Music is often thought of as a way to express the creation of sound over a specific amount of time. All of our lessons about music and music theory deal with that creation of sound – for instance, a melody, or a harmonic progression, or even a rhythmic pattern all need sound in order to exist.
However, they also all need silence to give them meaning. Silence in music allows us as musicians to distinguish between different periods of sound, and gives more meaning to rhythms, dynamics, melodies, and just music in general.
So what are the musical terms for silence, and how is silence used in music?
The most commonly seen symbol in music that denotes silence is the rest.
A rest is basically the opposite of a note – instead of playing a specific pitch for a specific amount of time (e.g. a crotchet G), a rest tells the musician to be silent for a specific amount of time.
For a full description with pictures see our post on the different types of rests in music here.
Rests are found all throughout music – not every instrument can play all the time.
However, full score rests, in which the entire orchestra or band rests and does not play, are rare.
An example is the final few bars to the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.
The start of Beethoven’s 2nd Movement in his Ninth Symphony begins with quick bursts of music followed by silences:
Here are a few other examples of quick pauses of silence in pop and rock music.
They both have very small rests of silence, and these rests are used as part of the harmonic and percussive rhythm of the piece.
In this piece by the band Garbage, the whole band cuts out around the 0:03 second mark and the 0:14 second mark, creating a small beat of silence each time.
This next piece by Justice has even shorter rests included as part of the beat, first starting at around the 0:08 second mark:
Another musical term used for silence in music is tacet.
Tacet, which is pronounced tassit, literally comes from the Latin word that means “it is silent”.
So whenever an instrument is not playing during a piece of music, it is tacet.
The word tacet is usually used for long stretches of rest, often multiple bars (measures) or longer.
If a specific instrument or section sits out for an entire movement of a symphony, for example, their music will typically just say “Tacet”, with a long line through the music, like this:
This line through the stave is called an H bar as it looks like a letter H.
You’ll often see H bars used to indicate that the musician shouldn’t play for multiple bars which is known as multirests.
We indicate multirests with an H bar and the number of bars to tacet for written above the bar like this:
The example above tells the musician that they shouldn’t play for 12 bars.
You might also see the term tacet al fine which literally means ‘to be silent until the end.’
So, rests are used for short pauses, usually anywhere from a semiquaver (sixteenth note) to ten measures or so (this changes in different pieces of music – sometimes you’ll see a 64-bar rest symbol), and then anything above that would be a Tacet sign.
Sometimes in Jazz music you could see a box with the phrase “1 x Tacet”, which means “First time Tacet”, which just means don’t play the first time through a repeated section.
Caesura and Breath Marks
So far we have looked at rests, which take the place of a single note or multiple, and tacet markings, which tells the musician not to play for a long time.
However, there are also markings and symbols that can notate a quick instance of silence in between notes.
The most common ones you will see are the caesura mark and the breath mark.
A caesura is made of two forward slash marks (//), and is placed in between measures or notes to indicate a small pause in which the beat of a piece is not counted.
Caesura marks are for an indeterminate amount of time, and so can be really quick or fairly long.
A breath mark, on the other hand, is notated as an apostrophe (’) in music.
It is usually found in the music for singers or wind instruments (saxophone, oboe, etc.), and in those cases it literally means for the musician to take a breath.
For non-wind instruments, it just means for the musician to take a very short pause between one note and another, and to not have any connection between the notes.
Unlike a caesura, it is not meant to change the tempo, but tends to shorten the note before it, so that the next note can be played on the beat it’s supposed to.
Take a look at this short musical example, in which a caesura and a breath mark are featured:
Silence as Music
Listen to this piece by composer John Cage.
It is called 4’ 33’’ (“Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds”), and is one of the most famous and interesting uses of silence in all of music.
The whole piece of music is “made up” of silence.
The whole orchestra is instructed to sit there, not moving or playing their instrument, for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.
The whole idea is that the “music” of the piece comes from the ambient noise of the players and the audience, as they fidget in their chairs or cough or sneeze.
What do you think of the piece? Do you consider it music or not?
That’s all for Silence in Music
That’s everything there is to know about the use of silence in music!
It is a very interesting topic to think about – is silence part of music?
Or is the music of a piece the parts that aren’t silent?
Just like light and shadow, when it comes to music and silence, one can’t exist without the other.