Article by Claire Stancu, TCM associate teacher. For more info on Claire, click here to visit her website.
Talking about the benefits of silence on a vocal technique website may seem somewhat odd! Nevertheless, have you ever thought ‘I can’t hear myself think’, when the noise around you gets in the way of your concentration? Or maybe ‘I’d love to get away from all the noise for a bit’ when you’re exhausted at the end of a long, busy day? Your intuition is sending you a message: some peace and quiet would help you improve your concentration, your creativity and your productivity. You need to reset and recharge.
Science agrees with your intuition: recent studies show that regular, short periods of silence throughout the day help us recharge our batteries and recuperate. We have known for decades that prolonged exposure to noise (such as living near an airport or a motorway, for example) affects quality of life, hearing, sleep patterns and even cardio-vascular health. Yes, noise even affects us when we’re asleep and causes reactions in the amygdala (the region of your brain associated with memory and emotions), thereby increasing stress-producing hormones. (1)
Research into the effects of silence is new, but the results are promising and sometimes surprising! Scientists weren’t always looking directly at silence, but set out to study other things like the effects of certain sounds on learning patterns in mice, or how relaxing music changes the heart rhythm in humans. What they ended up discovering, however, was that for the mice, it was essentially during the silences after the sound sequences finished that the learning was consolidated, through the creation of new neurons in the hippocampus (the region of the brain associated with memory making) (2) ; and with the humans, it wasn’t so much the relaxing music that helped the heartbeat normalise, but the silence that came in between the tracks. (3)
Stimulus causes neurons to fire and silence is not the mere absence of stimulus for our brain, it is a form of stimulus in its own right, capable of firing specific neurons in the auditive cortex. (4) Not surprising if you consider that the very ‘quality’ of the silence in very quiet places (such as the countryside or the mountains) can often surprise or shock us.
The sounds of silence
So what do we mean when we say ‘silence’? True silence only exists in anechoic chambers (specially constructed spaces whose walls absorb sound waves, used to test the acoustic power or sensitivity of certain electronic devices). Even in such an extreme environment we would hear sounds such as the sounds of our breathing or our heartbeat and staying in such a situation of sensory deprivation for too long would be difficult to bear!
Our daily environment can provide us with relative silence in the form of simple breaks from habitual noise stimuli such as music, environmental noise, language etc. In any case, silence is never truly complete from our brain’s point of view - when there are unplanned breaks in the sound of a piece of music we know well, the brain fills in the gaps inside our head - it’s true what Sacha Guitry said ‘When you listen to Mozart, the silence that follows is still Mozart’! (5)
The business world is also looking into the effects of silence - the Harvard Business Review (6) recommends that the work day be broken up with ‘silence breaks’, free from all communication (oral and written - so no twitter!) to reduce the cognitive load of having to think of what to say, what to write and the best way to phrase it. Walking in nature is a great way to reset both mentally and physically after spending time in a noisy environment and, as a bonus, our auditive discrimination ability improves the more we listen to differing soundscapes.
Instrumentalists, Singers, Teachers - we all spend time bathed in music and words and our brain is often on overtime. Let’s disconnect a little from time to time to free our minds and ears from our current noisy projects (and Youtube rabbit-holes)
You don’t need a weekend at a spa or a sweat lodge to enjoy the benefits of silence. Here are some simple and practical exercises that you use to reconnect with yourself and free up your brain to be more creative. Be careful, however, not to turn your silence breaks into an internal, judgmental monologue - this wouldn’t be very constructive. Your brain, as we’ve seen, will do its best to fill the silence, so I suggest that you give it something else to do by listening to the imperfect silences that surround you - just remember to turn off your notifications!
- Sounds of nature: Walk through a quiet place outdoors. Open yourself to the sounds around you, without trying to name or analyse them. Let the natural soundscape build before you and enjoy simply being in it. Listen to the sounds of your footsteps within this soundscape, and the sound of your breath - let these sounds enrich the natural sounds around you. Don’t try to modify or control anything.
- Indoor sounds: Same principle, but at home. Find a room where you won’t be disturbed. Sit or lie comfortably with your eyes closed and just let the ambient sounds come to you. Don’t name them or analyse them. After a few minutes, let your ears alternate between the sounds around you and the sound of your breathing. When you’re ready, turn your attention to the feeling of your body and your breath, with the soundscape of the room fading into the background. Breathe in and out gently around ten times then gently sit in the quiet and enjoy the feeling of being centered. When you’re ready, come gradually back to full consciousness and open your eyes.
- Listening followed by silence: Listen to a song then spend a few minutes in complete silence. Let your mind and ear open up to whatever comes - are you still hearing the end of the song? Are you more aware of the ambient noise? Have other song lyrics come to mind? What about riffs, tunes or lyrics that could be the basis for a composition?
- Try after listening to a whole album: What’s different compared to the singe song exercise? Has your overall appreciation of the album changed after this exercise?
- Silence then listening: Give yourself a couple of minutes of silence before listening to a song. When you start to listen, do you notice musical elements that you hadn’t noticed before?
- Silence before or after singing: Do you feel different about a song if you observe some silence before or after singing it? Does it make you want to try different things from a musical point of view?
By all means, make up your own versions of theses exercises too!
NB : if you have tinnitus, some of these exercises may be uncomfortable for you. If this is the case, concentrate on the first exercise (outdoors) as the ambiant noise level (even in the countryside) will most likely be louder than the ringing, which should enable you to enjoy the benefits of the exercise.
1. Ising, H., Kruppa, B. Health effects caused by noise. Evidence in the literature from the past 25 years. Noise and Health, 2004, vol.6, n°22, pp.5-13.
2. Kirste, I., Zeina, N., Kronenberg, G., Kempermann, G. Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Brain Structure and Function, 2015, Vol. 220, n°. 2, pp. 1221–1228
3. Bernardi, L., Porta, C., Sleight, P. Cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory changes induced by different types of music in musicians and non‐musicians: the importance of silence. Heart. 2006, vol.92, n°4, pp. 445–452.
4. Scholl, B., Gao, X, Wehr, M. Nonoverlapping Sets of synapses drive on responses and off responses in auditory cortex. Neuron, 2010, vol. 65, n°3, pp. 412-421.
5. Kraemer, D.J.M., Neil Macrae, C., Green, A.E., Kelley, W.M. Musical imagery: Sound of silence activates auditory cortex. Nature, 2005, n°434, p.158.
6. Talbot-Zorn, J. and Marz, L. The busier you are, the more you need quiet time. Harvard Business Review, Mars 2017.