Sound is integral to film, but sometimes the absence of sound says it all.

A moment of silence, however brief, can completely command our attention. Film is able to combine the visual and sonic characteristics that we associate with silence, and as Bela Balazs remarks

No other art can reproduce silence, neither painting nor sculpture, neither literature nor the silent film could do so.

Film sound designers have used silence as a powerful creative tool in everything from horror films to ‘rom-coms’ (romantic comedies). So why is silence so effective, and how do filmmakers take advantage of it?

People are awkward

We’re not used to silences and, in a way, we’re scared of them. In the Western World, it’s considered awkward or rude to not speak for an extended amount of time. Therefore, silence preceding spoken word can create tension. Martin Scorsese uses this technique in a famously uncomfortable scene from Goodfellas.

Although we are drawn into the conversational silence, notice that the bustling restaurant ambience remains in the background. This illustrates how silence is a relative concept. Ambiences are always present. We just stop noticing them after a while because our brains tune them out.

Funnily enough, focusing our attention back on the ambient sounds can actually increase our perception of silence.

Silence is abnormal

Traditionally in cinema, silences have been impossible due to the constant sound of the film projector.

But even in today’s DOLBY digital world, the theater is never silent. The audience members are always making noise (some people more than others). In the industry, this is often referred to as ‘popcorn sound’.

Many would argue that silence can never exist in our world.

According to John Cage:

There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.

This may sound pretentious — but it’s kind of true. Even in a hypothetically ‘silent’ room with no ambience or reverb (known as an anechoic chamber), you would still hear your own blood pumping.

To recreate the contradictory silence of our world, sound designers often have to use perceived silence instead of literal silence.

For example, while working on the extremely quiet desert set of The English Patient, Walter Murch discovered that a lack of ambience actually creates a “paradox where reality sounds artificial.” However, when you add little sounds into the mix that are normally imperceptible, such as heartbeats, ticking clocks, or rustling leaves, the audience is given the impression of an incredibly convincing silence.

Yin and Yang

Similar to how we subconsciously tune out ambience, our ears also adjust to volume levels. In a balanced fashion, silence needs loudness and loudness, in return, needs silence for either of them to have any impact. Contrasting loud and silent sounds can really immerse us in a story. Take for example this car crash in No Country For Old Men.

After the loud and chaotic impact, everything is still. Layers of sound, such as the hissing engine, distant barks, and the calm brushing of the trees, accentuate the stillness. Subconsciously, the sounds of a peaceful suburb convey a feeling of isolation and silence. As Javier Bardem steps out of the car we hear splintered glass and the groaning door. His plodding footsteps punctuate the air.

Because of the sudden contrast in volume, each quiet detail compounds the intensity of the moment. We are left to quietly reflect on the jarring scene, instead of being barraged with loud information.

Sounds are comfortable

As Skip Lievsay says,

[sound] is like a comfort layer that we all take for granted, you know? It helps us figure out which way to turn if we hear a car coming… when you remove that, it’s like a huge safety net that you’re removing.

When films strip away layers of sound, the audience can be suddenly pulled from their comfort zone. Have a look at this technique as used in 127 Hours.

The wide shot evokes feelings of vastness and isolation, but silence is what gives the scene gravity. As Lievsay’s safety net of sound is removed, we are stripped of whatever familiarity we had with the scene. It leaves us to sympathize with feelings of solidarity, fear, or doom.

Lievsay is spot on about the everyday comfort of sound. We relate silence to our most vulnerable moments of meditation, anticipation, worship, and decision making. It is in our silent moments that we are pressured to think deeply and honestly.

Silence finishes our stories

As famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has said:

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Wittgenstein claimed that whereas language is limited, thought is unlimited. When language, which is both logical and representational, can no longer cover thought, linguistic silence takes over.

Barring dialogue, sound can often function as the language of film, representing emotions, intentions, or actions. When these sounds are removed, we are inclined to explore our infinite thoughts uninhibited.

Silence frees us to fill empty space with emotions and ideas, to interpret and infer. In a counter-intuitive way, we find that instead of having no meaning, silence in film becomes a blank canvas on which we are invited to paint with our endless thoughts.