The Value of Silence

Perhaps I am a crotchety old man.

On my way home, I observed a young, fashionable woman speedily walking to her apartment.  I had an urge to call out to her, but social decency told me not to.

What’s the hurry?

I don’t know her business, and for her privacy maybe it’s best that I don’t, but her pace left me curious.  Then I noticed she was wearing headphones – white Apple-style ear buds, and I became annoyed.  Why did this annoy me?  What business is it of mine if she walks around listening to music or not, and why should I care?

I used to own a portable CD player before music existed in mp3 form, and I would take that everywhere and constantly listen to music wherever I was, cycling through the five or six CDs I happened to own.  Then one day, I stopped.  It no longer became important to me to be constantly listening to music.  In fact, now looking back, the prospect of constantly listening to music is irritating.  Somehow, to me, constant music defeats the purpose of music.

I am not the authority on proper listening, nor am I of the position to judge other people for their approach to music (but I will anyway).  To me, music is a discourse or a narrative.  It is not a distraction.  When I listen to music, I want to listen to the themes and harmonies and how they interact and challenge each other throughout the course of an abstract story told through pure emotion harnessed by sound.  Good music deserves my attention and my deliberation, and I have neither the time nor the emotional energy to dedicate myself to it all day…

…which is unfortunate, because I have to listen to it all day.  It’s everywhere constantly. It’s in the gym, it’s in the grocery store, it’s playing out of people’s cars… when I’m driving with someone I have to listen to it on peskily low volumes, and when I see people all around me with headphones, it just reminds me of our society-wide saturation with music.  This saturation, wrongfully or justly, I see as a devaluation of the musical experience.

Imagine this: you live in a pre-recording society.  There are no records, there are no speakers.  You have two options for music: play it yourself, or listen to someone else play it, so really you spend your daily existence not listening to anything, ever (except on rare occasion).  This void of music, which would seem uncomfortable to us, is business as usual.  It’s how things are.

You’ve been hearing good things about this guy named Beethoven, so one day, because you’re wealthy and able, you decide to attend a performance of his Ninth Symphony.  Suddenly, out of your existence of silence, your eternal void, you hear the universe assemble, and out of the assembling universe, you hear an earth-shattering pounding that brings you to the creation of man, and with the creation of man comes the creation of anger and fury.  And now that you know anger and fury, you experience beauty, and now that you’ve experienced beauty, you can experience Joy.  It’s a sublime joy unlike any you’ve ever heard.

And you will never hear it again.  The concert is over.  There is no recording.  You fall back into the lifetime of silence from which you crawled.  Only the memory of it will exist, and it will leave you in tears when you think about it’s unbearable beauty, because all you know now is an empty void.  In your mind, you recreate the experience; you hum the melodies to your friends because they want to hear it, and they will treasure your hum.

Think about how much spiritual power there must’ve been behind church hymns if that was all you heard for the week.

Music is everywhere now, and we are numb to it.  Yes, we enjoy it, and we are moved by it at select moments with specific works, but on the whole, we wear it like it’s just another piece of jewelry.

Noise is everywhere too.  Take a moment to listen.  Do you hear a refrigerator?  How about air conditioning?  Maybe the high-pitched hum of electricity?  Birds chirping outside?  Surely your computer is buzzing.

Let me rewind to the moments after my annoyance with the fast-paced woman:  I am approaching my apartment.  A truck downshifts behind me.  A leaf blower roars to my left.  My thoughts are drowning.  My footsteps are being reduced, soon to be lost in the noise.  Are they actually happening?  I take my house keys out of my pocket, and they don’t make a sound.  I can see them and I can feel them, but there is no jingle, as if an illusion in a bad dream.

I was being deprived of the sensations surrounding my existence.  Was I breathing?

Noise causes you to lose yourself – to gradually disappear.

The eeriest sensation about being isolated in the desert is the silence.  I choose the desert because forest trees still howl in the wind, and oceans still roar.  In deserts, you only hear the wind against your own ears.  The sound of your footstep against the rocky ground is a deafening crunch.  The words you quietly utter can be heard for miles.  The sound of your breath fills your head.  Your smallest actions gain weight, meaning, consequence.  You hear yourself.  You feel yourself.  You are aware of yourself.

Silence allows you to become intimate with yourself.

Cherish intimacy.

About Doctor Quack

Just another bonehead with an internet connection.
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37 Responses to The Value of Silence

  1. Joseph says:

    Yeah, you’re a crotchety old man.

  2. allthethingsiwanttobe says:

    I agree. But then, I’m just a crotchety old (wo)man.

  3. catchafallingstar says:

    Silence is beauty.

  4. wanderlust misfit says:

    I read somewhere that no matter where you are on Earth, there is not seven minutes that go by without the sounds of human machinery (usually it’s a plane). But this post made me think. I think that for teenagers, who are living in a world of chaos and struggling to make sense of it all, music provides a sort of certainty, an evening out of the inconsistencies of their emotionally frantic lives. Music makes order of the chaos. Mothers, not just human but most mammals and even some birds, will hum or sing or chirp to their offspring. Why? It’s obviously to soothe them, but I think they’re soothing out the chaos their offspring view in the world. And that’s what music does, order out of chaos.

    • Doctor Quack says:

      The idea of music as a sort of maternal comfort shielding against the nonsense of the world – even if it’s pumped through a set of headphones indiscriminately, is a connection I’ve never considered before. Thank you for this.

  5. Sarah says:

    That was beautifully written. Good thoughts. Silence is a gift – and so is sound. 🙂 I’m thankful for both.

  6. Monica says:

    Love this – beautiful insight into the comforting essence of true nature

  7. marcusadbury says:

    Loved this.

    Although, I think I may disagree with the ideal you seem to hold.

    Is it aloneness and the significance of our own actions that brings meaning to our lives (sounds awfully individualistic, Western, American)? Or is there also great meaning in witnessing others’ as well (be that the sounds of God, our fellow man, nature, the fridge)?

    I would choose the forest with the howling trees, because then I could marvel and find myself in the midst of something even more than myself.

    With that said, I did turn off my music as I continued to read your post. I’m now enjoying the peacefulness of a silent home, only interrupted by the soft whirr of my computer, my fingers striking the keys on the keyboard, and the creaks in the floorboards.

    • Doctor Quack says:

      For the sound of trees versus the emptiness of desert – perhaps my desire for silence is actually a reflection of being a selfish egoist, and the desire for sound is a desire to sacrifice oneself for the common world (as you mentioned, finding meaning in others).

      Although, it’s flattering that you chose to turn off your music as you read this. Hopefully my cynicisms won’t damage your love for the art.

  8. Raktima says:

    Marcus, how do you even read while listening to music? I never can. it takes up all my attention when I listen to music, I can’t be doing anything alongside.

    Dr. Quack, love.

  9. Katherine says:

    You’re not a crotchety old man, not yet at least… Silence is beautiful and hard to come by. But maybe the girl was walking fast to escape the noise on the streets, to retreat to her apartment after an incredibly noisy day. Maybe she had her head phones in, but there was no music playing. I do that all the time… just trying to lessen the edge of sounds that are constantly surrounding me. Although, I give the impression that I’m out of touch with the world because I have headphones in, I can hear my “own breath” and everything else around me. I always agree with the ‘everything in moderation’ sentiment and appreciate the “Cherish intimacy” send-off. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • scrunchylips says:

      or who knows –
      maybe someone close to her just passed –
      or her boyfriend just broke up with her –
      or any other number of things.

      sometimes I run into music. it helps me ride out my feelings peacefully ^^

  10. Pingback: The Value of Silence « Exploring the World

  11. Silence is golden 🙂

  12. Nandini says:

    I truly agree with you here, and appreciate silence equally. A very nicely written article. Great. 🙂

  13. K.DeMarie says:

    Okay, so I have to post… SILENCE is a gift. A treasured gift.. but I do think that too much silence (ie..if i were stuck in the desert alone for months) would eventually drive me insane. This is a tragedy waiting to happen! I’m not saying that I’d don’t prefer moments of solitude. As a matter of fact, I’m more anti-social than most, and would prefer to be alone rather than among the masses of strangers linked by vague, superficial interests or commonalities. Even though I support one thoroughly being famiiliar with oneself and understanding who you are as an individual (learned during moments of solitude and introspection–I must point out that eventually too much of this will have a negative effect. These moments of solitude should be interval/ moderation, NOT of infinite durations.. As human beings we crave INTERACTION (As a man, I’m sure a lot of how you define yourself is on what you can accomplish, what substantitive influence have you brought about in the world—as a woman.. I understand that many of us validate our existence through others. This correlates with the importance we women place on building human relationships). Solidarity is essential to both of us. As a young man.. its a measuring tool you’ll use to help track your progression as a MAN in a Man’s WORLD. As a young woman, its a gauage to see how many people have i helped to grow/how many ideas have I birthed/how many lives I’ve impacted. Silence is essential, yes, time spent alone will allow one to properly dissect and evaluate what has happend independent of disstraction, but at some point, we must come out of the desert and continue to be fruitful, continue to engage. If not, we’ll end up reclusive and socially inept somehow. I believe that life births emotion.How could Beethoven really know “feelings” and convey “emotion” in his music without experiencing someone else’s existence?. Even welll known recluses like Poet Dickinson had suitors who envoked some remark/comment worth mentioning.They say she was alone, but no,not really. She was surrounded by life, but chose to merely WATCH it take place. Sounds [i’ll be the epitome of corney by calling sounds: “the music-of-life”] confirm that you are not in the desert all alone. Sounds don’t cause you to disappear… If you disappear in the world in which you live, its because you’ve decided to not make any noise of your own. You’ve chosen as Dickinson had, to silently stand aside. Now, If you were in the desert and cried out in dispair, made all the noise you could muster, I do feel that you alone would parish. The amassed silence would drown out your pleas for help. There’d be nowhere for the noise to go.. no ears for the cries to reach. But the day-to-day bells and whistles of life give credence to the idea that LIFE is happeneing whether you’re involved in it or not. You can make the choice to bang your own drum and have others hear you and want to replay the sounds YOU’VE just created. You’ve become the Beethoven of your own circle of society! I personally appreciate the aggregate idea of the world in which I live. It makes me revel the fleeting moments of solitude, however infrequent they may be. *** very thought-provoking post!! ***

  14. K.DeMarie says:

    *** okay, so I totally meant PERISH!! hate mis-spelled words! Sorry!

  15. Sometimes you need to hear the noise, sometimes you need to hear yourself.
    Really well written x

  16. thelooker23 says:

    I try to listen to music all the time, and then I stop for a week because I get sick of it. Then I go and start listening to music 24/7 again.
    BUT, that’s besides the point. I mean, if we have music all of the time, then it’s not special anymore! I’m in 100% agreeal with you.

  17. Kat says:

    I have nothing profound to say, because I am a product of a noisy society that has prevented me from knowing myself. However; I will echo the others–silence, true silence is a gift. I’m lucky. I live in a place where there is more silence than noise, but even in our “silence” there is music. Nature makes the most beautiful music, and it is depressing that society has drowned that out with leaf blowers and earbuds.

  18. nice post and valid points. as a girl living in the country, i am quite familiar with the isolated life. there are both pros and cons, as to anything.
    however, if i had to choose between mountains or desert, mountains all the way. i am not Jesus.(but i try)
    congrats on your freshly pressed status, and happy Sunday.

  19. Excellent. I will be crotchety with you.

  20. scrunchylips says:

    I didn’t read any of the comments –
    but I do have a comment after reading your blog:

    I wonder … I think that God too is speaking all the time – all around us – but we’ve drown him out with business and other noises.

    Last year I came to Korea – and for the first time in my life (seeing ALSO that I came from a family of TEN kids – plus my parents – always hearing SOMEONE talking at home) –
    and SO for the FIRST TIME in my life I was hearing 98% of the week ONLY KOREAN!

    I met maybe once a week with an english speaker for a few hours.

    So SUDDENLY my world went silent.
    I had NO IDEA what the heck anyone was saying!!!!
    Suddenly i heard my thoughts – and they were like LITERALLY like a voice booming into my ears from headphones!

    WOW! I was so shocked! My thoughts were coherent and non complicated and like CRYSTAL CLEAR!

    Suddenly I wondered. What is the noise that keeps me from hearing God?
    Cause I am convinced that He talks more than we think He does!!!

  21. foolswords says:

    You’re not a crotchety old man, you’re a crotchety young man. That’s what making your insights superb. You are a doc to follow!
    andohbytheway, ….. (get it?)

  22. Don’t know why, but this stood out to me: “Think about how much spiritual power there must’ve been behind church hymns if that was all you heard for the week.”

    Spins off a trail of thoughts about the many tools religions might’ve used in earlier centuries to influence and retain their [potential] followers. I guess that’s got nothing much to do with the point of this post, but there you have it. :]

  23. That’s spot on. I think cannot agree with you more. I’ve tried listening to music all day long, and don’t buy the idea.

  24. There’s a good chance we were separated at birth.


  25. rampike says:

    do you think it is possible for someone to lose themselves in an unhealthy way?
    prompted by ‘too’ much silence?
    is their such a thing as ‘too’ much silence? ( possibly based on duration, surroundings )

  26. music can be noisy based on what u listen to…
    am a music person…usually if the work is slow i have my headphones on whole day
    “i need no grass to feel high…i have got music in my phone..” 🙂

  27. raebot00 says:

    The Beethoven analogy was actually really beautiful… so very true.

  28. I am new to your blog and I am glad I accidentally stumbled upon it! I mentioned you in my 7×7 as a worthy read:×7/

  29. I’m not getting off your lawn. 😉
    I think I might have to start following your posts though. They’re very good.
    There were a few things going through my mind: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” (which might only kind of add to your point), your concert section reminding me of all those exhilarating moments of playing in concerts, and a section from CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Start reading the last couple of sentences before the paragraph that starts with “Music and silence — How I detest them both!” Ok, one more thing: next time you walk into Target, notice that they don’t play music. It’s especially wonderful during the holidays.

    Being so attached to music like that is just turning it from something fantastic into a distraction. It’s another way to drown out everything else going on. Why? What is everyone running from?

    What really drives me crazy is seeing people bringing music players in the backcountry. Nature has one of the best soundtracks out there and people go on hikes to….enjoy nature, right?

  30. Raktima says:

    DQ, I read your article again today after a really long time – and I have some views I didn’t have when I first read it. Now I disagree with your views about noise. I think noise, and the way noise changes between say a village and a city, is remarkable in making you feel aware of yourself and a great way to mingle with your surroundings, or understand your distinction from your surroundings. Noise is beautiful in some ways – it can be an alarm, it can be Lethe.

    And people use music to escape noise. Which I have a problem with. Music is born out of listening to these noises – how can you turn away from the noise of a poor woman shaking her child to sleep on a pavement while cars rush past them senselessly – and then appreciate music when a composer takes that woman’s deep sorrow and turns it into a poignant melody? What kind of appreciation IS that?

  31. Pj Hutchy says:

    Wow, your piece on music really resonated with me, truthfully I stumbled upon your blog absent-mindedly in a Google search for ‘things they don’t warn you about in your twenties’ but your blog is entertaining me late into the night, my mind is a frenzy with thoughtful angst, plus I’m a night owl by nature– TMI? mayhaps, anyways I digress.

    So being a former ballet & hip hop dancer, (I know weird right, but Im full of inner dichotomies and little surprises like that) I just wanted to to create a bit of a verbal sparring match with you– a friendly debate. The way you talk about music makes me think of how I was taught in my painting & photography classes about negative space; negative space in painting is negative in theory but actual in aesthetic, much in the same way music is a compilation of silences and pauses in a harmony amongst the notes. Irony? I think so! (Yes the exclamation mark is the grammatical equivalent to laughing at your own joke, yes I just laughed at my own joke) so at the end of your post you say silence is the act of being intimate with yourself– and from what I understood in your argument, your saying music, when heard in abundance is denigrated; but isn’t music just the silence in-between notes– so in essence the sound of silence is to some extent still musical in nature?

    As an aside: I hardly think quantifying yourself as having ego is accurate haha maybe to the extent that you write very well in first person, but your ability to transcend universal truths and present yourself with such raw emotion is far from egocentric, if anything I think your an empath, using your own experiences to help establish a cohesive ethos and rendering of experience in the day to day constructs and thoughtful interrogations of what it means to be a millennial in 2014. Based on the few readings Ive divulged in on (woah loaded prepositional phrasing aiiya) your blog you have a fine mind that enjoys exploring loaded topics, your defiantly destined for greatness.

    Pj (I put the am in Pajama)

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