Towards an Ontology of Silence

The assumption that sounds are entities with characteristics is fundamental to sound ontology (cf. Bayreuther, p. 16). The extension of this definition to silence seems paradoxical, since it is commonly characterized by the very absence of sound. If, however, one interprets pieces of music as time-objects, i.e. as objects of experience with an inner temporal expansion (cf. Husserl, p. 21 ff.), it seems only logical to subject moments of silence to phenomenological observation as well.

“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time“ (Cage, p. 22) American composer John Cage famously noted. In fact, moments in music lacking intentionally generated sounds are not empty spaces but time-objects that, depending on their duration and context, can fulfill different syntactic functions: Part of the metrical structure of the piece, a rest is a quantified moment of silence which can be perceived as a transition between two phrases or as a peculiar component of the phrase itself, while e.g. the interruption of indefinite length between two movements of a symphony is perceived as a gap which is not part of the immanent time structure of the work (cf. Ingarden, p. 54 f.). Moreover, silence can convey a variety of semantic meanings ranging from total calm to restlessness, symbolising, for example, sleep, laziness or death (cf. Krones, p. 65). The decoding of these semantic meanings presupposes a form of intentional perception comprising what Husserl calls retention, primal impression (Urimpression), and protention, relating the perception of silence itself to the memory of what has just been and the expectation of the time-object about to occur (cf. Husserl, p. 30 ff.).

In this paper an attempt is made to develop an ontology of silence from a musicological perspective, applying phenomenological methodology. The aim is to clarify what silence is (in the context of Western classical and contemporary music), how moments of silence relate to other musical entities and how the characteristics of moments of silence categorically relate to each other.

Vortrag im Rahmen der interdisziplinären Tagung “Silence and Silencing” an der Universität Bielefeld, 1./2. Oktober 2020

Works cited:

  • Bayreuther, Rainer (2019): Was sind Sounds? Eine Ontologie des Klangs, Bielefeld: Transcript.
  • Cage, John (2010): Silence. Lectures and Writings, Middletown (Connecticut): Wesleyan University Press.
  • Husserl, Edmund (2013): Zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins, Hamburg: Meiner.
  • Ingarden, Roman (1962): Untersuchungen zur Ontologie der Kunst: Musikwerke – Bild – Architektur – Film, Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Krones, Hartmut (2018): „Der Tod könnte ausgedrückt werden durch eine Pause“ (L. v. Beethoven). Zur Semantik der Pause in der klassischen Musik, in: Friederike Jekat / Sabine Schlüter / Johanna Sommer-Frenzel (ed.), Dazwischen – Die Pause in Musik und Psychoanalyse. Jahrbuch für Psychoanalyse und Musik, vol. 2, Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag, pp. 65–81.