First Writer: Kate Artz
Second Writer: Anne Mooney
Revision Feedback by: Danah Hashem
Edited by: Julia Bennett

Silence is unique among sonic strategies. Heidi McKee (2006) stated that “silence traces noise and noise traces silence in such an interleaving that there cannot, really, ever be a separation, hence the importance of discussions of silence in any discussions of sound” (p. 351). This is certainly true, and yet, silence does differ from other sounds, and that difference is reflected in how it is handled in both constructing and analyzing an audio composition. Unlike most non-silent sounds such as voice or music, which have qualities that can be explicitly identified and analyzed, silence’s qualities are more ambiguous and difficult to explicate. McKee acknowledged this difference by naming non-silent sounds “noise,” simultaneously acknowledging silence as unique and distinguishable while still refusing to separate it from sound (p. 349).

Another aspect of silence that differentiates it from other sounds is that it was once the only and the default state for composition in the great span of time between classical oration and modern multimodal texts. A print text communicates only silence, but by considering that silence we may begin to better understand how to better apply this strategy now that it is no longer the only one in our toolbox. Mortimer Adler (1983) has said that “the most prevalent mistake people make about both listening and reading is to regard them as passively receiving rather than as actively participating” (p. 86). When we read a print text to ourselves, the aural silence does not correspond to a passive silence in the mind. We fill that silence with characters, action, perhaps our own voice. It is an active silence, one that encourages and allows participation. However, as McKee (2006) pointed out, “as these conditions change and as the Web becomes increasingly aural, silence is not necessarily the default setting anymore. Because we can now hear sounds, we can also now hear silences” (p. 348). Silence in an audio composition can play a much wider variety of roles. As Paul Goodman (1972) described:

Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, ‘This...this...’; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos. (p. 15)

With so many variable silences potentially at our disposal, we had to carefully consider our rhetorical goals for silence in our projects, using the skills of play, flexibility, and reflection to experiment with and evaluate the effectiveness of our use of this unusual sonic strategy.

Being Playful

Silence’s unique kind of abstraction is understood more intuitively than intellectually. While we thoughtfully planned our use of silence and clearly defined rhetorical goals, reaching those goals is a less easily definable process. As a result, while employing silence for rhetorical purposes, we relied heavily on experimentation and play to evaluate how best to make use of this sonic strategy.

Film theorist Alberto Cavlacanit asserted that “silence can be the loudest of noises, just as black, in a brilliant design, can be the brightest of colors” (as cited in McKee, 2006, p. 349). Mike Rand and Anne Mooney both planned to use silence, “the loudest noise,” to serve as a powerful opposition to sound, a stark contrast meant to evoke emotional impact. Anne, in “Claimed Experience: Owning the Past,” sought to create a moment where the tension rose with the emotions of the younger character, then broke into complete silence as a way to instill fear and worry in the audience. In “Hit and Run: An Oral History,” Mike wanted to create a moment that was both dramatic and compelling, using periodic silencing of his brother’s voice to increase dramatic tension.

The juxtaposition of sound and silence for dramatic effect, however, required a great deal of trial and error for both composers. Determining the appropriate length and placement of silence in the work to achieve the desired result was a cyclical process of creating silences, listening, adjusting them, listening again. They found that there was no clear metric for choosing an appropriate length of silence for a specific moment in an audio piece; instead we had to rely on intuitive feeling to evaluate the success of our use of silence.

Kate Artz’s “The Conversation” sought to use silence in a different way. In her composition, silence is used as an invitation to the listener to fill the missing half of a telephone conversation with their own ideas and interpretations, achieved by invoking a variety of different types of silence that Goodman (1972) suggested. To denote theses varied silences, Kate experimented through a similar process of play, employing critical listening and intuitive decision-making to evaluate the success of her use of silence. While recording, she experimented with playing out responses to the speaker’s dialogue in her head as a way to gauge how long each silence should be. Despite that, the silences in the recording still required alteration in editing until they simply felt right, rather than meeting some measurable standard or following a predetermined plan. Though Kate’s rhetorical goals differed from those of Anne and Mike, we all engaged in play in similar ways to accomplish our intents.

Being Flexible

In considering the balance of silence and noise, Goodman (1972) described a type of naturally saturated soundscape:

We say, dramatically, that we break the silence, as if the silence were there primordially; but maybe it was never quiet…. Much of being alone and almost all of what is called thinking are subvocal talk. We must often exert a strong act of will to break off talking and let the silence flood back. (p. 18)

Considering how to make use of this soundscape, and how to break it off, presented certain challenges for the composers in this project.

In addition to invoking drama, Mike planned to use silence as a structural element. Although he had intended to use silence to give each section of the story space, he instead found he had created an excess of silence. Too long and too frequent, these breaks in the noise disrupted the natural flow of sound, resulting in a work that was long and disjointed. Mike found he had to re-edit his work and use silence in more sparing and strategic ways, keeping his usage strictly in line with his rhetorical goals. Anne also struggled with this balance. Originally, Anne had wanted a long silence to create emotional tension in her audience, but she found that too much silence was awkward and too little didn’t make an impact. Ultimately, Anne determined it would be impossible to achieve a perfect balance due to the subjective and intuitive nature of listening to silence.

Danah Hashem’s “A Week in March” differs from these other works in that silence was not a part of her initial plan. She had intended to flood the piece with sound as a way of reflecting a busy, noisy environment, as well as a reflective and complex inner life. While this approach seems consistent with Goodman’s (1972) description of a natural soundscape, as Danah played with the editing and composition of her recorded piece, she discovered that to create clarity for the listener and indicate structural elements, interjections of silence would need to be included to indicate shifts in time, location, or perspective.

Using silence in this way, however, does not always require a total absence of sound. According to McKee (2006), “the silence comes in by learning to listen for what is not present so that even when there is noise on the screen there are also silences to be heard” (p. 350).
Essentially, silence can be described as more than simply a lack of sound; rather, silence suggests sound that has been or might be, but which has been suppressed, overwhelmed, or withheld (p. 349). In Danah’s work, this suppression can be heard in moments where foregrounded speech gives way to background sounds like music or chatter, giving the impression of a silence despite the presence of sound.

Kate’s challenge was just the opposite: to encourage the listener to hear noise in the silence, rather than silence in the noise. To replicate what Adler (1983) described as the active and imaginative silence one might experience with the reading of a print text, Kate needed to create a more absolute absence of sound. In the first draft of recording, however, the unheard speaker’s silent side of the conversation was audibly indistinguishable from the first speaker’s pauses. Digital tools allowed her to alleviate this problem; Audacity’s noise removal feature eliminated all ambient sound from the periods of silence meant to indicate the unheard speaker, achieving a deeper quality of silence that could be intuitively recognized and differentiated by the listener.

Being Reflective

After the projects were completed, we had varying feelings about our success in achieving our rhetorical goals through the use of silence. Anne felt her silence lacked the dramatic impact she had wanted it to have.
Goodman (1972) suggested that “perhaps the information given by not speaking has in it too much potentiality and possible surprise; it requires great confidence to endure it” (p. 14). It is this kind of tension that Anne sought to achieve by her strategic use of silence in a moment where her speaker’s life may be in question, but the context of the performance and the prior knowledge of the classroom audience regarding the speaker’s fate may have reduced the “possible surprise,” and thus reduced the dramatic tension.

Danah and Mike’s uses of silence had more successful results. While some of Mike’s intentions were similar to Anne’s, his context was different; the listeners had no prior knowledge of the events described in his project, and the tension created by careful positioning of silence in moments of suspense resulted in palpable expressions of surprise from the audience. McKee (2006) suggested that “there is, even amidst that noise, a silence—a presence that is now an absence, and because of that absence its presence is even more fully felt” (p. 349). This also absent presence applies to Danah’s use of silence as a structural element. Very limited and thoughtfully placed, it succeeded in enhancing the clarity of her work and highlighted the use of sound by only rarely withholding it.

Kate’s use of silence was also successful, though rather than augmenting or emphasizing the experience of sound, her rhetorical goals were aimed more at invention and engagement on the part of the listener. Goodman (1972) asserted that “the sharpest contemporary linguists say that what is heard, rather than what is said, is the most accurate basis for the study of language” (p. 14). Kate’s work sought to draw out this idea of heard-versus-said by using silence to ask the listener to hear things unsaid in the one-sided conversation. After hearing the work, many listeners reported doing just that, having created characters, relationships, and contexts in the spaces of the silence.


Through our experiences composing with silence, we’ve learned some important things about its implementation in an audio composition. We’ve learned that while silence is an essential component to consider in any audio work, it is one that is difficult to plan for precisely because it does not have clear variables that can be manipulated to achieve rhetorical effects, as in audible noise. In order for silence to be well implemented, the composer must demonstrate significant flexibility and the ability to listen thoughtfully and critically. The intuitive nature of the way we understand silence makes it strongly context-dependent, and composers must consider the many other factors that impact a listener’s experience, as those factors will shape their perception of silence. Silence is not simply a neutral backdrop against which audible sound acts; silence can create or break tension, establish structure, signal change, pose questions, and invite answers.