Music Matters: Delighting in Silence

Each Tuesday in Music Matters, Matthew Linder explores the intersections of music, culture and faith.

An examination of the importance of silence in connecting with our God.

Lent is a season of giving up something or taking on something new, to refocus the entirety of our being to the triune God. Since we are in the midst of this season, I thought I would reflect on our daily consumption of music and the need for us to engage more often with God in times of silence and stillness. Something I write for all of us to consider, including myself.

I love music. I have two degrees in music, blog about music and teach music. If I am in the car, at home dancing with my daughter, working, on a walk or writing—I am listening to music. Even when I do not have music playing, I have a mental playlist of songs I riffle through. Many of you might have similar experiences in your daily feast on music.

Stepping into the public square, music seems to be inescapable. From the ubiquitous Muzak heard in shopping malls, elevators and hotels to our instantaneous access to almost the entire musical output of all human cultures on our smart phones and tablets. There might be very few moments in any of our days were we are not inundated with music.

This is not to say that music does not have benefits. A recent study showed that workers can concentrate better on their work if they are listening to music. Another study found that listening to fast-paced songs while exercising increases the speed at which one works out. It is no wonder then that we find worship of our God is through music invigorating, and that it deepens our connection to God and the community which surrounds us.

University of Florida  infographic, though, shows that when we listen to music our brain fires on numerous cylinders. According to the graphic, music affects so many aspects of the brain that processing music can be a form of information overload. As a culture who is already obsessed with easily acessible information, we are equally obsessed with filling our day with the pleasing sounds of music. The primary reason being: Silence scares us.

Most of us would agree with Danish composer Carl Nielsen, “I love the vast surface of silence; and it is my chief delight to break it.” And this is exactly what occurred when avant-garde composer John Cage had pianist David Tudor sit at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds on August 29th, 1952, playing nothing. As Cage later recalled, “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

One thing I have noticed in Evangelical churches is our penchant for providing a musical soundtrack for our prayers, as if prayer is not worshipful enough on its own. That people might feel so uncomfortable with silence that they, like John Cage’s audience, might walk out the door. Despite our discomfort with silence, we need to purposely and intentionally spend more time in silence with our God. Music often serves as a distraction, filling in moments which could be better spent listening for that small, still voice of God.

This is something the Psalms reflect and impress heavily on, as in Psalm 62:1, “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.”  Or Psalm 131:2, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” The same was true for Jesus who withdrew from the crowds and his disciples in order to be with the Father—distraction-free and in prayerful silence (Luke 5:16). Next time we feel the need to break through the barrier of seemingly oppressive silence with our iPod or radio, instead let us delight in silence to bring us closer to our God.

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  • Paul Willingham

    Thank you for bringing this issue to light. This insistence on breaking the silence carries over into the communion service as well. Prayer time and the Lord’s supper should be a time of reflection and introspection. A worship band and several singers infringe on that quiet time. The next logical step is music during the sermon.

  • Tim

    To counter Paul’s comments:
    I spent a lot of time in an “emergent” churches in the UK, where the slots closest to “sermon” often do have music. It is a logical progression. It’s also a progression that comes from our primary source of learning – television, where even the best documentaries will have a musical backdrop.
    The reason for this from my perspective is this. There are two audiences in services – those who follow Christ, and those who are being drawn by him. For those being drawn, silence is often indeed uncomfortable because it is out of their experience, and the danger is that subconsciously they associate prayer and approaching God with discomfort, which is the opposite of the truth. We therefore created an environment that is more comfortable for those on the edge by placing it in a shared cultural setting. Those who have most discomfort are usually those whose culture is based on a lifetime of Church attendance, and are therefore conditioned to “this is what church should be” to counter this.

    There is a place for silence, and we sometimes went there. But like an orchestral piece, it is less jarring if you lead people there in a way that makes them feel safe, and actually able to listen to more than the sound of the trees (or more usually – rustling of bibles, dropped noticesheets, small children, cars passing, conversations on the street, distant sirens……). That actually takes skills and levels of preparation beyond what many churches can deliver.

    Silence as Jesus (and the monastics) practice it is a discipline. It takes work. It can’t just be dropped in for 30 seconds between songs. We need to develop it and embrace it. But public worship may no longer be a primary place for that in a world that has forgotten stillness. We have the other 6 days and 22 hours to work on it.