Hidden music - an exploration of silences in music and in music therapy

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Music Therapy Today Vol. VI (3) July 2005

375

Hidden music - an

exploration of silences in

music and in music therapy

Julie Sutton

To focus on the phenomenon of musical silence is analogous to deliberately studying the spaces between the trees in a forest: somewhat perverse at first, until one realises that these spaces contribute to the perceived character of the forest itself, and enable us to speak coherently of “dense” growth or “sparse” vegetation. In other words, silence is not nothing. (Clifton, 1976)

While we have not really written about or researched the silences we experience and share in the music therapy room, it is not because we have not thought about them. And so, from the beginning, I want to thank the following people, who have contributed to this presentation in differ-ent ways, through their various dialogues with me:

Acknowledgements

(In random order): Claire Flower, Adam Jaworski, Lord John Alderdice, Sandra Brown, Judith Nockolds, Tony Wigram, Eleanor Tingle, Jackie Robarts, Brian Smith, Jos De Backer, Gary Ansdell, Jack Sutton, Elie

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Sutton, J. (2005) Hidden music - an exploration of silences in music and in music therapy. Music Therapy Today (online) Vol. VI (3) 375-395. available at http://www.MusicTherapyWorld.net

Fruchter Murray, the students of the Lemmensinsituuit Leuven and Nord-off-Robbins London, and Ray Hunt.

What follows are thoughts and reflections about silence in our work, informed by listening to music inside and outside the therapy room, through dialogue with colleagues, and by reviewing the literature. I focus on music, the centre of our work, and weave a path between the silences and sounds of music and music therapy. I also touch on several concepts of silence, including: silence and nothingness; silence and death; silence as absence and presence; silence as an active agent of change; and finally, silence as a hidden music.

An old british superstition states, that if there is a sudden lull, or silence, in a conversation, it is believed to be caused by an angel passing by1. Of course, I realise that other superstitions from my home island also include placing baby teeth under a pillow for the fairies to exchange for money; nonetheless, I ask you to try to hear the examples of musical silences as if they are indeed angels passing by. By this, I mean, to listen to the silence as it occurs, and also as an entirety. This means resisting the urge to count silent bars, or listen for sounded reference points. If possi-ble, attune to each silence for its own sake, as it passes by.

To tune our ears to this task, and towards music itself, here are two exam-ples, firstly, some drummers using silences as a way of making changes to the ongoing flow of the music. Texture and pacing can alter after each brief silence, perhaps offering preparation space for the musicians, as well as providing some unpredictability to catch our attention.

[PLAY NEW YORK DRUMMERS] Track 1

1. Roud, S. (2003) The Penguin Guide to Superstitions of Britain and Ireland London, Penguin Books, pp452-3

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Sutton, J. (2005) Hidden music - an exploration of silences in music and in music therapy. Music Therapy Today (online) Vol. VI (3) 375-395. available at http://www.MusicTherapyWorld.net

This example contrasts well with the next, which reveals one way in which silences can engage us in a new task of listening, during the begin-ning of a musical work. Here are the first sounds from the extended form of a large-scale piano sonata. One basis of the sonata’s first movement is an elongated melodic line, here barely stated before it is interrupted by silence. The unexpected absence of sound re-tunes our ears, and as we seek out the next sound, we wait to see what will happen.

[PLAY OPENING BARS OF SCHUBERT B-flat Sonata] Track 2

The uncertainty about what is happening, and what might happen, are a feature of Schubert’s opening to this sonata, and they remain one of the characteristics of the music throughout. There is already a sense that these silences are not merely interruptions to the flow of the sounds, or a means of catching our attention, but that there are more significant and complex roles and functions involved. And, it is how musical silences occur and what processes might be contained within them that I will now explore, in both music and music therapy.

Silence and nothingness

(read by Jaakko)

It is the “somethingness” that we usually attend to in music, not the “nothingness”, and yet the uses of silence are numerous: silence may be mere punctuation or a minute interval between two articulated tones. It may be short or long, measured or unmeasured, interruptive or noninterruptive, tensed or relaxed. But in one way or another the silence becomes a part of the music. (Rowell, 1983, p.26)

Here, Rowell makes a case for considering silences as integral to a musi-cal work, citing several different ways in which silences are as important as sounds. Silences occur between notes within a melodic string, they

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Sutton, J. (2005) Hidden music - an exploration of silences in music and in music therapy. Music Therapy Today (online) Vol. VI (3) 375-395. available at http://www.MusicTherapyWorld.net

mark different punctuation points during the played-out life of a piece, they can interrupt the musical flow, or provide a more relaxed, slower-moving space. In the next example, from plainsong, the silences that occur also appear to serve different functions. First, there is the reality of the necessity to breathe. Yet, this has been formalised into the structure of the music, marking musical phrases and parts of sentences. The silences also serve to colour the vocal line (words being painted in music), and provide dramatic effect.

[PLAY PLAINSONG EXAMPLE] Track 3

Whatever these silences are, they are, apparently, not ‘nothingness’. Yet, there is some connection with nothingness in western perceptions of silence. Eastern ideas differ from this – for instance, the Japanese concept of “ma” (at its simplest, the space between events, or a sensory or sensual perceived space). In my culture, silences in everyday life can be consid-ered negative, or threatening, particularly if shared with those we do not know very well. Intimate silences, between us and the people we love, can have other qualities of connection and separateness-within-together-ness. Silences are not only “somethingness”, but a lot of different kinds of “somethings”.

Silence and death

At this stage, it is appropriate to pause briefly to remember how silence

has been defined. The scientific definition relates to what can occur in outer space, something that is not possible for humans to perceive. Experiments have shown that even if deprived of sound sources and in a sealed, silent environment, we become aware of sounds and sensations from inside our bodies. It would appear that sound (in the sense of our hearing being defined as the perception of vibration affecting our bodies)

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is an inescapable part of life. Even before we are born, our world is noisy; intrauterine life is certainly not silent - it is full of a great deal of acoustic stimulation (Piontelli, 1992, pp.34-38). From birth onwards, sound is all around us. It is an essential and unavoidable part of being alive. Even those who describe themselves as deaf are sensitive to the vibrations in the air that are registered as ‘sound’ by the hearing.

From the beginning, life itself is associated with sound; therefore, the potential for connections between silence and death are also with us mere weeks after conception. The link between death and nothingness is appar-ent in the notion that silence can be thought of negatively, for instance in the idea that silences can hold the unspeakable. Apart from in death, silence might be where we find the tension of something withheld, or something fearful, or something threatening. Van Camp, a psychothera-pist, observed that this quality of negative association with silence is also apparent in the art form of music, defining musical silence as “the unrep-resentable affect” and linking it to that which is deeply traumatic (Van Camp, 1999, pp.267-8). Dictionary definitions of silence also refer to negative qualities; that is, silence as an absence of sound. In contrast, in the east the term silence has been linked with a sense of presence and accepted as something positive, with purpose and value. Despite these varying approaches to defining silence, there is a general belief world-wide that silence is immensely powerful, and it comes as no surprise that silences have a particular power within a musical work. And, as well as silence creating expectancy, tension and dramatic effect, there are the intimate silences.

Composers sometimes leave gaps between sounds, during quieter, more tender musical passages. These gaps in sound open up more intimate spaces in us, as in the next two examples. First, from a song about loss. The silences here slow the pace of the music and emphasise the words,

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and these words come out of silence, highlighting the quiet intensity held in the singer’s voice.

[PLAY BERLIOZ SONG (end)] Track 5

In the second example, vulnerability is revealed through a different use of silences. Here, during the course of an opera, three people wish two young men safe passage as they set out to sea. The orchestra begins by playing an oscillating chord feature, like the gentle winds that push the sails, or the very waves on which the men travel. We will hear a kind of silence, where this orchestral support is withdrawn, and the voices are left almost alone, without the previous musical texture, perhaps remind-ing us of the vulnerability within both travellers and well-wishers. There are also brief silences in the transparency of changes of texture in the instrumental music, and in the interplay of voice and orchestra, heard either in the ongoing music, or within single lines.

[PLAY MOZART COSI FAN TUTTE] Track 6

So, silence frames various aspects of music. This begins in the space before the first musical sound begins, and ends with the space after the last musical sound has finished resonating. Silence frames each motif, theme or musical utterance, and longer silences can relate to form and structure. There are also relative silences, such as within texture changes, or in the un-heard silences in a single instrumental part. Silences interrupt the flow of sounds and create their own tensions. For instance, there is an inherent tension within what is unspoken, for instance when musical sound ceases and the momentum of the music is interrupted. This unex-pected sound-absence disturbs the equilibrium of the listener in a pro-found manner, perhaps linked to the ‘unrepresentable affect’ that Van Camp wrote of. At such moments the listener is left with an awareness of

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aloneness (death) and an associated need for sound (life). Another ele-ment concerns the space offered to the listener within which they will search to hear the unspoken. This aspect of silence is no longer receptive, but rather demands an active response from the listener. There is an inherent movement within such a concept of silence. It is a movement from response to reaction (from the outer to the inner state) and then to

action (the inner to the outer). As Rowell noted in the quotation I began with, silence is integral to music. Something of great significance exists in music’s apparent ‘nothingness’.

Silence, absence and presence

We can think of the creative act itself as coming from silence, inextrica-bly linked with a state of un-knowingness, and a letting-go of conscious thought processes, in order that there is space and freedom for the music that is yet-to-become.

Surely, the most significant aspect of silences in therapy is the way in which the therapist listens and attunes to what is not sounded. This is not only listening to what is in the air between client and therapist, but what is within the therapist, and in their human response to the client.We all have our particular viewpoint or stance about this, yet, detailed refer-ences to our being-state within the silence before the client plays are almost non-existent in the literature. A notable exception De Backer’s term anticipating inner silence, broadly defined as:

(read by Jaakko)

…the silence before the first sound is heard. Each authentic

musical play originates from this anticipated silence, which makes it possible for one to come into resonance with oneself, and in a music therapeutic context, with the other. One can describe

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this as the musical presence of the inaudible sound, a sound that is not only inaudible, but also completely unknown and unimagin-able.”1

De Backer also describes how the therapist must, in the same way, listen at the moment of making music with the client, allowing themselves to be “surprised”, “overtaken” and guided by it. This silence is inaudible sound without an owner, perceived by the therapist when in this receiving state. It carries an anticipation of the unknown, within the therapist’s nec-essary inner space – openness to which must be discovered or created.

I believe that this anticipating, inner silence is particular to the work of a music therapist, because it requires both therapeutic and musical listen-ing, and a combination of both. It is a many-layered listenlisten-ing, stemming from an underlying state of openness in the therapist.

Here is an example of such a silence, from the beginning of a music ther-apy improvisation.

You will hear two musicians: the client, a young boy with a traumatic his-tory, plays little finger bells; the therapist, the piano. Notes from the ther-apist stated:

“He chooses a new instrument: the small finger cymbals. The beginning was surprising: he sits down quietly beside me at the piano and a silence appears. Immediately, I come into resonance with him and myself. During this resonance, I almost “get caught” by something that I did not expect at all, like an atmo-sphere that comes over me and inspires me. Not knowing what inspires or animates me, spontaneously I slow down my pace. I realise that I enter into a kind of melancholy state. I surprised to notice how time is being stretched and how I am drawn to a par-ticular musical motif. It is not the music that follows me, but it is I that follow the music. I am surprised by something that pops up in the relationship with him, and, immediately, he reacts.”2

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While you listen to the example, notice the quality of the tension in these silences. They are fragile, yet there is an intangible underlying security, as if something is safely holding this client’s delicate vulnerability. The lengths of the silences differ, sometimes obviously, sometimes more sub-tly. The quality of the silences is not static, it changes, and the pacing dif-fers from silence to silence. There is a sense of time suspended, where a moment could become simultaneously an instant in time as well as the beginning of a link to something past, of a possible continuity. At times, the silence feels unbearable, yet somehow potentially manageable. These are silences containing paradox – silences perhaps on the threshold of absence and presence. (You might want to close your eyes as you listen.) [PLAY OPENING OF MUSIC THERAPY (STILTE) EXAMPLE] Track 7

Given this client’s traumatic history, what is most striking is the way that, from the beginning, these musical silences (owned by therapist, and by client and therapist together) have a sense of continuity. In this case, the silences can begin to hold something traumatic, rather than become

something traumatic.

Silence as an active agent of change

Silences are not only active components of music, but they are also not static within themselves. They are not in one particular state throughout – just as the movement of dynamic form is heard in the sounds, so it is present in silence. In the music therapy room, as heard in the clinical example, process in silence can open up new spaces, and hold different experiences of time. In work with traumatic conditions, a slowing of

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overall pace can allow the potential space for something else to become, and rather than repetition of the old, there is a possibility of something new.

The second clinical example is from the end of the third session with a 6 year-old autistic boy, “Brian”. The therapist described their responses to Brian’s music in the following way:

“Brian played, moved and vocalised in short bursts, flitting between instruments and different parts of the room. There was an overwhelming quality of his music ‘flying off ’ towards some-thing else; almost before he had played, he moved away. There was nothing continuous in his music, apart from the repetition of returning to the instruments from time to time. I was careful how I responded to what he offered. To match his fragmented playing too closely would be intrusive for him and only add to the anxiety level in the room, but not to acknowledge his music would leave him abandoned. I made an open, non-threatening musical atmo-sphere, improvising predictable and slower-moving music, with predictable, repeated chords that sometimes changed in reflection of Brian’s short bursts of playing. A sense of continuity was offered in a simple melodic line. Gradually, a waltz emerged, its key of A minor both matching the tuned percussion tones and -more importantly – providing a serious and at times -more sad, poignant or wistful mood. This matched Brian’s underlying mood and also my responses to how we were connecting musically. The waltz pacing was flexible, often pausing at the ends of phrases, or when Brian was about to begin or finish playing. The idiom was selected because of it’s third beat, which allowed a “stretching” of the music with flexibility, in order to help shape his spontane-ous responses. Gradually, he became able to sustain his music for increasingly longer periods, revealing a less heightened state of anxiety. He settled for a longer period of time at the metallo-phone, his music at times tentative, anxious and tenuous. The intensity of his playing varied and in a way I could hear how Brian ‘was’ from moment to moment musically. I shaped Brian’s responses, at different times waiting, holding back, pushing for-ward. The aim was to provide some sense of continuity within which his fragmented responses could sit. After almost ten min-utes, the music slowly drew to a close. There was a long silence, during which Brian gently placed his beaters onto the instrument. At the end of the silence he sighed and breathed out.”

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[PLAY MUSIC THERAPY (BRIAN) EXAMPLE] Track 8

The intensity of this final silence meant that it could not be broken until Brian breathed again – it was, simply, his silence, within which time was suspended. It was a silence that held the therapist’s presence, and also some of Brian’s, in a situation where he had found it very difficult to remain. It marked a passage of time where there was a definite sharing of time and space between Brian and his therapist, a space that he was just able to hold onto. There was also something both delicate and precious about this silence; it marked presence in the face of overwhelming absence. The silence also offered a space where it might be possible to assimilate and begin to process something of what had occurred within the musical sounds. It was a silence that was highly significant, because it was both within the therapist and also between therapist and child. In terms of Brian’s therapy it also spoke silently of the future progress of the therapy (i.e. the connecting to another person and the growing of a rela-tionship). Perhaps the nature of this silent space in the therapist, and between the therapist and Brian, was delicate and significant because it was also beginning to ‘be’ in Brian, identifiably so in his need to hold his breath as he held onto the possible sensations of connectedness.

These two clinical examples show that in common with other disciplines, music therapists certainly experience and work with absences of musical sounds. Yet, very few have written about silence in any depth, tending to deal with the topic as part of a larger picture.

Claire Flower is one of a very small group who has considered the phe-nomenon in detail. In a conference paper, Flower offered a clinician’s view of the significance of silence, summarising three different aspects:

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Firstly, for the client the space between the notes and phrases may relate to and enable experiences of identity and separate-ness. They can hear not only their sounds, but also the responses of the therapist, bringing an awareness of self and other. Sec-ondly, space [without actively making sound] allows the therapist room to think about, listen to and digest what it is that the client is doing. Thirdly, when both therapist and client are able to tolerate and create silent spaces, something in addition may be grasped about the nature of the connection between them. (Flower, 2001)

Flower has examined a many-layered listening, including awareness of the communicative potential between each sound, what is contained in a silence, and listening to and feeling the quality of connection that can exist between those sharing and negotiating the silence. In undertaking these kinds of listening there can be a heightened sense of awareness for both therapist and client. This is awareness of both self-with-an-other, and self-alone, and it utilises silence as something capable of incorporat-ing both presence and absence.

An exception to the lack of depth research in this area is the concept of the anticipating inner silence discussed earlier. Other types of clinical silence are also discussed by De Backer, including the therapist’s silence while the client is active, and discussion of therapeutic transference and counter-transference issues. Fragmented silences are considered, where there is an inability to sustain musical play and a breaking of the musical connection with the therapist as a result of an underlying, deep, funda-mental trauma. It is in this area in particular that silences have the stron-gest clinical value, although, of course, all silences have meaning, whether apparent or hidden.

Silence as a hidden music

In thinking about and listening to silence, the idea that this could be a

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something behind or beyond the obvious. What is brought to any music therapy space is a mixture of the obvious, the apparent and the hidden1. Within music’s paradoxes can be held a fit with the ambivalence of the client/patient and of the paradoxes within the human condition. This reminds us of some aspects of silences in the therapy room. Silences that once were considered the property of clients’ defensive structures are now viewed with more complexity and subtlety, in that silences in ther-apy signify process rather than outcome. Both in the more recent therther-apy literature and in my experience of dialogue between music therapists, the role, function and place of silence is being re-defined.

Silences can be heard and felt as presences, as absences, and as thresh-olds between the two. They mark the boundary of the therapy space. They might become related to the overall shape or form of the session, or exist only as the defining characteristic for the time that therapist and cli-ent spend together. For the clinician, the silence at the beginning of a ses-sion can be a space for waiting-without-expectation, but with an openness to what might come - whatever it might be -, where the thera-pist can take notice of feeling responses to the client and open themselves to the potential for a shared space. Winnicott wrote of the duality of such a space, where both separateness and togetherness could occur, giving the image of string that both separated and joined therapist and client (Winnicott, 1971; 1982). Rather than the silence being a lack of some-thing between therapist and client, it is already beginning to define the presence of both.

I recently asked a range of music therapist colleagues for their thoughts about silence, and amongst the responses were the following points:

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On a silence after a clinical improvisation in individual music therapy:

“It was hard to describe when the last note died – the silence enabled

the note to stay, as well as go. It felt profound, and it belonged to the client, and the experience they had just had.”

“This silence and space was not time limited.” “The silence was an affirmation of the relationship.”

On silence in music therapy

“People tend to find silence difficult to be with – the ‘spoken’ can be

easier than the ‘unspoken’.”

“We can be focused so much on how we are responding musically to

our client. If we were to listen to the whole shape as a musical work – that is, that the client’s musical and non-musical behaviour is all creat-ing a musical whole – then we would treat the existence of silence dif-ferently.”

“In silences in music therapy the musician is already present in the

music before the music sounds.”

This demonstrates that we all indeed know about silence in our work. But, we do well to actively remember the subtlety, power and intricacy of silent states.

My next example will end this presentation. The topic of silence, like many other research subject, raises many more questions than answers. During this presentation, I hope that you have made your own discover-ies of questions, old and new. This final example is of a trumpet ques-tioner, asking and asking, and being met with woodwind answerers who seem to be in some conflict with each other. Yet, like silence, the underly-ing presence of the strunderly-ings seems to provide affirmation of the question and the questioner and what responses occur. It seems fitting to allow this music to frame my presentation, along with the silence afterwards.

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Sutton, J. (2005) Hidden music - an exploration of silences in music and in music therapy. Music Therapy Today (online) Vol. VI (3) 375-395. available at http://www.MusicTherapyWorld.net

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1. Charles Ives writes: The part of the flute quartet may be taken by two flutes, upper staff, oboe and clarinet, lower staff. The trumpet part may be played by an English horn, an oboe or clarinet, if not playing in “The Answers.” The string quartet or string orchestra (con sordini [with mutes]), if possible, should be “off stage”, or away from the trumpet and flutes. ... The strings play ppp [pianissimo – very softly] throughout with no change in tempo. They are to represent “The Silences of the Dru-ids – Who Know, See, and Hear Nothing.” The trumpet intones “The Perennial Question of Existence”, and states it in the same tone of voice each time. But the hunt for “The Invisible Answer” undertaken by the flutes and other human beings, becomes gradually more active, faster, and louder through an animando [more ani-mated] to a con fuoco [with fire]. This part need not be played in the exact time posi-tion indicated. It is played in somewhat of an impromptu way; if there be no conductor, one of the flute players may direct their playing. “The Fighting Answer-ers”, as the time goes on, and after a “secret conference”, seem to realize a futility, and begin to mock “The Question” – the strife is over for the moment. After they disappear, “The Question” is asked for the last time, and “The Silences” are heard beyond in “Undisturbed Solitude.”

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This article can be cited as

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