SOUND and Silence

Sound and silence can be partners, rather than opposites. This is especially true for the way musical sound can silence the inner noise in our heads—that rush of thoughts and emotions that prevents us from experiencing silence of the mind and heart.

Recorded music has always been able to calm and centre me and, being a child of the 50s, the primary source of recorded music for me is still vinyl records. The soft crackle of the stylus in the lead-in groove of a record is a suspended moment of anticipation; a little sound thus ushers in the bigger, fuller sound of the music to follow.

About fifteen years ago I discovered valve amplifiers, the original sound partners of records. Since then I have enjoyed restoring old ones and even making new ones. Almost all the old ones came to me broken, usually with a noisy hum, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning to remove this noise and make them as quiet as possible. Most now only make a soft hiss when I put my ear right up the loudspeakers.

Via these two mid-century devices, music flows from a thin spiral groove traced in plastic, out in soundwaves and into my ears and heart. On a good day, I can close my eyes and see the music, with each musician and instrument floating in space. As the music takes control, I exhale the tension in my body. As I attend to the music, my thoughts stop racing and then take a quiet seat in the corner of my mind. They are still there, but they do not clamour for attention. In this way, outer sound brings inner silence.

Paradoxically, I usually do something else while I enjoy this stillness. I browse the internet, read or pray. Music opens up the inner space for me to do these things better. Occasionally, I stop and just soak in the music. Every twenty minutes or so, it is time to flip or change the record, and often this moment comes as a surprise, waking me from a deep place of inner silence.

The Beach Boys once sang, ‘add some music to your day’. Why not do this today? Break the spell of the television or the worry list. If possible, be alone with the music. Stop, listen, breathe. As the sounds draw you into stillness, begin hear with your heart.

David Holgate is Canon for Theology and Mission at Manchester Cathedral