The use of negative space in music has become an integral part of the evolution of the medium in its detachment of styles and emotional expressions. While the idea of silence in a form of audio entertainment seems inherently counterproductive, almost all forms of music implement it in some way to enhance the music being played. In regards to the type of music you’ll find on this site, you can see it in the open spaces breathed into post rock, or the aggressive staccato in more frantic pieces of metal. Unfortunately, there are also many examples in which the silence is utilized in a way that is a detriment to the music itself.
The question is then: ‘Why is this negative space used, and how is does it affect the listener?‘ This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive study focusing on all possible elements, but rather a means to start a discussion on the topic. For the purpose of this article, I am going to use the terms ‘negative space’ and ‘silence’ interchangeably. However, the idea of negative space I am presenting also includes that of ambient noises or other quiet audio effects that are not music in the traditional sense. With that said, I’d like to propose three explanations for the positive use of negative space in music to highlight the why a listener might enjoy it, and how to recognize effective use of it.
In doing research for this article, I came across a work by Adam Jaworski called “Silence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives” (1997). This text highlights three categories of silence that happen to explore similar ideas as the ones I was hoping to present. The first is ‘temporal silence’, in which there is a hard break in the flow of the melody – a cessation of musical time. The second, ‘spatial silence’, works as significant non-use and use of silence in music (ie. long stretches of music and quiet). The third is ‘gestural silences’, which are not perceived as stops within the music, but rather part of the melodic line. These in many ways mirror the ‘tension’, ‘contemplation’, and ‘stimulation’ (respectively) of which I discuss more below.
The first (and perhaps most obvious) is the use of negative space to build a sense of tension and catharsis. The tension aspect of this is pretty straightforward: The interruption of the stimulus creates a discomfort, not unlike that of dissonant and discordant melodies, and this tension builds up a sense of expectation within the listener. This is, like Jaworski’s mention of ‘temporal silence’, an immediate and brief break in the music (1997). Silimpoor et al. in their study on dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion in music explain that ‘a sense of emotional expectation, prediction and anticipation in response to abstract pleasure can also result in dopamine release‘ – dopamine being a neurotransmitter that is used in reward-motivated behaviour (2011, 261). They further explain that this particular form of dopamine release is unique when compared to that of psychostimulant or drug use. Due to this, the absence, anticipation, and following confirmation create a reward system that is strengthened through repeated listens (which might be why listening to that breakdown you love for the fiftieth time is so satisfying).
In the same way that humor uses misdirection to elicit an emotional release, this form of tension is only effective upon the experience of the subsequent moments of release from this tension (Westwood, 2004, 779). Basically, this means that in this particular use, the silence itself is not a pleasurable experience. Rather, it is the satisfaction and resulting comfort that comes with the continuation of the melody. Just as important as it is in comedy, the time of release is just as significant as the use of the misdirection itself (Westwood, 2004, 779). Too soon and there isn’t sufficient buildup of tension; too late and the effect of the reward response is lessened. There is also an argument to be made for the subversion of this tension and release (eg. when a song has a break but follows it up with a incongruent or alternate melody, subverting expectations), though that plays on another internal mechanism entirely.
Essentially, the positive implementation of the tension that silence brings in music creates an anticipation and subsequent reward for the listener. Furthermore, for it to be effective, there needs to be adequate space to build said tension, and a timely enough release so that the reward is not lost. Some examples of this in music relevant for our music community here would be the final moments of Protest the Hero’s “Bloodmeat” or Mandroid Echostar’s “Iron Hands” (though there are many examples in less heavy music as well). In both cases, there is an aggressive pattern in the moments leading up to the silence, a sudden several second break in the music, followed by a complementary groove or melody that successfully manages to elicit reward response from the listener. Another moment like this can be seen near the midpoint of Skyharbor‘s “Guiding Lights“, and while not nearly as aggressive, it is just as impactful.
An arguably ineffective example of this would be the ending of Periphery’s “Omega” (I’m not saying the song is good or bad, nor is the breakdown itself unenjoyable, simply that it’s not effective for the same reasons as explained above). Following the final chorus, there is a staggered droning chord that breaks up the tension of the silence, and the release comes past the point of its full efficacy. Of course, personal taste and previous listening experience come into play when talking about tension and release, but this cognitive basis hopefully provides a framework to understand the ‘why’ a little better.
Have you ever been listening to a rather long song, when suddenly a long stretch of quiet ambience came in? Many classic-sounding prog rock/metal acts have used this in their music, although it is also an important aspect of what makes post rock and melodic music emotional as well. This is similar to ‘spatial silence’ in that is a very deliberate and extended pause (Jaworski, 1997). This use of negative space is in many ways the antithesis to ‘tension’, being used as a relaxing breather or a palate cleanser. Most importantly, it acts as a moment in which the listener can contemplate and reflect on the music as well as the emotions they elicit. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t necessarily mean when all the instruments or harmonies cease, but when certain aspects are deliberately not used.
The best way to illustrate this is by using an example, and what better way to do this than by using a song by the prog rock progenitors Rush. In their seminal release, 2112, they created a rather powerful and expressive concept that resonated with many people on a very fundamental level. While the catchiness of “The Temples of Syrinx” helped, it was arguably the quiet reflection of “Discovery” that encouraged the listener to develop an emotional connection to the music and characters in a meaningful way. The absence of music (or pausing of such) is shown to lower blood pressure and ventilation, allowing for the break from Geddy Lee’s dominating vocals and complimenting music to give the listener a chance to calm down (Bernardi et al., 2006, 449). However, it is interesting to note that a complete absence of sound is not nearly as effective as ‘relaxing music’ in reducing cortisol levels from the stress elevation music inherently brings, making the ambient sounds of water and guitar as practical as it is narrative-driven (Khalfa et al., 2003, 376). This creates a space for the listener to reflect on the melodies of the song, but more significantly, settle into the emotions the artist wishes to express – in effective cases, that is.
This can also be seen in a far less overbearing way during moments in which there is only a partial absence of instruments or musical elements. From something as simple as when a chord progression stops to allow a bassline to take center stage, to the emotional pull that an absent vocal melody leaves after setting up the expectation of its presence: these examples act as both spotlights and invitations that only further strengthen this type of silence’s connection to narrative means. This is also nothing to say of the tonal and atmospheric implications that this type of a musical shift would bring (in both this and the aforementioned case).
So then what makes this form of negative space effective would be not a complete absence of sound, but a space in which the listener has an extended and subdued break from the current progression, and one that reflects on the overall theme of the music. Along with the example of Rush above, Pink Floyd and Anathema are experts in crafting these deliberate and continuous absences to elicit an emotional connection to the music. Less effective uses would be songs that use pure silence for long portions or portions in which the shift is so tonally disparate that it no longer sits within the internal narrative of the song itself.
This topic is a bit more ambiguous in its implementation of negative space. Up until now, we’ve been primarily talking about traditional moments of silence in music, but there are many other ways in which it can be utilized. As we see in a lot of interpretive jazz music, the idea of playing the ‘one’ or within a very explicitly defined structure limits the interpretive multiplicity of musical expression (Hatch, 1999, 83). As Hatch puts it, “…the practices of jazz…fill[s] the empty spaces in the structure of [the music] as it is currently constituted…” (1999, 84). These types of musicians attempt to use less explicit structures in order to explore the space within the musical framework in a way that is spontaneous and engaging. As such, their use of negative space is worked into the melodies themselves, not unlike the idea of ‘gestural silences’ (Jaworski, 1997).
In playing outside of the anticipated notes and harmonies that one would expect, they create a negative space within the moments of the music we would normally hear. One could argue this overlaps with the idea of tension, but here I believe the focus is not on relief or catharsis, but on stimulation – surprising the listener and forcing them to pay closer attention to the music being played. This is one reason why hearing offbeat rhythms and complex time signatures is so engaging in a lot of progressive and fusion music.
Research on the stimulation garnered by silence is sparse to say the least, so a lot of this is anecdotal at best. However, it’s hard to deny the effect of this negative space on how the listener perceives music. One of the reasons that some within the metal and progressive community (in my experience, at least) tend to lean away from popular or more simplistic music is due to its predefined and unsurprising presentation – the same structures and melodies presented in very predictable ways. Certainly that’s not the only reason, but it would explain why offbeat patterns and complex structures are so prevalent and held in high accord among these individuals; the effectiveness of these elements is owed in part to the stimulating use of unpredictable silence.
In a way, if there wasn’t any negative space in these moments, the uniqueness (or stimulation) would be lost. While this is not inherently a bad thing, it is just one more implementation of this concept within the medium. This plays a prominent role in progressive metal (think Dream Theater‘s “Dance of Eternity“) or any form of spontaneous jazz/fusion (such as Snarky Puppy‘s “What About Me?“). In these examples, the space is used to explore unique sounds and patterns in a way that elevates the music. You could expand this idea to incorporate many experimental and noise-based genres as well, making its effectiveness highly subjective. Improper utilization would come down to simply if it manages to draw the listener in, predominantly due to being intrinsically linked with personal taste.
While much of what I’ve discussed here carries variation and overlap in meaning and implementation, I think it does manage to highlight some of the more prominent uses of negative space in music. However, it is far from comprehensive, and there are undoubtedly many more pertinent examples out there. My hope is that this can start a discussion on the positive uses of silence in music, and how it can be used more effectively on the whole. So be sure to share your thoughts on the topic as well. And as always…
…thanks for scrolling
I very strongly get the feeling that you would enjoy Ozric Tentacles, who make a massive virtue of the concepts you describe