The Art of Silence

by Quentin Singer

From the various and versatile scores used in movies, TV, and video games, it’s easy to get lost in how powerful music can be in media these days. However, an increasingly common supplement for music is silence. Many directors as well as game developers are starting to rebirth the idea of silence being the ultimate tension builder. While this isn’t necessarily a new practice, many visual mediums are starting to use it more and more: No Country For Old Men, Black Mirror series, and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds are examples, just to name a few. Seeing this trend prevalent in popular media begs the question: when is silence necessary over music?


Looking at films like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining gives a perfect glimpse at a film whose tension relies primarily on the score. This film uses a style of composition known as aleatoric music, which deals heavily in improvisation and unstructured/unconventional musical cues. When watching this film, you’ll quickly notice that much of the fright factor comes from the music, and without this film’s music it would be more difficult to define as an effectively scary film. By comparison, the Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men, is arguably one of the most intense films of the early 2000’s. Having no music, the film relies on its brutal and creepy antagonist who is a mindless killer hunting down the protagonist. What makes the film so tense is the silence making the viewer feel anticipation. There’s always a sense of something being just around the corner. Along with anticipating, the viewer not having music makes the film seem more real and less overdramatized, which music can do at times. Both these two films are essentially the cream of the crop: The Shining showcases how music can drive a film’s overarching themes (horror and dread in its case), whereas No Country for Old Men proves silence provide for nail biting tension just like music can.


Video games more frequently use silence as a tool as well these days. Given the vastly different experience a video game provides as opposed to a movie, silence is an understandable tool to use in this medium. One of the most popular games out right now called Player Unknown’s Battlgrounds (other wise known as PUBG), has absolutely zero music in the gameplay experience. Taking the game’s extreme popularity into account, I thought it would be interesting to look at how the game effectively utilizes silence throughout its gameplay. For those who may be unfamiliar, it’s a massive battle royale competitive multiplayer game where the goal is be the last survivor out of the 99 other players. What’s so appealing about the game is it’s not a story based game, but has elements of one. The story is driven by every experience you have playing the game, and the amazing things you can see and do by battling other players to survive. From a narrative standpoint this game succeeds in its uncertainty, which is also why there’s no music: the game is so unpredictable and meant to be consistently driving tension. Ultimately, not having music drives home this sense of immersion for the player, too, making them feel assimilated with this world where the fight for survival is a serious manner. The main theme of the game is its unpredictability and tension. Most games that have predictable outcomes or scripted scenarios (like Zelda and Mario) use music to showcase said scenarios/actions, and these kinds of games manage to do so to their benefit.

My intent in broaching the topic of silence isn’t to bash or berate traditional music scoring, but open the conversation of why we use music in the first place. Analyzing the ways in which silence can be used effectively, especially here at Berklee where we have a famous film and video gaming scoring department, is absolutely crucial. Silence relies heavily on powerful roles and story, and can showcase phenomenal story telling and/or acting without feeling overdramatic. Music can co-exist within a great story, and really bring more character to the experience, but can sometimes feel over dramatic if done with poor/cliche story telling. Finding the balance of when to use music and when not to can be a difficult task, for when each tool is used correctly, it can ultimately make for a memorable experience.