you are immersed in quietness are all too rare in today's world.

Noise pollution is a companion to modern life, with traffic, ringtones and other people's conversations providing the soundtrack to our daily routines.

Silent contributors to Legion

David Tennant
  • Actors David Tennant (above), Bob Hoskins, Peter Capaldi
  • Musicians Thom Yorke, Bryan Ferry, Alex James, Mark Ronson, Bruce Dickinson, Saturdays, Plan B, DJ Nihal, Gaz
  • Prime Minister David Cameron
  • Sport's Martin Johnson, Ian Wright, Andy Murray, Stuart Broad
  • Comedy's Jack Dee, Jimmy Carr, Paul O'Grady
  • Corporal Simon Brown, shot in the face by a sniper in Iraq

But at this time of year, when the echoes of the bangs and fireworks of the calendar's noisiest festival have only just passed, it's the absence of noise that takes centre stage.

On Thursday, Armistice Day, the nation will fall silent for two minutes at 11am and recall the moment the bombs stopped in 1918. Many will also respect a silence on Sunday.

This sombre reflection is probably the most famous expression of silence in British society, and it will have an even stronger resonance this year.

This week, the Royal British Legion released a single called 2 Minute Silence, which is competing for top spot in Sunday's Top 40 with Take That's first record since their reunion, The Flood. The Legion's video features noiseless contributions from some famous figures.

The Legion's director general, Chris Simpkins, said he hoped people would appreciate the significance of the absence of sound.

"Rather than record a song, we felt the UK public would recognise the poignancy of silence and its clear association with remembrance."

But silence need not be sad or contemplative. It has many powerful functions, depending on the circumstances. Here is a selection. Add some more using the form at the foot of the page.

PROTEST

The web-based Cage Against the Machine campaign aims to put a work of silence on top of the Christmas charts.

John Cage's most famous work, entitled 4'33 and made up of three movements in which the musicians are instructed not to play their instruments, is an attempt to hold off the X Factor winner from its anticipated slot, as was achieved in 2009 by a somewhat noisier Rage Against The Machine track.

Start Quote

John Cage

The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence”

End Quote Composer John Cage

It may be a playful exercise, but according to Guardian classical music critic and presenter of BBC Radio 3's Music Matters Tom Service, it is fully in keeping with Cage's reasons for creating the track.

Service says the composer was, in part, reacting against post-war America's inescapable soundtrack of muzak.

Nothing, after all, is more terrifying to radio producers than the prospect of "dead air", and nor has any other musician presented a starker contrast with the noise of modern urban life.

"In the world we live in, it's really quite a subversive thing to do because you never really get silence otherwise," observes Service.

"In fact, what you're listening to isn't silence - it's background noise, and Cage is asking us to focus on it rather than block it out.

"It's a radically simple idea and it cuts across our notions of what is music. Cage Against the Machine makes perfect sense."

HEALING

On 24 February 2007, the Ireland rugby team hosted England at Dublin's Croke Park, in one of the most emotionally charged sporting fixtures in recent years.

The stadium, home to the Gaelic games, was the scene of Bloody Sunday in 1920, when British forces opened fire on the crowd watching a match, killing 14 spectators and players.

England rugby team A respectful silence greeted England in Dublin

There was much talk in the build-up to the match about what kind of reception England would get, and how God Save The Queen would be treated in an arena strongly associated with anti-British enmity of the past.

Writing in the Times on the day after Ireland thrashed England on the pitch, columnist Simon Barnes said the short silence before the British national anthem was so well respected, and emotional, that it was transformative for the Irish nation.

"It [the national anthem] was preceded by a silence that was almost reverent - not in respect of the sentiments of that terse and tuneless ditty but because freeing oneself from the shackles of history is worth a moment's savouring.

"Then the tune was played and the England team and the 7,000 England supporters sang along, and there was not a whistle or a catcall or a boo. Why should there be? This was just sport, was it not?

"Then, extraordinarily, a round of applause; not for the song but for the silence, the palpable feeling that the end of an era was being celebrated."

WORSHIP

Start Quote

If you go back 200 years into a rural society, people would see being quiet as normal. Now, it's as if people have acquired an aversion to silence”

End Quote Father Christopher Jamison Worth Abbey, West Sussex

Silence has long been recognised by religious groups as a key component of an ascetic path to spirituality, founded on a belief that denial offers spiritual focus.

The recent BBC programme The Big Silence - in which five volunteers were sent to a Jesuit retreat in for over a week, and only allowed to talk for an hour a day - brought the practice to broader attention.

In Christianity, some orders of monks take vows of silence. Others, such as Trappists, only speak when it is deemed necessary.

Hindus also have wise ascetics called munis, or silent ones.

To those who practise worship in this way, the power of keeping quiet relies on the opportunity it creates for contemplation.

Kim Nataraja of the World Community for Christian Meditation says silence offers a pointed retreat from the noise, bustle and distractions of modern society.

"We need to rediscover the power of attention and we do that through silence - the concentration that we use in prayer can be used in everyday life," she says.

"The intuitive knowledge that lives in silence helps us deal with life's surprises. If you are silent that allows you to be fully attentive to who you are."

MENACE

Pauses became such a hallmark of playwright Harold Pinter that they even get a mention in the Oxford English Dictionary under the term "Pinterism".

The Nobel prize winner made a short silence as loaded with meaning as the lines themselves, elevating it from being a gap in conversation to an important dramatic tool.

A Pinter pause - typically about 10 seconds - could convey a range of emotions. It commonly amplified a sense of menace by ratcheting up the dramatic tension in an exchange.

These silences were also capable of fear, rage, indecision or introspective trauma. Each break in dialogue, sometimes mid-sentence, became an important aspect of character.

Pinter's pausometer

  • Betrayal 140
  • The Caretaker 149
  • The Homecoming 224

Pinter himself said too much was made of them, but director Sir Peter Hall said the pauses in Pinter's work are all there for a reason. Three dots is hesitation, he remarked, a pause is a mundane crisis and a silence a full-blown crisis.

"Beckett started it and Harold took it over to express that which is inexpressible in a very original and particular way, and made them something which is his."

Michael Billington, theatre critic of the Guardian, says: "Pinter carefully orchestrated his plays with pauses and silences and, if you observe what he wrote, the plays acquire their own rhythm and music.

"What he disliked was productions that arbitrarily inserted pauses and sacrificed the natural moment of his dialogue."

COMMUNICATION

Silence is not just the absence of sound, it is an important way of communicating. It can denote agreement, disapproval, intimacy, power - any number of emotions and feelings.

Just like the spoken word, it fulfils the basic functions of language - the referential, interpersonal and textual - says Professor Adam Jaworski, author of The Power of Silence.

"Where it does most is in the interpersonal area. It is often associated with the negative actions of communication and implies concealment, but we often need to use it this way to protect ourselves.

"However, silence also speaks of intimacy, love and security for people. It's a hugely important role of silence. Good friends can be together and be silent, people who aren't good friends find silence uncomfortable."

Another important thing that silence communicates is power. People in authority can regulate speech and silence. They can nominate when a person talks and when they don't. Those who are subordinate often stay silent until spoken to.

RESPECT

Watch a clip from the 2 Minute Silence video

Silence has been used as a collective show of respect for many years, but it really became part of British life in the early 20th century, says Professor Jaworski. This is probably because it was a time when national identities became very important.

Records show a period of silence in remembrance of King Edward VII, when he died in 1910. One was also held after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. But the practice of using silence to remember the dead was firmly established on 11 November 1919 - the first two-minute commemorative silence on Armistice Day.

It's thought the idea was first proposed by Australian journalist and World War I veteran, Edward George Honey. It led King George V to order a two- minute silence, saying "all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead".

Now silence is commonly used to show respect after many high-profile deaths and tragedies. This is because it is collective, it involves everyone and can be done in unison, says Professor Jaworski.

"It is a ritual and as such provides a safe script for people to express extreme emotions. People know the conventions and know how to behave. Also, it is a way of saying 'there are no words that are fitting to say how we feel about this'."

Below is a selection of your comments

As part of a theology course (on spirituality) I was required to go on a one day silent retreat. I was amazed at what changes can occur when we listen to our inner self and what rewards are there to discover if only we are willing to take that first step forward into silence. I came out thinking, location (where am I), vocation (what am I/could be) and salvation (God loves me)

Peter Beamon, Loughborough

My wife and I went camping to Shropshire in the summer, staying on a remote farm near the Welsh borders. For us both, the most noticeable thing was the complete absence of human-generated noise. Sure, there were sheep and rooks and other birds and the rustle of wind in the trees. The natural noises only added to the sense of beauty and peace that being away from fellow humans can engender. It was probably the most peaceful and relaxing time either of us has had for many years. The absence of light at night was a second joy.

Brian Randall, Wymondham, Norfolk

I live in a place where silence or near silence is the norm. Over the years I have come to embrace it. To travel out into the greater world is oftentimes disturbing; I am distressed with what has become an acceptable noise level for society. I'm not some sort of feral creature, alone on a mount, shouting controversy theories to the wind. I travel extensively; the business of travel is the worst offender of noise pollution. The incessant CNN-blaring TV screens in every American airport drive me to despair. I have come to believe that fear of silence is a fear of being alone.

Linda Foy, Montana, US

As a teacher, I use silence as a tool to gain attention in the classroom - much more effective than shouting.

Claire Lilley, London

I work in an open-plan office with about 20 other people. When we have the two minutes silence the effect is astonishing. There is no talking but more than that, there is no movement, no typing, no printer sounds. The air-con suddenly sounds really loud, but the rest of the air-space is filled with silence. It isn't an absence of sound - it's a presence of silence - you can almost feel it. I love it. I only wish we could experience true (almost) quiet more often.

Sandy Fox, Derby

Silence is one of the most powerful tools in society. If you are ever in an argument and someone is shouting and not letting you talk. Try just stopping completely. Count in your head to five or ten seconds and it will completely disarm them. It also can bring a heated situation down a degree or two. Remember facial expressions and eye contact are important in using silence in this way though. Depending on the look on your face, you can either be disarming a situation, or ratcheting up the aggression. Look thoughtful or in contemplation, not aggressive.

Dom, Cardiff

The last time I experienced real silence was in an examination hall. No mobile phone call drivel, techno headphone backwash, ludicrous loud ringtones, dull and dim conversations. Just the distant muted hum of traffic and occasional dropped pen or pencil. I was able to relax into the silence and concentrate on the flow of recently crammed knowledge from me to the paper! Bliss.

David Nicholson, Lewes, E Sussex

I was at Wembley stadium for the first England international shortly after the Hilsborough tragedy. A two minute silence was held before the game and not a single noise emitted from the 80,000 plus crowd, a newspaper described it as "a silence that was deafening". There is something amazingly powerful when so many people, together, stop, stay silent to simultaneously say "we care".

Gary Wallis, London, UK

As a deaf person who lives in 'silence', I am reading this and wondering what all the fuss is about. But in hindsight, hearing people's worlds are obsessed by the aesthetics and intrusion of sound - as a deaf person, it is like watching a hive of bees reacting to a stimuli you can't see or hear. I agree, I think hearing people need to pull up the brake sometimes and reflect on how much sound is controlling their lives. To come away from the emotional pull of the intrusive mobile phone ring or the song that makes a person to breakdown in tears.

John Walker, Brighton

y wife and I make an occasional summer camping journey to Algonquin Park, a few hours drive from Ottawa. For me, the experience is a cleansing of the noise of the city from my head. Where we camp, a number of kilometres inside the park boundary, there are typically no other people on the small lake that we love to go to. Mostly there is just - silence - cell phones don't work there, aircraft are so high they can barely be heard and there is no traffic! Silence broken once in a while by the call of the loon or the wolf. It is quite remarkable what the ears start to hear after a couple of days of not having to deal with the constant din of city life.

Ralph Hopper, Ottawa, Canada

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