MetaA4. Can silence exist?
- Can silence exist? Assuming that silence means the absence of sound we then need to be sure what we are meaning by sound, as well as by absense. This is not as easy a question to answer as one might think. There are puzzling questions that arise relatively quickly.
- 1 Why Silence Must Exist
- 2 Degrees of Silence
- 3 What is the Opposite of Silence?
- 4 Problematic Questions With Intuitively Correct Answers
- 5 Conclusion About Sounds
- 6 NOTES
Why Silence Must Exist
- Silence must be able to exist, one might think, because otherwise our practices in society would be absurd. We say things like "Please observe silence while in the room," or "Please be silent," or "While walking on this path, be as silent as possible." If silence doesn't exist, each of these statements would be impossible to conform to. It would be like having a rule "Please do not accelerate from slower to faster than the speed of light." Such a rule is pointless since this is a physical impossibility, according to Einstein's theory of relativity. If silence is impossible to achieve, why request it? Silence seems impossible to achieve whether our bodies are alive or dead. The matter in bodies continually makes noise by vibrating, or using motion like blood flowing, or even chemically decaying.
- If it is impossible to be silent because bodies are continually and constantly making noise why then is this often requested? The answer seems to be that requests for silence are to ask for someone to minimize noise making. It is certainly to request no talking, and probably also no banging on drums, i.e. rattling paper, or even dragging a chair across the floor. Since each of these activities produces sounds, it is requested that one refrain from them generally.
Degrees of Silence
- Degrees of flatness and degrees of silence.
What is the Opposite of Silence?
- What is the opposite of silence? One good answer is noise or sounds.
- What is noise or sound?
Problematic Questions With Intuitively Correct Answers
- To see what some of these problematic questions are let us first consider what intuitive answers we might give to some probing questions.
Are Sounds Physical or Psychological?
- There is a large question first about whether sounds are a mental/phenomenological thing or a physical thing, or both. Notice immediately if we conclude both, then sounds have a bifurcated nature. There would be a true mind/body split--not even a dualism--because each aspect (mental or physical) can exist on its own without the other. One can hallucinate music which is a phenomenological phenomenon not requiring vibrations through a medium. Paralleling this, one can have vibrations through the air when no one is around to hear it as when a tree falls in an uninhabited forest. This double aspect nature of sound adds a lot of complexity to the analysis of silence as the absence of sound.
Objections to Sounds Are Only Mental or Conscious Experiences
If sounds can only be conscious sensory experiences, a purely mental version of the definition of sound, then sounds do not exist out in the natural environment unless heard by a mind. This would require that a deaf bird alone in the forest when singing does not produce sounds, and this strikes many as counter-intuitive. Therefore, sounds cannot only be mental.
Conclusion About Sounds
Sounds Are Not Just Physical Vibrations of a Physical Substance
- On the other hand, if sounds are just vibrations through a medium, then what is it that you experience when hearing sounds? You certainly do not intellectually understand that the cause of the sounds you hear are vibrations through the air. This was a discovery by scientists.
- Beethoven is known to be a musical genius. He had normal hearing as a youth, but went profoundly deaf in his elder years. Let us assume that Beethoven was completely deaf and he would not react to normal volume sounds located behind him out of his sight. Suppose one day, Beethoven is composing his X Symphony. He now runs through the music in his mind's imagination. Can he hear in his mind what this never before performed symphony sounds like? If the answer is yes, then didn't Beethoven hear what the sounds were without there having been any vibrations through the air occurring, so sound cannot be only physical vibrations.
- If you deny that Beethoven heard any sounds then how do you explain/account for human's ability to seemingly hear music in the mind?
- I have a composer friend who woke up and wrote down the melody he was hearing in his dream. If he didn't hear it in his dream what was it about that experience that enabled him to immediately write down the song's melody? Sounds can then be dreamed or imagined. They can be heard in a dream AS a sound. If you hear sounds in your dreams what is it that you are hearing?
Are these dream melodies you hear in your dream when you are listening to someone play the piano NOT sounds. If in a dream it seems to sound like a sound don't we tend to automatically classify it as being a (dreamed) sound? Don't dreamed sounds have to be representing actual sounds if it is possible after having such a piano playing dream to write down the melody one 'heard' during that dream?
How can you be sure you aren't mostly just making it up as you write it down. Can't the former dreamer, now active composer, just be imagining that she just dreamed a melody and then spontaneously composing it and writing THAT down, but not a previous actual melody from a dream?
Of course this is possible and probably happens. Instead, though, imagine a detailed dream that you can recall vividly because it just happened to you just prior to waking. In this dream you hear a song on the radio on the table that you recognize well, it is the Beatle's song HELP!, sitting at the table is Ludwig Von Beethoven. Beethoven tells you he has been wanting to meet you specifically and so while waiting around he has learned to speak English, and he asks you to pardon his German accent, but he was being taught English by Hayden and he wasn't that good a teacher of English. You comment on the melodic structure of HELP that it is AABBCCDEFG. Because you have studied it for many hours recently and know it well. Beethoven says he's learned this trick from Mozart about inverting melody and he says you can get this: GFEAACCDD. He first whistles it, then plays it for you on a piano. Great I say. Then you wake up and write it down: GFEAACCDD. You run to a recording studio. You play it on the piano and now have the engineer play it back for you. Each time after Beethoven's whistling the melody, it has seemed to you to be the same note sequencing, basic rhythm of the piece and same melody, both in and during your dream, what you recalled immediately upon awakening and played it on your piano. It sounds just like the same melody to you both in and during your dream as well as during the recording and now the playing back of this recording. The recording engineer says to you, "So, this playback is only the second time you have heard this melody, the first when you played it during its recording and now the second and last time you have heard it during the playback. Right?"
"Wrong," you say, "It is actually the fourth time I have heard this new never before now heard melody. Let me count when I heard the melody of this tune. First when Beethoven whistled it in my dream, second when he played it on the piano in my dream, third when I played the piano for recording, and now finally fourth and last during this playback of the recording."
Why is this impossible? If it is possible and you accept the assertions could be true as posed in the scenario, then sounds cannot be only physical vibrations because dream content are not the same as physical vibrations even if physical vibrations must be in the causal chain for dreams to take place in a person's mind during sleep.
Are dreamed melodies experienced as if hearing it being played from a piano only facsimiles of a real sonic event? Or, are they qualia of a sensory mental state that can be experienced during veridical perception? In a dream, you ARE hearing a (dream) trumpet, OR you can experience, shall we say, 'comparable' qualia experiences while dreaming or with a vivid enough imagination perhaps.
- Wilder Penfield, famous Canadian neurosurgeon, had some of his patients report that they heard music while Penfield electrically stimulated a particular area of the brain. As soon as Penfield removed the stimulation, the patient reported the cessation of the music. What was the patient hearing if he wasn't hearing music, and therefore sounds? If you are hearing music, don't you need to be hearing sounds? If so, then sounds do not need to be exclusively vibrations sensed through the air or a vibrating of a physical medium.
- Can people hear music in their minds? What do we mean here by "hear music"? There are two sorts of hearing involved here. One is sensory and the other is non-sensory intellectual. There is the sensory experience of having a sonic sensory experience. This is different in qualitative character, as well as in kind, from the non-sensory intellectual experience of thinking about hearing music.
- Air is a gas. Is a gas the only physical medium through which sounds can travel? No, you can yell under water and hear it. Whales and other mammals such as Dolphins can hear sounds from long distances through a water medium. So, if water can carry sound waves that can be heard, then why not any physical medium, such as wood, or iron, etc.
- If a deaf person can feel with his or her fingers the vibration of the train rumbling through the tracks can this count as sensing the sounds?
- John Cage and his composition 4'33" in three movements. He was inspired to compose the piece after visiting an anechoic chamber that minimizes sound.
“Cage's visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University at about that time also figured in the story [of 4'33"]. On entering the chamber, expecting to hear total silence, Cage found that he heard two sounds, one high and one low. When he asked the engineer in charge why he had heard sounds, and describing them, he was told that the high one was his nervous system in operation and the low one was his blood in circulation. The experience was a transformational one for Cage's thinking as well as his music, since it gave a powerful example of the apparent and real relationship of sound and silence, and ultimately, as he wrote, allayed his fears about the future of music.
He realized it was impossible for there to be complete silence for living biological organisms because of the vibratory activity inherent in matter. He perhaps had some such thoughts.
- Quantum mechanics and brownian motion. Atoms are constantly in motion to such an extent that it is impossible, according to Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle, for a microscopic object at the atomic level to simultaneously have a position and a momentum. This means that all physical objects at the atomic level are in effect constantly vibrating. Vibrations if perceived can count as sounds.
- What is a vibration? Wikipedia Simple dictionary points out the relevance of vibrations to music production:
“If it vibrates in a regular way, it may produce a musical note because it can make the air vibrate. This vibration will send sound waves to the ear and to the brain.”
- Wikipedia on vibration has it that a vibration is:
“a mechanical phenomenon whereby oscillations occur about an equilibrium point. The word comes from Latin vibrationem ("shaking, brandishing"). The oscillations may be periodic, such as the motion of a pendulum—or random, such as the movement of a tire on a gravel road.” (bold not in original)
“The studies of sound and vibration are closely related. Sound, or pressure waves, are generated by vibrating structures (e.g. vocal cords); these pressure waves can also induce the vibration of structures (e.g. ear drum). Hence, attempts to reduce noise are often related to issues of vibration.”
- Review of Kyle Gann 's No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage's 4′33′′, by Rodney Lister, Tempo, Vol. 65, No. 256 (APRIL 2011), pp. 71-74, Cambridge University Press. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23020703