Silence is an energy giver. It creates a clarity in which all the aspects of the mind are clearly seen. If every time restlessness or sloth or laziness arises we begin talking, the opportunity is missed to see through it. Silence enables us to be attentive to what is going on, to all the ups and downs.”

(Goldstein, 1983, p 66)

s i l e n c e   a s   w e   h e a r   i t

Silence in everyday language is often defined in terms of an absence of sound or noise, or an absence or prohibition of speech. We may even build a polar opposition in our minds between the presence and the absence of sound. It is easy to see silence as absence; absence of sound, absence of speech, absence of content and absence of meaning. This section argues for silence as simultaneously absence and presence by adding nuance to the concept of silence as it functions and is used in human culture in order to later explore what it might mean in relation to software. This is not an attempt to redefine silence, but simply an effort to enrich our notion of the term with what it already contains.

The first objection to silence as absence is that an absence of sound for humans does not exist. This was rather famously demonstrated by John Cage in his piece 4’33’’ (1952), a three-movement piece of music where not a single note is played. Instead, the music consists of the sound of the environment and the audience, generally sitting in silence (Burkholder, 2010, p 933).

A few years later, in 1957, Cage made the following statement to the convention of the Music Teachers National Association in Chicago (Cage, 2011/1968, p. 8):

"There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. Infact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high, one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."

John Cage

In addition to silence being full of sound, medical researchers have shown that simply being in a silent room for many people gives rise to tinnitus like sounds from our own auditory system (Tucker et al., 2005) (Knobel and Sanchez, 2008).

Abbot Odo (c. 878 -942) of a monastery in Cluny, Francia, took the virtue of silence to new extremes. The monks thought themselves to be living near the end of times. To anticipate the time when "the spoken word would be replaced with a light to fill every mind", a strict regime of silence was followed. To this end, a sign system was invented by the monks to allow life and work in the monastery to go on efficiently in silence. (MacCulloch, 2014, Dionysus and Cluny section)

Michael Askill, percussionist and composer, when describing Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorumdraws attention to how the tam-tams and gongs in the piece give rise to ”gigantic silences”. As a background to his own musical practice around gongs and bells, Askill recounts the importance these sounding objects have historically had in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Yoga practices as well as different traditions of healing. (Askill, 2017) A bell, singing bowl or gong can denote the passing between different sections of silence in meditation, the beginning of a Christian service or simply mark the time for contemplative and reverential silence.

Digital audio can in theory be completely silent, the amplitude level can be set to zero which in an ideal analogue-to-digital converter with no artefacts results in no signal.


Yet in practice, noise is often present or added to a signal. This can be because an analogue signal always has noise and no analogue-to-digital converter is perfect. But even when working purely in the digital domain, noise is often introduced. In addition to digital unwanted noise such as artefacts from rounding errors and algorithm implementations, noise is often deliberately added to the signal to increase the fidelity and reduce distortion of very quiet sounds when converting from a higher to a lower bit depth, a process known as dithering (Manning 2013, p. 255).


Adding random noise can preserve and protect the quiet at the expense of complete silence.

If humans are unable to experience complete absence-of-sound due to the nature of our embodied experience, digital sound is often denied complete silence due to the limited (although usually sufficiently high) precision of digital signals.

The situation we have chosen for our software tranquillity includes silence in the sense that the human user is not speaking or issuing commands to the computer. Not all silences are tranquil, as exemplified by silence-as-oppression above, but there is a clear connection between tranquillity and the silence produced by voluntary inaction. Just as the point of silence is often not the complete absence of sound, tranquillity need not be the complete absence of activity, which would be death. In a later section, slowing down ~ zooming in ~ listening, we will search for ways of listening to the trace of software tranquillity with the same intensity as one would listen to “the voice of pines and cedars when no wind stirs”.

Silence [...] offers the limitless. It confronts us, perhaps it even 'roars'; in negotiating its hazy boundaries we may meet, head-on, chasms that open up within ourselves.”

Introduction to Silence, Music, Silent Music (Losseff and Doctor, 2007, p 1)

The second objection to silence as absence is that it is lacking in content and meaning.

The Christian Churches have had varied ideas around silence, more or less deeply rooted in philosophy and theology, that go back to before Christ: Judaic scriptures and Greek culture both significantly influenced the view of silence in early Christianity. In his book Silence: A Christian History, Diarmaid MacCulloch traces the meanings of silence from the Tanakh, or Old Testament, to the many practices of Christianity today. He goes as far as to assert that ”The Christian faith is based on the assertion that there is more to an understanding of silence than simply the interaction of humans with humans, or even of the interaction of humans with societies or landscapes around them.” (MacCulloch, 2014)

[...] many seekers are united in a shared search for silence, and, through it, sanctuary. Structured religion, and not just Christianity, has a formidable armoury of approaches to silence to aid societies which have grown intolerably noisy since the first spread of steam power in the Industrial Revolution.”

(MacCulloch, 2014, Ecumenism in Silence section)

”Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the

changing scenes of autumn.

I have said enough about moonlight; ask me no more.

Only listen to the voice of pines and cedars when no wind stirs.”

- Anonymous Zen nun (Goldstein, 1983, p 23)

”The voice of pines and cedars when no wind stirs” is no sound at all, and still it is not the lack of sound that the poem urges us to listen to. In his detailed instruction for a 30 day Buddhist meditation retreat, Goldstein connects listening to silence to acheiving a silent mind, which in turn will lead to an increased awareness unlocking a flow of knowledge (Goldstein, 1983).

Silence also contains meaning related to oppression. Women and other historically marginalised groups have been silenced and denied the right to a voice in many different areas, including music. When viewing silence in this way, breaking it can be an act of liberation and empowerment (Rodgers, 2010, p 10). Silence can itself become ”aggressive” (Rodgers, 2010, p 97) as a tool for oppression. Governments and organisations use different forms of more or less oppressive enforced silence to protect their own interests, ranging from protecting military secrets or the privacy of citizens to punishing dissidents and hiding corruption. This political entrypoint into silence, like the religious contexts above, can affect what meaning we ascribe to silence as musical and artistic material.

One could argue that enforced silence is quite different from voluntary silence, but the boundary is blurred when the silence is mandated by a figure of authority such as a religious leader or indeed a composer.

We human beings are physically unable to experience such a thing as silence as absence-of-sound. Our hearing apparatus always picks up sounds and may even fabricate sounds of its own. Still, silence has taken on a wide range of complex meanings in human culture, not least in religion and spiritual practices. When grasping at the nature of experiencing silence, be it analogue or digital, complete absence-of-sound does not seem to be a defining feature at all. Silence is always noisy and full of imperfections to listen to if we take the time. Refraining from making sounds, we open up to the roaring silence of everything around us and everything within us.

"But the LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him."

(Hab. 2:20, New American Standard Bible)

Western psalmodic chant was the Medieval monastic practice of singing in order to declaim the words and make them easier to understand in the large and reverberant churches (Burkholder 2010, pp 52-53). Chants were sung in several different ways, among them antiphonal singing, meaning that two choirs take turns singing each section of the psalm. In between the two sections of a verse there was a pause. In addition to the physical necessity of breathing, this pause had a meditative as well as theological and symbolic functions. The singers would experience their own and each other's corporeality in breathing in simultaneously as one body, mirroring ”the one body of the Church on earth”, as well as an opportunity for reflection on the first part of the verse. (Hornby, 2007)

Another dimension to the experience of the silence was given by the, at the time, well established idea of the music of the celestial bodies, the music of the spheres. By pausing to breathe, the fading sound of the choir's voices mixed with the silence of the unheard music of the spheres, the highest form of music according to Boethius, musica mundana. (Williamson, 2013, pp 31-32)

i n t e r m e d i a r y   c o n c l u s i o n s   o n   s i l e n c e

d i g i t a l   a u d i o

Demonstration of visual dithering. The concept for dithering in audio is the same.

MacCulloch, D. (2014). Silence: a Christian history. Penguin.

Williamson, B. (2013). Sensory Experience in Medieval Devotion: Sound and Vision, Invisibility and Silence. Speculum, 88(1), 1-43.

Askill, M. (2017). Composing with Ancient Sound Technology in the Twenty-First Century. Contemporary Music Review, 36(1-2), 86-101.

Rodgers, T. (2010). Pink noises: Women on electronic music and sound. Duke University Press.


can preserve and protect the quiet

at the expense

of silence

Burkholder, J. P., Grout, D. J., & Palisca, C. V. (2010). A History of Western Music: Eight International Student Edition. WW Norton & Company.

Tucker, D. A., Phillips, S. L., Ruth, R. A., Clayton, W. A., Royster, E., & Todd, A. D. (2005). The effect of silence on tinnitus perception. Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, 132(1), 20–24.

Knobel, K. A. B., & Sanchez, T. G. (2008). Influence of silence and attention on tinnitus perception. Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, 138(1), 18–22.

Burkholder, J. P., Grout, D. J., & Palisca, C. V. (2010). A History of Western Music: Eight International Student Edition. WW Norton & Company.

Goldstein, J. (1983). The experience of insight: A simple and direct guide to Buddhist meditation. Shambhala Publications.

Cage, J. (2011). Silence: lectures and writings: Experimental Music. London: Marion Boyars Publishers. (Original work published 1968)

Hornby, E. (2007). Preliminary Thoughts about Silence in Early Western Chant. In Silence, Music, Silent Music (pp. 141-154). Ashgate Publishing, Ltd..

Manning, P. (2013). Electronic and computer music. Oxford University Press.

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