Breathing Music: The Role of Silence

Image by GagDonkey.com

 

The Designing Sound blog recently devoted a series of articles to the topic of silence, including an elaborately philosophical article on the nature of silence as a Zen state of altered consciousness (Silence is the Sound of Listening, by Miguel Isaza).

My main impression from the article was an emphasis on sound as the state of calm in which we (as listeners) become receptive to the world of aural phenomena constantly surrounding us.

 

The article brought to mind a few ideas that I thought I would share about the role of silence in the creative output of a game composer.

Sometimes when we as game composers receive creative guidance in regards to the musical style of a project, we’ll be instructed to do the following:

Let the music breathe.

The idea of “breathing music” can be interpreted in several ways.  It can mean that the music should dwindle intermittently into absolute silence so that the game’s soundscape can essentially “take over” for a few moments, before the music resumes.  It can also mean that the music should be written with sparse instrumentation and lots of unoccupied space in the frequency spectrum, resulting in the impression of lots of brief silent pauses that allow the sound design environment to filter through the lattice of musical elements.  Finally, it can mean that the music is composed of a series of crescendos and diminuendos, whereby the musical score swells dramatically and then recedes into a near-silent state on a regular basis.

All of these approaches share one aspect in common: the music is structured to allow the sound design to move regularly into the foreground, pushing the music further into the background of the player’s conscious awareness.  With this in mind, should we interpret this instruction to “let the music breathe” as a desire to deemphasize the music in favor of other aspects of the game’s aural design?

On page 52 of my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I discuss an interesting study conducted by Stanford University, which casts a very different light on the effect of silence on the experience of listening to music.  The study revealed that when listening to a piece of music, our minds become most attentive and filled with the most anticipatory focus when the music becomes silent for a moment.  For instance, in the short pauses between the movements of a symphony, the listener’s attention to the music peaks.

So, when we’re asked to let the music “breathe,” perhaps we can interpret this to mean that we should include those brief pauses that cause the player to pay more attention to our music than they had before.  As Miguel Isaza wrote in his article for Designing Sound, the act of becoming silent awakens our consciousness to the world of sound around us.  Perhaps by using silence as a tool in our game music, we can awaken gamers to the world of music we have created.

 

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