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The Endangered Sound of Silence

On a recent holiday in Northern Italy, three experiences reminded me of the importance of silence. Most people would say that silence is the opposite of sound, but I take a different view. Silence is a sound, as well as being a context for all other sounds. To understand this it is necessary to experience it. 

The first experience was a visit to Isola S. Giulio in the middle of beautiful Lake Orta, near Milan. This small island houses a basilica and a convent for a community of nuns of a silent order, which is why it's known as 'the island of silence'. Encircling the island is a single footpath: La Via del Silenzio. Visitors are encouraged to walk the path in silent reflection, and every hundred metres or so there is a board showing one meditation on silence for the way out, and on the other side one for the way back. I was struck by these meditations because they are so universal. These are not Catholic dogma; rather, they resonate with the deep wisdom mined by every spiritual path that has discovered the power of silence - which is most of them. Walking the path and internalising these reflections created a sense of deep peace and wellbeing, and of being fully present in the moment - which is probably saying the same thing in two ways.

Second, in dramatic contrast, was Milan's railway station. This is a monumental building from Mussolini's time, built on massive scale and with the acoustics of a cathedral. Sadly its grandeur is being eroded by the recent installation of many plasma screens showing a looped couple of minutes of advertising - with sound played through the entire station PA system. At first I thought they were playing opera, until the fragment repeated again and again as a small part of the loop, advertising as it transpired a mobile phone service. Opera in that space would have been interesting, pleasing and, with La Scala close by, very appropriate. The looped advertising sound felt intrusive, overbearing, irritating and even profane in that grand building, adding a gratuitous extra level of noise to the existing reverberating cacophony of train engines, footfall, voices and sundry machinery. When I lecture on sound I end with our Four Golden Rules for public sound. Rule 1 is: make it optional. Rule 2 is: make it appropriate. Rule 3 is: make it valuable. Rule 4 is: test it and test it again. The sound in Milan station breaks all four rules at once. It is a very worrying example of what could be the future in all public spaces if we're not careful. Never did silence seem more valuable than in this awful noise.

The third experience was high in the awe-inspiring Dolomites, which I think are the most beautiful mountains on the planet. We trekked for three days, staying at rifugi up to 2,500m above sea level. The air was like crystal, the views were overwhelming and from time to time we heard the silence of the mountains. In my experience, the deep silence of nature is to be found only in high mountains or in deserts (hot or cold), because in these places there are no birds or insects. When the wind dropped between the intermittent high-altitude overflights by Ryanair, the Dolomites offered us that rare experience.

This is where I remembered the words of Evelyn Glennie, who said in her wonderful film Touch The Sound that silence is itself a sound, and not just the absence of sound. The deep silence of nature is rich and pure: it is the essential context for all other sound, just as a dress in black (the absence of all colour) is the context for what it contains. This silence is the sound between all sounds. Immersed in it, one can start to sense connection and resonance with all of nature.

Silence is a medium for growing human consciousness, an invitation to be fully present, and a doorway to a sense of connection with the universe, or God if you prefer. How sad that we have made it an endangered species - and that this process is accelerating. Will we in future trek across mountains wearing our iPods? Have we lost the desire to be present, connected and conscious? Or can we preserve the silent places and benefit from them in the ways of our ancestors? Conservation is not just about preserving natural beauty for the eyes: we must also fight to conserve our wonderful silent soundscapes.

Julian Treasure

  • Author of the book“Sound Business”; 

  • Chairman of The Sound Agency; 

  • BrandSound™ strategist;

  • Conference speaker

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