A little bit of quiet

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
If speech is silver and silence golden, background noise is definitely colourful, writes Liz Breslin.

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin

New definition of irony: waking up to speakers pulsating with The Sound of Silence. Oh, for a peace of quiet. It's becoming more and more of a tricky thing to come by, even when in possession of an RD address, with a family and a cellphone constantly on the go and a very busy head.

They say speech is silver and silence is golden. And background noise is definitely colourful and commodifiable. There are apps (of course) for white, pink, blue and Brownian noise, for those of us who want to orchestrate the golden moments. Even if we should accidentally ascend into the opaque fuzz of daydreams, the chances of a ping or a dop or whatever cute notification tone is currently in vogue, bringing us back, noise to the grind, are almost guaranteed.

We've been sold a stick and carrot line policed by productivity and fomo. Can do anything. Must do more. Keep connecting. Silence is tyranny. And yet. A study on little micey brains in 2016 had a control group that were subjected to two hours of silence a day. The scientists were looking for something else but what they found was that the mice grew new cells in their hippocampi and this might have exciting ramifications for silence being a building block for memory.

I'm not entirely sure how you would test the memory of a mouse, but this is the sort of thing you can muse about to your heart's content, looking for something else and finding your own surprises, as your mind goes roaming in a thousand words of silence.

And your heart apparently does also get more contented, even with a couple of minutes of intentional quiet a day. Heart rates and blood pressure respond more favourably to silence than to any of those meditation playlists supposedly good for the Zenifying of your life. Plus there are no annoying ads to contend with when you use the free version of actual silence.

Was it Mozart or Debussy or David Draiman who pointed out that it is the silences that make the music? Those little rests scrawled on the stave are crucial to the sonic experience, or else it's just a wall of noise. It's the sound of silence, as much as the sound of music, that sings the hills alive.

But the listener has to be as attuned to it as the composer, and this is where we're going more and more sedatephobic. It's a downward spiral that can't be managed with a plug-in for Silence or Do Not Disturb. Noise (which, as a word, may or may not come from the Latin roots for nausea and harm) creates stress and then, in the spaces between, the anticipation of the next bout of barking or pinging or dopping or outdoor motoring or sirens or whatever creates more stress until we're just bundles of fluctuating cortisol crying out for something to address the cycle.

We've engineered our lives to make silence inaccessible, undesirable and just a little bit frightening. And of course, not all silence is created equal shades of gold. Sulking silence, stubborn silence, oppressed silence, exhausted silence. Mindful silence. Smug silence. Something to do with Buddha being silent and yet also noble about 14 questions.

Silence can say a heck of a lot for an intentional lack of sound. The silence of nothing left to say. The silence of coffee and a dream. In Japan, it is integral to a respectful conversation. In Finland they're so proud of their silences that a 2011 tourism campaign was called Silence, please!. And in my mind, with all my love of words and music and talkingtalkingtalking, the thing I would like to say most about silence is ...

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