Silence

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Silence is the lack of audible sound or presence of sounds of very low intensity. By analogy, the term also refers to an absence of communication, including in media other than speech. Silence is also used as ‘total communication,’ in reference to nonverbal communication and spiritual connection. It is an important factor in many cultural spectacles, as in rituals, both positive and negative. For example, in a Christian Methodist faith organization quiet reflection during a sermon might mean indicate assent, while in a Southern Baptist church, silence might mean disagreement with what is being said, or perhaps disconnectedness from the congregated community. A common way to remember a tragic incident is a commemorative moment of silence.

In discourse analysis, speakers use brief absences of speech to mark the boundaries of prosodic units (segments of speech that occurs with a single pitch and rhythm contour). Silence in speech can be hesitation, stutters, self-correction—or deliberate slowing of speech to clarify or aid processing of ideas. These are short silences; longer pauses in language occur in interactive roles, turn-taking, or reactive tokens (short utterance that indicate a listener is following a conversation).

Music inherently depends on silence in some form or another to distinguish other periods of sound and allow dynamics, melodies and rhythms to have greater impact. For example, most music scores feature rests denoting periods of silence. In addition, silence in music can be seen as a time for contemplation to reflect on the piece. The audience feels the effects of the notes previous and can reflect on that moment intentionally. Silence does not hinder musical excellence but can enhance the sounds of instruments and vocals. Some composers take the use of silence in music to an extreme. ‘4′33″’ (pronounced ‘Four minutes, thirty-three seconds’) is an experimental musical work by avantgarde composer John Cage, incorporating ambient sounds not foreseeable by the composer. Though first performed on the piano, the piece was composed for any instrument or instruments and is structured in three movements. The length of each movement is not fixed by the composer, but the total length of the combination of three movements is. The score consists entirely of rests.

Argumentative silence is the rhetorical practice of saying nothing when an opponent in a debate expects something to be said. Poorly executed, it can be offensive, like refusing to answer a direct question. However, well-timed silence can throw an opponent off and give the debater the upper hand. Also in debate, an argument from silence (‘argumentum ex silentio,’ an informal fallacy) is reasoning based on the assumption that silence on a matter suggests ignorance. In general, ex silentio refers to the claim that the absence of something demonstrates the proof of a proposition (e.g. a baker never fails to put finished pies on her windowsill, so if there is no pie on the windowsill, then no finished pies exist). The right to silence is a legal protection enjoyed by people undergoing police interrogation or trial in certain countries. The law is either explicit or recognized in many legal systems. Violation of the right to quiet enjoyment is a common law tort.

Ethnomusicologist Joseph Jordania suggested that in social animals (including humans) silence can be a sign of danger. Many social animals produce seemingly haphazard sounds which are known as ‘contact calls.’ These are a mixture of various sounds, accompanying the group’s everyday business (for example, foraging, feeding), and they are used to maintain audio contact with the members of the group. Some social animal species communicate the signal of potential danger by stopping contact calls and freezing, without the use of alarm calls, through silence. Charles Darwin wrote about this in relation with wild horse and cattle. Jordania suggested that human humming could have been a contact method that early humans used to avoid silence. According to his suggestion, humans find prolonged silence distressing or even alarming. This may help explain why lone humans in relative sonic isolation feel a sense of comfort from humming, whistling, talking to themselves, or having the TV/radio on.

‘Silence’ in spirituality is often a metaphor for inner stillness. A silent mind, freed from the onslaught of thoughts and thought patterns, is both a goal and an important step in spiritual development. Such ‘inner silence’ is not about the absence of sound; instead, it is understood to bring one in contact with the divine, the ultimate reality, or one’s own true self, one’s divine nature. Many religious traditions imply the importance of being quiet and still in mind and spirit for transformative and integral spiritual growth to occur. In Christianity, there is the silence of contemplative prayer such as centering prayer and Christian meditation; in Islam, there are the wisdom writings of the Sufi mystics who insist on the importance of finding silence within. In Buddhism, the descriptions of silence and allowing the mind to become silent are implied as a feature of spiritual enlightenment. In Hinduism, including the teachings of Advaita Vedanta and the many paths of yoga, teachers insist on the importance of silence, ‘Mauna,’ for inner growth. Perkey Avot, the Jewish Sages guide for living, states that, ‘Tradition is a safety fence to Torah, tithing a safety fence to wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom….. is silence.’ In some traditions of Quakerism, silence is an actual part of worship services and a time to allow the divine to speak in the heart and mind. Spiritual author Eckhart Tolle says that silence can be seen either as the absence of noise, or as the space in which sound exists, just as inner stillness can be seen as the absence of thought, or the space in which thoughts are perceived.

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