Silence in Music: God’s Lesson in Listening

Just this past Saturday I was chatting with a friend about the many distractions in our lives. The gist of the conversation was that we live in a society that does not place a high priority on “down time.” Time away from the every day. Time to rejuvenate ourselves. Time to relish silence.

This kind of down time is a requirement of the human condition. We just can not go, go, go endlessly. Our minds and bodies need a break.

Afterwards, that conversation remained with me and I started thinking beyond just the rejuvenating aspect of having down time. Going a bit deeper, as Christians we need a regular prayer life to help us rejuvenate ourselves spiritually so we can face the secular world on a daily basis.

As a musician for more than twenty-five years I was able to relate the need for silence in our lives as Christians to the combination of musical notes and rests that together make up a musical composition. Thinking more deeply about the importance of silence in music I saw parallels to the relationship God wants to have with us.

Read the Rests

I was in the sixth grade when I started both piano lessons and learning a band instrument in school. One of the hardest music lessons to teach a room full of a hundred 11 and 12 years olds is to read the rests.

Music is made up of notes and rests. The musical notes you play will not make sense if you ignore the rests. And the lengths of the rests is very important as well. If you make it too short, you will start playing over someone else and potentially cause a clash of sounds that is unpleasant to the ear. Conversely, wait too long on the rests, come in late, and you stick out like a sore thumb while also causing a clash of sounds unpleasant to the ear. Get too many people not reading the rests properly and the result can sound rather chaotic.

It can be extremely hard to learn to read the rests as a young musician. You are anxious to get to your part, the rests are boring, the rests feel longer than they really are, and you just want to play the notes. That is where the fun is after all!

Just like in life, we often find the most fun in doing stuff. And it is all usually good stuff, just like the music notes are all good. But focusing on the notes to the detriment of the rests can create chaos and unpleasantness.

Good Music Can Still Be a Distraction

I was out of town recently and on the Sunday morning of that weekend, my husband and I attended Mass at a church in the area in which we were staying. We walked in about 10 minutes before the start of Mass. The praise and worship style band was practicing in the church and people were talking and chatting with those around them in normal speaking voices. I tried to pray before Mass and had a difficult time concentrating because of all the noise around me.

The Mass itself was fine, for the most part, but the music was very loud. It is a good sized church and we were not sitting particularly close to the musicians, but it still seemed louder than I am accustomed to. I left that Mass feeling like I had not really had a chance to focus on why I was there. Instead of adding to the reverence of the Mass, the music seemed to be a constant distraction.

There was nothing wrong with the music itself, it was good music, but it created a distraction because of the need (it seemed to me) to fill the silence with some sort of sound. Ultimately what I missed during that Mass was the reverence that is often accomplished from some degree of silence.

Finding The Silence towards a Fuller Relationship

Just this past Sunday I attended a Holy Hour and Benediction and finally had an opportunity to sit in silence. And it was hard. I’m so used to distractions that when given the opportunity to relish silence I do not know what to do with myself. I loved that I could pray without distraction. I loved sitting in the huge cathedral with about 20 other people in complete silence. I loved gazing upon Jesus in the Eucharist. And I loved the opportunity to pray and talk to him. And I had a lot to pray for.

While I sat there I also thought about the conversation I had just had the day before about silence in our world. We need down time to rejuvenate ourselves so we can be productive in our day to day work. We need time one on one with our husbands on a regular basis so we can continually rekindle the love we have for each other. And we also need time with Jesus. But we need to listen too. I tend to spend my prayer time talking to Jesus. I pray for the intentions on my heart, I pray for the intentions of friends, I thank Him for the many, many blessings in my life, and I offer Him praise just for being God and my creator. What I often do not do, forget to do, is listen. I do not sit in silence and give Jesus the opportunity to speak to me.

As I sat in the church the other day thinking about all this I tried to empty the thoughts from my mind, gaze upon Jesus sitting on the altar, and allow Him to speak to me.

I was not completely successful, but it was a step in the right direction. Just as I learned from spending over 20 years as a musician, practice makes perfect. I only need to remind myself of this lesson and keep practicing it and one day I will be able to relish that silence more completely and at least give Jesus the opportunity to speak to me.

I can speak to him all I want, but that will only create a one-sided relationship. I want a complete relationship with my Lord and my God. I am working on listening.

In Conclusion

Music is more than just the notes on a page that creates a beautiful sound for an audience. The music is also made up of rests. These moments of silence add to the drama and intrigue of the music; it is what makes the music interesting. The silence is just as important as the notes the musicians play. In the same way, we need silence in our life. Not only should we use those silent moments in our lives to lay our petitions before God, but we also need to stop talking, start listening, and allow God to use that silence to speak to us.

9 Replies to “Silence in Music: God’s Lesson in Listening”

  1. Thank you for sharing this! “..what I missed during that Mass was the reverence that is often accomplished from some degree of silence..” Yes, yes. I love this from the perspective of one who misses an occasional silence at Mass, and as one who knows we need some silence and “rest” in life as well. Marvelous.

  2. This echoes what the saints tell us all the time. I hear people complain that there’s no point to prayer because God never talks back. He does, but as Isaiah discovered, His voice is a quiet whisper. One we often miss, because as you said, we’re too busy thinking about our part of the music. 🙂 Excellent article and something we all need to be reminded of often.

  3. Absolutely, Misty! I know *I* need the reminder a lot. I still need to work on this in my own prayer life; will probably be doing so for the rest of my life. But, that’s kind of the whole purpose isn’t it. 🙂 Thanks!

  4. I can’t help but wonder, too, why we need post Communion hymns? We’re supposed to be praying and thanking God after Communion, but that’s hard to do when people are singing around you. Even instrumental music would be better and facilitate the reverence of that time more than another hymn.

    1. Oh Misty! I am so there with you…I have sometimes been reduced to sticking my fingers in my ears (under my veil, not rudely obvious) to facilitate meditation after receiving Him.

  5. Oh I agree! When I played with a Church music group for a few years we always did two communion songs (it was/is a very big parish and this was the Mass with the most attendance). The first was a typical hymn, the second was usually something quieter, more contemplative, or simply instrumental. It was for the sole purpose of creating an environment of prayer. I always liked that. I don’t like being in a church that continues doing upbeat songs, etc., throughout all of communion. If they do, I personally feel that there should still be a time period of silence for quiet prayer given, even if it is after the priest sits down. So many times, the priest goes right into the post-communion and closing prayers and you never really get that time.

  6. If you have the ability to do so…. Please attend a sung Latin high mass at St Francis de Sales in St Louis, MO. It is so beautiful, the music will bring tears to your eyes and chills to your arms, even in the summer heat. It is worth the drive! (Takes us about 2.25 hours) They have one nearly every Sunday at 10 am CST

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