Arts Blog

The Canvas of Silence

Here at All Classical Portland, we have our own library of CDs which we draw from to use in our day-to-day radio programming. However, rather than playing these CDs directly on the radio, volunteers first burn each CD into our hard drives, where we can use them on-air  in the form of .wav files. One of my current tasks as an intern is to edit .wav files of pieces that have been burned into the computer but are still not quite ready for air play. Using a music editing software, I listen to each piece and edit the amount of silence that occurs before a piece starts, after it ends, and between movements of pieces like concertos and symphonies. This task is important because there are often up to four or five seconds of silence before sound starts on a CD track. I edit each piece to begin with just the right amount of pause for the radio host to press play after announcing the piece, and set the stage for the start of the music.


Measuring the moments of silence that bookend a piece got me thinking about the crucial role that silence plays in our experience of listening to classical music. Music, of course, is made up of sounds, but it is also characterized by the silences that happen between the sounds. The silence that takes place within a piece of music can create profound effects – effects of surprise, humor, fear, or a sense of expanded time and space. Sometimes these moments of silence are tiny, even unnoticeable to a listener. Other times, they can interrupt the flow of music and shock a listener into a new level of awareness. Throughout the history of classical music, many composers have realized that silence can be just as expressive as sound, holding different philosophies towards their use of silence as a tool to create different effects on the listener. Let’s explore some of those effects here.   


Silence as Surprise: Joseph Haydn, String Quartet Op. 33 No. 2, “The Joke,” IV. Presto (1781) 




Haydn’s music is filled with humor and wit, and one of his common tricks is to manipulate silence in his pieces, which deliberately thwarts listeners’ expectations of what will happen next within his otherwise predictable and logically organized forms. One of Haydn’s more famous uses of silences occurs at the end of his second opus 33 string quartet, nicknamed “the Joke.”   


The final movement, “Presto,” has a rondo form, containing a recurring main melody that alternates with contrasting themes. Haydn’s main melody is a buoyant tune comprised of four two-measure phrases. After several variations on the theme and a slower Adagio passage, Haydn starts up the theme again in its original form to close out the piece. This is where the “joke” of the piece happens – Haydn now splits up the tune into its four smaller components, with a two-bar rest between each one. When the melody finally ends, the piece appears to be over. Unsuspecting audience members might start to applaud, only to stop in confusion when the music starts back up again after a four-measure rest. The quartet plays the first half of the melody, but fails to finish out the phrase, leaving the audience hanging in suspense. As an uncertain and awkwardly hilarious silence fills the hall, the audience breathes out in relief and laughter as the quartet finally sets their bows down.   


Silence as Release: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936) 




In contrast to the Haydn example above, silence can also be used for the opposite effect, creating a moment of space, relieving the audience and releasing tension built up after sound has said all it can possibly say. One example of silence as an act of release can be found in Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which was originally composed as an Adagio movement in his String Quartet, Op. 11. The piece outlines an arc that travels from hushed sadness to intense grieving, and finally back to silence. The entirety of the 8-minute work develops out of a stepwise melody stated at the start of the piece. The music progressively builds in intensity via denser textures, stronger dynamics, and ascending registers in the strings.   


 At one point, the intensity reaches such a level of agonized pain that the strings appear unable to go any further, stuck on a note in the melody that gets louder and louder until it is thrown off into complete silence, creating a climax of emotional catharsis. (This moment happens at about 5:23-6:05 in the above recording by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, but I recommend listening to the whole piece for the full effect). Echoes of the climax note are left resonating in the empty space before the strings begin again in a quiet understatement, slowly dying away to the end of the piece with a new sense of peace and resignation. One of our hosts here at All Classical Portland, Christa Wessel, often says on air that classical music can serve as a “respite from the ruckus of the world.” The impact of this silence in Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a moment to sigh and catch one’s breath, is one of those magical places of respite you can enter into that can never be explained completely by words.   


Silence as Interval: Toru Takemitsu’s The Dorian Horizon (1966) 



The silence in Barber’s Adagio for Strings serves as a turning point, marking a moment between the climax of the piece the gradual descent to the end. This notion of silence as an interval between two events was key to the compositional technique of Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), a Japanese composer known for his works which synthesized Western classical forms and experimental 20th century techniques with traditional Eastern sounds and instruments.  


Takemitsu was skilled in subtlety manipulating orchestral colors using unusual percussion, electronics, spatial arrangements of instruments, and silence, imbuing music with a sensuality he believed it had lost. Takemitsu’s use of silence in particular was heavily informed by the Japanese aesthetic of maMa is an everyday word from the Japanese language that incorporates various meaning of space and time – the space between two structural parts, the gap between two events in time. Ma is a type of emptiness, an interval of in-between, or a negative space. Ma can be seen in various aspects of Japanese culture, such as the deliberate pause at the end of a bow before coming back up, or the honoring of pauses and silence in conversation. Ma is a core concept underlying Japanese art forms, including architecture, gardens, sumi-e brush painting, and Noh theater. For music, Ma is the silence between all notes.   


The empty space of ma is not a void, but an energy filled with possibility. This sense of possibility can be heard in the silences of Takemitsu’s 1966 piece The Dorian Horizon. The Dorian Horizon is a collage of varying orchestral textures, some dissonant and grating, some soft and gentle. Each sound event is separated in space and time by intervals of silence or near silence. Sometimes this silence is absolute, creating a sense of space and sparseness. Other times, the silence is colored with deep ominous drones in the cello and bass, creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia and unease. In his own writings, Takemitsu defined ma as “the powerful silence.” Throughout The Dorian Horizon, it is the silences from which the events of sound arise, more than harmony or form, that create a sense of tension and resolution.  


Silence as Sound: John Cage’s 4’33 (1952) 



Early on in Takemitsu’s career as a composer, he was preoccupied with absorbing Western European orchestral music into his idiom. In his later years, however, Takemitsu found himself returning to experimentation with Japanese instruments and music styles. He credited this return in part to his contact with John Cage, who’s own artistic philosophy was greatly influenced by Japanese art and thought.   


One cannot discuss silence in music without addressing John Cage, who proposed the radical notion that there is no such thing as silence. Cage expressed his artistic philosophy through his compositions, but also through a series of essays and performative lectures throughout his life which are summarized in his book Silence: Lectures and Writings. As Cage describes in Silence, artists have always wanted their work to mean something, to do something. Cage, rather, aspired to be meaningless through his work. For Cage, that idea that art is useless and it expresses nothing is the very source of its strength. He declares in his “Lecture on Nothing,” “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.”   


Silence, in a way, became Cage’s symbol of this profound meaninglessness. Arguably Cage’s most famous (or infamous) work is his 4’33”, a three-movement work composed in 1952. 4’33”‘s score consists of three blank pages. The performer is instructed not to play their instrument throughout all three movements, which are to be timed with a stopwatch. Such a concept may seem like a gimmick, but unlike Haydn’s motivations in his Op. 33 quartet, Cage did not intend for 4’33” to be treated as a joke. 4’33” is a piece comprised entirely of silence – or is it? Without any notes to latch onto, the listener starts to become aware of the sounds in the environment around them – the uncomfortable rustling of clothes, the ever-present hum of the air conditioning, the traffic outside, even the thoughts running through their head.  According to Cage-ian scholar Kyle Gann, 4’33” represents “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.” And indeed, in a recollection of the premiere, Cage describes: “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” Through the conduit of silence, Cage gave countless musicians and performers permission to go beyond the limitations of standard instrumentation and embrace all sounds as music.   


 After the Last Note 


One of my favorite moments to experience in classical music concerts is witnessing the very last note of a piece. As the final chord hangs in the air, the reverberations gradually dissipate through the concert hall. In that moment before the applause, it is as if the entire audience is holding their breath together in suspense and awe. Each listener was taken on a different emotional journey while listening to the piece just played, but in this moment everyone has arrived in the same place. Then, as the conductor lowers their baton, there is sudden exhale of relief. The hall once again resonates with life; this time not with the tones of instruments, but with the warm rush of applause and elated “bravos.”   


Even though the radio is not quite the same as a live concert, I feel that the hosts at All Classical are also sensitive to this special moment after a piece ends. When I edit the length of silence at the end of a piece, it is my job to create a fade out with a generous six seconds of silence after the last note ends. This gives the radio host the freedom to let the resonance of the last sounds and the emotional weight of the piece settle in with the listener before announcing the conclusion of the piece and moving on to the next track of the day’s program.  


By holding that precious space of silence with their listeners before speaking again, an All Classical host acts like the conductor in a concert, holding the baton up in the air before lowering it as a signal of finality, welcoming in applause from the audience. While everyone listens and experiences the station in their own way, I often personally feel that when listening to radio I am not truly listening alone. Rather, I am listening simultaneously with thousands of other people also tuned into the station.  Maybe this is why when a piece ends on All Classical I get that same feeling of shared suspense and relief as I experience in concerts.  



In the concert hall, on the radio, and in our daily lives, where does the sound end, and when does the silence begin? Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died only nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathetique.”* Like the man himself, the end of the final movement fades away into complete silence. In the last few measures, the only sounds come from muted cellos and basses playing a low, deep B minor chord and sounding as if coming from some distant, far-off place. In the last measure of the symphony, Tchaikovsky places a rest sign with a fermata (a musical “pause”). The piece concludes in open-ended silence, merging in with the ambience of the concert hall and the energy of the audience members. When does the piece end, and when does life begin again? The conductor lowers their arms, but a heaviness remains.  


How do you experience silence in classical music? Let us know by emailing 

*The Oregon Symphony will be performing Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, along with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in Salem on Friday, February 9 at 8:00pm at the Smith Auditorium anin Portland on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, February 10, 11, and 12 all at 7:30pm at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Visit the OSO website for details and tickets 



  1. “Adagio for Strings.” The Kennedy Center. Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2018.  
  2. Canning, Donna. “Ma.” Unique Japan. Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2018.  
  3. Davis, Ian. “Loud Silence and Quiet Sound: The Illuminating Music of Toru Takemitsu.” Flypaper. 20 Oct 2016. Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2018.  
  4. Kaye, Colin. “Classical Connections: The Sound of Silence.” Pattaya mail. 23 Sept 2015. Web. Accessed 7 February 2018.  
  5. Reel, James. “Franz Joseph Haydn: String Quartet No. 30 in E flat major (“Joke”), Op. 33/2, H. 3/38.” Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2018.  
  6. Ross, Alex. “Searching for Silence: John Cage’s art of noise.” The New Yorker. 4 Oct 2010. Web. Accessed 25 Jan 2018.   
  7. Ross, Alex. “Toward Silence: The intense repose of Toru Takemitsu.” The New Yorker. 5 Feb 2007. Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2018.  
  8. Swafford, Jan. “Silence Is Golden: How a pause can be the most devastating effect in music.” 31 Aug 2009. Web. Accessed 25 Jan 2018.   
  9. “The most crushing, perfectly placed silences in classical music.” Classic FM. 15 Jan 2016. Web. Accessed 25 Jan 2018.   
  10. “Toru Takemitsu.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web. Accessed 7 Feb 2018. 

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