Silence: The Way in Which Great Composers Use the Absence of Sound has a Profound Impact on Their Music

By Evan Johnson | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Sometimes we forget how important silence is in music. It has as many functions as sound—and can be just as expressive. Tiny silences can strengthen or clarify individual notes by setting them in relief (staccato notes, for example). We can separate phrases from each other with silence, so that they make more sense. Silence can add refreshment, suspense, surprise, shock, focus, or humor. It can organize structural elements, alerting us to where we are in the musical landscape. It may even function as a structural element itself—and can be stretched, shrunk, repeated, moved, developed, and recapitulated. Let us look at a few examples, to let some silence into our minds.

Beethoven uses crisp bits of silence at the beginning of String Quartet No. 1, Op. 18, No. 1 (Ex. 1), to highlight his crisp bits of motive. After braking four times, we’re really ready to get moving, but Beethoven stops us a fifth time (bar 20)—stretching our frustration tolerance, but finally letting us travel forward with no more written-in silence for quite a while (till the eighth-rest in bar 68).

Beethoven’s gaps grip us so hard that we can’t wait to get away from them.

Haydn uses silence in a similar way for the opening of his string quartet Op. 20, No. 4 (Ex. 2), but he stops us many more times (eight!) before moving on. However, the result is gentle and soothing—quite different from Beethoven’s fussy and harmonically provocative start. Unlike Beethoven’s knotty twitch of a motive, Haydn’s smooth, repeated notes lead into the same pitch and then grow a leisurely four-bar tail before coming to rest. The cello drone also calms. Though the tempos for both pieces are about the same, Haydn’s more broadly paced material and his fairly routine harmonies lull us into patience. Even the forte eruption of B minor (bar 31) settles back to sanguinity after yet another general pause. All this silent space is so relaxing that moving on in bar 42 is a surprise. In contrast, Beethoven’s gaps grip us so hard that we can’t wait to get away from them.

Silence can also be humorous, as in the Prestoof Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131 (Ex. 3a). The mood at the end of the previous movement (laced with poignant silences) is splattered by the cello’s opening forte. The following bar of rest doesn’t give enough time to digest the crazy outburst before everyone begins scampering. This silence returns several times during the movement but gets so confused by who’s up and who’s down that it barges in early (bar 160). Pizzicatos twit it for jumping the gun, and one of them snatches its place after the new cello outburst (bars 167–168). 

The last time around is a complete mix-up. Silence again jumps early (bar 462); cello and viola burst out in A major before pizzicatos can get started; silence grabs its chance to pile in again without pizzicato interference. But when the cello cues it in E major (the right key, bar 469, Ex. 3b), the cello continues its swirl, joined by the first violin and more pizzicatos, crowding out silence in bar 470. This is slapstick at its best!


Haydn also jokes with silence. Much of the material in the last movement of his string quartet Op. 50, No. 1 (Ex. 4), circles like a whirligig. Near the end, the downward part of the spin cycles to the expected stop. And we stop indeed—for almost three bars of silence. Then a puff of breeze sets the swirl going again, with the upward arpeggio borrowed from the second violin’s earlier lead-in to the tune (bar 8). 

This points out with a wink what we may not have noticed, because of the scores of times we’ve heard this motive start strongly on the downbeat: that the accompaniment rolls up as the tune rolls down. The bar 225 version of the tune acknowledges the underlings’ updraft clearly (for a change). 

The long rest also teases us for our assumption that something cyclical must stop.

The long rest also teases us for our assumption that something cyclical must stop. After the wheel starts again in bar 225, it stops dead four more times. Each time on a perfect cadence. Followed by a silence. And then a restart.

The “joke” in Haydn’s quartet Op. 33, No. 2 (“The Joke”) (Ex. 5), involves silence. The last movement’s tune, which recurs many times, returns for the final time in fragments. What was, at the beginning, a standard eight-bar period falls apart into two-bar bits suspended in silence. The last stretch of silence (where we hope to fool the audience into clapping) is almost five bars long—after which the piece finally ends with the beginning bit. But beyond the fun, Haydn is making serious observations about how we understand music. And about how music reflects our experience of life. He has cleverly built his tune so that the first two bars sound like the first step in the unfolding of a standard phrase but can also serve as a legitimate ending. So, Haydn asks, how do we know which it is? And does it matter if we don’t? 

In the classical style, music starts with an idea (motive or tune), which changes through harmonic and structural adventures, and then returns home in a logical and deeply satisfying way. But in this case there is a contradiction in the theme’s moving away, because of the interchangeable functions of these first two bars. Furthermore, we don’t discover and can’t fully process this until the piece is over. Normally we count on a composer’s guidance to reach a satisfying ending—and no one is a more skilled and reliable guide than Haydn. But here, in spite of his grounding in the rationality of the Enlightenment, he pushes us toward doubt. It is ironic how unsettling this ending actually is.


For perspective, let’s look at some silence that is blatantly troubled but does nothing to dislodge our sense of home. Each of these pauses from the slow movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 18, No. 1 (Ex. 6), is almost as long as the last one in “The Joke.”The anguish of the loud diminished-seventh chord eventually gives way to other tensions, as the chords tiptoe almost unbearably slowly but predictably (through chair squeaks, light-bulb humming, or crickets) toward the recapitulation and home. Romeo may die in this movement, but we are very much in our seats to witness it.

For silence that is similarly fraught but much subtler, we turn to Mozart. He is not often as blunt as Haydn and Beethoven like to be, but his silences are just as telling. In the Adagio ma non troppo of his String Quintet No. 4 in G minor, K. 516 (Ex. 7), he lures us into heartbreaking silence—and then retrieves us from it in tangles of ambivalence. 

He sets our expectations in bar 3 with pairs of 16th-notes, which at first cry alone (with rests underneath). The other voices join in a crescendo to a passionate downpour at bar 4. After a bit of soothing (especially from the cello’s parallel sixths under the first violin), stark fragments take over at bar 5. There is no real break in the sound for the next three bars, but the music is skeletal and bleak, with gaping registral spreads. After a loud wail in the top voice at bar 8, all the voices regroup, but run into a deceptive cadence on the third beat of the next bar. Now the sound stops. What to do?


The 16th-note pair from bar 3 jumps in to try the cadence again—but this time with everyone’s support underneath. The effort continues on the second beat of bar 10, but fails pathetically. The cello drops out, the others drop to piano, and the 16ths drop to D-flat, adding a destabilizing seventh to the tonic chord. (The note was D-natural earlier.) 

With brilliant subtlety Mozart has recreated the melodic and rhythmic pattern of bar 3—skewed a beat too early. The previous sobs in the upper line were each followed by a beat-and-a-half rest, but the lower voices covered these gaps. Now, however, since all voices speak together, silence fills the remainder of bar 10. And this silence feels huge, partly because of the hesitancy of the last sound, but also because it is a beat longer than the gap in the top line at the end of bar 3. 

More fragments break the silence. The upper voice begins coolly, as if from bar 7, ignoring whatever despair may hover in the long silence. In spite of this impassivity, however, the combined motion of the three upper voices at bar 11 seems less stark, and the harmony gentler, as it bows to the subdominant (on the downbeat) and continues a normal cadencing progression.

“Silence” is excerpted from Johnson’s 2018 book Music and Relationships: Listening for a Better World. For related audio tracks and more information, visit