Music and Silence

The sound of music is not, like the sound of words, opposed, but rather parallel to silence.

It is as though the sounds of music were being driven over the surface of silence.

Music is silence, which in dreaming begins to sound.

Silence is never more audible than when the last sound of music has died away.

Music is far-ranging, and could occupy the whole of space. This does not in fact happen, for music occupies space very slowly, shyly, rhythmically, always returning to the same basic melodies so that it might seem that the sounds of music never moved away at all, that music were everywhere and yet always in a definite limited place. In music the distance and the nearness of space, the limitless and the limited are all together in one gently unity that is a comfort and a benefaction to the soul. For however far the soul may range in music it is everywhere protected and brought home safely again. That is also why music has such a calming effect on nervous people: it brings a wideness to the soul in which the soul can be without fear. – Max Picard, The World of Silence

*****

My sheet music looked like this, but with a larger number.

My sheet music looked like this, but with a larger number.

As a trombonist and member of the deeper brass section in my high school band I was used to doing a lot of waiting. Not so much during pep band, jazz band, or marching band. It was while performing larger classical pieces for concert band that I got in a lot of time practicing counting entire measures of rest. I cannot recall the name of the piece but I remember that for the first 4-5 dozen measures I sat at concert rest and counted silently to myself while the woodwinds and other sections played on. When we did finally raise our horns and began to play there was an immediate impact to the mood of the piece. And then we fell silent once more…at rest.

You can have each in their entirety in your life and be content, but you will not be whole. It is when you combine silence and music together that your horizons expand and your dreamscapes become so big and far-reaching that you find yourself reaching higher and farther than you believed possible.

As a life-long appreciator of music I have always felt the most impact or power comes from those moments where there is a pause just before the unleashing of sound. It is like the stillness just prior to a thunderstorm on the plains. You can feel the humidity drop. The temperature too is cooled by a growing breeze, and you feel a chill on your arm and sweat. You smell the rain as it approaches. In this way the thunderstorm washes over your senses much like a wall of sound in music after a period of rest.

Wichita wall cloud (4/15/2015) Photo credit

Wichita wall cloud (4/15/2015) Photo credit

Worship and prayer is the same for me. I respect a person’s preference for the larger stadiums full of people with rock bands on stage blasting out tunes for God while the faithful stand swaying with hands in the air reading the lyrics on large screens. It’s just not effective for me.

I prefer the silence the Mass affords me to listen for that “still, small voice” of God while on my knees. This is offset by the prayers of the priest on our behalf, the readings from Sacred Scripture, and the Mass hymns at different parts of the celebration. It is an annoyance to me when our musical liturgists feel the need to fill every moment of the Mass with sound, as if the congregation will lose interest or become distracted by silence. The Divine Office prayed for two millennia by monks, nuns, priests and the laity affords the same variety. Spoken prayer, chanted psalmody, hymns, and instances of silence. Lectio Divina, a strong and age-old method of “praying the Scriptures” also employs silence with spoken words.

If you don’t experience silence, how can you appreciate the sound? If all you hear is noise, how long before you tune it out and that’s all it becomes: a droning, white noise buzzing in your ear.  For me, I enjoy the rest. I prefer the silence as part of the prayer.

It is, as Gandalf told Pippin in The Return of the King, “the deep breath before the plunge.”

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