Silence is Golden: The Importance of Quiet in Film Scoring

Image courtesy of Knops.co

People are always quick to gush over the newest film score because of its “epic proportions” or its “new and unique sound”. It’s true that many of today’s film composers are masters at creating character themes, epic battle soundtracks, or quiet reflective moments through their music. However, there are some composers that see a scene in a movie and realize that what it needs most is nothing.

History

The art of using silence or “negative musical space” is ancient in concept. The idea of turning an expectation of sound on its head can be found in many cultures around the world including Japan where Dokatu bells were made 2,000 years ago without clappers and seen as spiritual objects formed for a “sacrificial act of silence”. The Japanese term for this silence in music is “ma” and represents a space between sounds that is seen as a skill to be masters. Representations of silence in music have evolved just as much as music itself.

Ancient Japanese Dotaku Bell

Back in the earliest days of music when modern musical notation had not been invented yet, rests (what we now call marked silence in music) were determined by the acoustics of the building in which the piece was performed. If the acoustics allowed for notes to reverberate for a long time, then the rest had to be longer so as to not blend the musical lines together. This required masterful listening and unity between singers. Once musicians were able to notate and read rests in music, silence became a more intentional musical tool. A perfect example of this is Silbelius’ Symphony №5. The ending of this symphony’s third and final movement is a masterful culmination of brash chords and gaps so big between that any professional musician would get nervous waiting for their next cue. The experience this lends to the audience is as suspenseful and epic as any.

This symphonic ending and other examples of famous silent moments in classical music can be found here:

While many well-known composers were utilizing silence in their orchestral and symphonic pieces, an important evolution took place when it became a storytelling device. In early theatre productions such as plays and operas, music was without a doubt an integral part of the experience. As the complexity of stories grew, composers began to realize that they could create a more “meta” experience by incorporating elements that drew the audience into a specific part of the music. One of the earliest demonstrations of this was Monteverdi’s Orfeo. This opera took on a new role as they were writing and performing music about music. One of the main characters (rightfully named La Musica) demonstrates her power within the story and over the audience experience by completely halting the music. This powerful moment of sound painting draws the audience in and forces them to focus on the smaller sounds occurring around them.

Monteverde’s Orfeo

As storytelling evolved once again from stage to screen, it brought with it music and the powerful element of silence. Letting the actor’s voices or the sound designer’s effects come to the forefront of a scene can have various effects on both the media and the audience depending on the context in which it’s used. This can be considered a bold choice as human beings are generally very uncomfortable with silence and tend to avoid it at all costs.

Movies with Silent Scenes

When we talk about musically silent scenes, we often think of awkward moments with actors staring at each other for an uncomfortable amount of time. This is because movies and TV series are so saturated with music that it’s hard for us to imagine moments without it. There are even YouTube channels dedicated to showing scenes without music for strictly comedic effect. In an article from the Utah Symphony website, they outline some famous movies with even more famous scores that would be downright comical without music. One of their great examples is the throne room scene from Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope. This scene, which is usually accompanied by a triumphant fanfare to celebrate a victory, outlines exactly the awkward tension no music can bring. Watch it for yourself here:

It’s easy to see that when movie and TV scenes are unintentionally silent that they become somewhat lackluster. However, when a composer chooses to deliberately void a scene of any music then the power of silence really comes to fruition. This technique is most commonly utilized in dramatic scenes where a turning point in the story is occurring. This has the same effect on an audience member that it did back in the early days of opera. They have to focus on the other sounds of the scene. When music cuts out, the actor becomes a soloist as their dialogue forms the new soundscape being presented. Or perhaps it is a horror movie and the music cutting out is in preparation for a jump scare accompanied by a blast of dissonant music. Either way there is tension in the silence because, like I stated earlier, humans tend to avoid it at all costs.

Examples

The Blair Witch Project

The horror genre is masterful at its use of tension and silence. This comes in many forms other than preparation for jump scares. Being one of the pioneers of the “found footage” genre of horror movie, The Blair Witch Project revolutionized what most audiences thought a scary movie could be. This was accompanied by their masterful use (or lack thereof) of a soundtrack. Because of the concept and experience of found footage, this entire film completely lacks any music. This not only adds to the realism but also creates a slow burn effect throughout the entire movie. Creepy sounds and dialogue between the characters that becomes increasingly panicked as the movie progresses became its own form of music. One that audiences didn’t forget easily.

A clip from the musically silent Blair Witch Project

Mission Impossible

With one of the most iconic and recognizable theme songs in media history (written by Lalo Schifrin), Mission: Impossible boasts a thrilling score that defines the spy movie genre. Four composers have taken up the mantle of writing Mission Impossible scores. Having the likes of Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino, and Joe Kraemer scoring the same series of movies means that the caliber of music is at a very high level. But in a spy movie, sometimes it all comes down to the wire and in that moment we want absolute silence.

One of the most replicated and spoofed scenes from the Mission: Impossible franchise is the rope drop scene from the first movie. When Ethan Hunt (played by Tom Cruise) is descending into a room equipped with sound, temperature, and pressure sensors to attempt an elaborate hacking scheme, the score goes silent. Since silence was key to the mission, Danny Elfman chose to reflect that in the score. The agent holding Ethan up by a cable accidentally releases the cable and he almost falls directly to the floor only to be caught at the last second. This whole debacle is captured perfectly and framed with intensity without a single note ever played by the orchestra. This shows that often times the added realism of only hearing what you would normally hear can get your heart beating just as much as an orchestral score.

Clip from Mission: Impossible

Silence is Golden

When we’re faced with a tense situation and our heart starts to pound, the adrenaline that courses through our veins helps us think clearly and focus harder. Tense movie scenes have the same effect on us physiologically. While this can be achieved with the help of a suspenseful film score, sometimes it is more effective for the music to cut out all together. This leaves us as the audience more focused in the moment and all we can hear over the movie is our heart beating in anxiousness for the characters on screen.

Professional music instructor focused on analyzing musical concepts and trends in popular music.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store