15 August, 2008

The Sound of Silence

I'm just back from a short holiday in Northern Italy, where my wife is from. Doing what I do, I naturally listen to every place I visit and on this trip three experiences made me think about the subject of silence.

First was a visit to Isola S. Giulio in the middle of beautiful Lake Orta, near Milan. This small island houses a basilica and a convent for a community of nuns of a silent order, which is why it's known as 'the island of silence'. Encircling the island is a single footpath: La Via del Silenzio. Visitors are encouraged to walk the path in silent reflection, and every hundred metres or so there is a board showing one meditation on silence for the way out, and on the other side one for the way back. I was struck by these meditations because they are so universal. There is no hint of Catholic dogma; rather, they resonate with the deep wisdom mined by every spiritual path that has discovered the power of silence - which is most of them. I list these meditations at the end of this blog, so that you can use any or all of them without having to go all the way to Orta. Walking the path and internalising these reflections created a sense of deep peace and wellbeing, and of being fully present in the moment - which is probably saying the same thing in two ways.

Second by dramatic contrast was Milan's railway station. This is a monumental building from Mussolini's time, built on massive scale and with the acoustics of a cathedral. Sadly its grandeur is being eroded by the recent installation of many plasma screens showing a looped couple of minutes of advertising - with sound played through the entire station PA system. At first I thought they were playing opera, until the fragment repeated again and again as a small part of the loop, advertising as it transpired a mobile phone service. Opera in that space would have been interesting, pleasing and, with La Scala close by, very appropriate. The looped advertising sound felt intrusive, overbearing, irritating and even profane in that grand building, adding a gratuitous extra level of noise to the existing reverberating cacophany of train engines, footfall, voices and sundry machinery. When I lecture on sound I end with our Four Golden Rules for public sound. Rule 1 is: make it optional. Rule 2 is: make it appropriate. Rule 3 is: make it valuable. Rule 4 is: test it and test it again. The sound in Milan station breaks all four rules at once. (Incidentally, all the subway stations have two large projectors on each platform, again with sound booming out of them. Thank goodness that in London the projectors now being installed are silent.) I blogged earlier about the digital out of home industry that is putting screens up in every conceivable location, and about the need for these installations to integrate their sound carefully into existing soundscapes. Milan is a very worrying example of what could be the future in all public spaces if we're not careful. Never did silence seem more valuable than in this awful noise.

The third experience was high in the awe-inspiring Dolomites, which I think are the most beautiful mountains on the planet. We trekked for three days, staying at rifugii up to 2,500m above sea level. The air was like crystal, the views were overwhelming and from time to time we heard the silence of the mountains. In my experience, the deep silence of nature is to be found only in high mountains or in deserts (hot or cold), because in these places there are no birds or insects. When the wind dropped and in between the intermittent high-altitude overflights by Ryanair, the Dolomites offered us that rare experience. This is where I agree with Evelyn Glennie, who said in her wonderful film Touch The Sound that silence is itself a sound, and not just the absence of sound. The deep silence of nature is rich and pure: it is the essential context for all other sound, just as a dress in black (the absence of all colour) is the context for what it contains. This silence is the sound between all sounds. Immersed in it, one can start to sense connection and resonance with all of nature.

As we traveled back, I reflected on the different kinds of silence. At the extreme is an anechoic chamber. With no sound source and zero reverberation, this is the purest silence humans can achieve (because we can't survive in a vacuum, the ultimate silence). However, after a short time in such intense silence one starts to hear internal sounds: blood pumping, lungs and other organs moving, tinnitus in the ears. This overbearing artificial silence does not, it transpires, offer us the experience of silence at all.

In a truly silent building such as Worth Abbey Church late at night, silence settles on the listener like a warm cloak - but its overtones define the shape of the space. With eyes closed and without any sound, you can sense you are in a huge room. Indoor silence like this is rare and to be cherished, and is wonderful for meditation, prayer, contemplation, or even working. It has an entirely different quality to the silence of the mountains, resonating with all that is best about humanity rather than a deeper connection with nature.

The silence of nature is the finest of all, because in it we sense our connection with everything. However, it's becoming a precious commodity. If silence was golden in the 60s, it's a rare and precious diamond now. There are few remaining wildernesses which offer more than a short burst of true silence. Nature recordist Bernard Krause claims there is now almost no place on Earth – including the North Pole, Antarctica and the dense forests of Indonesia and the Amazon – that is free of aircraft overflights, the buzz of chain saws or other human clatter. Krause remembers when it took 20 hours to get 15 minutes of usable recorded material. “Now it takes 200 hours,” he says.

Away from wildernesses, there is a third kind of silence which comprises lack of proximate speech and machinery, especially cars, planes and trains. This is the silence one can experience at Orta: the soundscape is in fact quite rich, with lapping waves, birds, wind, and even distant human sound such as boats and high planes. It's not total silence, but in this quietness there is still peace, as we found when walking the Way of Silence.

In cities, silence is something that most people actively avoid. Their first reaction on walking into a silent room is to turn something on - radio, TV, stereo, anything to stop the silence. They have become so used to urban noise that they feel uncomfortable without it. I think urban living has created an addiction to noise as a means of avoiding being fully present. This is fully expressed in the way so many people now walk around with iPods on or speaking on their mobile phones. In the noise of the city, we are becoming like ghosts: not really there at all.

Silence is a medium for growing human consciousness, an invitation to be fully present, and a doorway to a sense of connection with the universe, or God if you prefer. How sad that we have made it an endangered species - and that this process is accelerating. Will we in future trek across mountains wearing our iPods? Have we lost the desire to be present, connected and conscious? Or can we preserve the silent places and benefit from them in the ways of our ancestors?

If you hope for the latter as I do, then why not respond to this blog by posting some places you know where silence can be experienced. And then take some action to protect them. Maybe we can start to reverse the tide of noise and defend the silence in the world.

The silence meditations from Isola S Giulano, Orta

  • In the silence you accept and understand
  • In the silence you receive all
  • Silence is the language of love
  • Silence is the peace of oneself
  • Silence is music and harmony
  • Silence is truth and prayer
  • In the silence you meet the Master
  • In the silence you breath God
  • Walls are in the mind
  • The moment is present, here and now
  • Leave yourself and what is yours


  1. Hi Julian,

    I think your comments about silence are valid. It is as important as the yin is to the yang. In music as in life. I tried to capture silence and what it means visually in my portrait of Mr Ron Patrick (viewable on my website www.christianfurr.com) Silence is as important as negative space to an artist in compostion.

    Best Wishes


  2. Exactly Christian! Thanks for the link - what a beautiful project it is to paint silence! Seems an impossible task but you have captured it somehow in that portrait. I wonder where we can achieve the visual equivalent of silence in this cluttered world - or is that just closing our eyes? The difference is, of course, that we have no earlids.


  3. hi julian,
    i stumbled upon this blog on searching 'sound of silence' and 'buzz' in google. That explains it all. we are so unused to the sound of silence that we require a buzz immediately. nice thoughts though. i find many of the big campuses with some greenery are able to afford this immense treasure of silence to an extent. mahatma gandhi used to observe a day of complete silence a day every week. but then we don't produce mahatmas any longer

  4. Thanks Krishnan. What a different world it would be if we all spent a day a week not talking!

  5. Hi Julian, One of the most profound experiences of my life was the week I spent on a silent retreat many years ago with ten other college students. We cooked, hiked, swam and worked together without talking. It was a beautiful opportunity to be with myself and others without the spoken word. Not only did was I able to hear the sounds of a running brook, the wind through the trees,and the cracking of eggs so much more clearly, but all my other senses also became much more acute. I gained a lifelong appreciation for the silences between words, and realized how much more there is to communication than speaking. The truth is often so simple. Indeed, silence is golden. Jean


I welcome your feedback!