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In Praise of Silence

Adam Stothard

Mar 31, 2023

Why scores can’t do everything you want them to

Some context for what I’m about to say: a score is non-diegetic music composed specifically for a film, whereas a soundtrack is pre-existing songs that are featured in a film either diegetically or non-diegetically. Now I’ve been a musician for close to a decade, and there’s nothing I appreciate more than a great score. But what I’ve found time and again is that scores aren’t always necessary, and that the compulsory addition of a score can often dilute the impact of a scene. 

Just as music accomplishes what silence cannot, the inverse is true. Silence challenges the viewer, it asks them to enter their own psyche and to fill the void themselves. It’s the same reason the unknown is scarier than the known — because imagination knows no limits. Silence is the sound of eyes-widening, it is the sound of paralysis. It is the sound of realization, of epiphany, of soul-crushing understanding. Scores are the sound of spectacle, of entertainment, of popcorn crunching and joy. 

What I believe separates the spectacle of film from the reality of human experience is scores. We use scores to dramatize, to emphasize emotions, to lend grandiosity. But that clashes with reality. In real life, there is no grandiosity, our truest emotions exist essentially in silence. The most dramatic, life-changing moments I’ve been through in my life have all had the same score: the silence that populated both the air and my inner monologue. 

At its very worst, the score to a film is similar to a canned laugh-track. It holds the audience’s hand; it tells them what to feel, how to react. At its best, it creates spectacle and a heightened, magical feeling. E.T, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc. These films are looking to create spectacle,what they are not trying to do is portray reality. They are closer in essence to a theme park ride than to an emotional journey. And there’s nothing wrong with that either, it’s simply a creative choice.  

The standard multi-cam sitcom format, for its many artistic indecencies, seems to understand the value of silence. Anyone that grew up watching network television sitcoms knows how different the credits hit when they play out in silence compared to their usual theme. This and when the laugh track drops out, creating silences between the dialogue. The internet-famous scene from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where Will’s father leaves is an example of this. The reason I believe that scene resonated with so many isn’t only because the absence of a loving parent is so obviously devastating, but also because of the deafening silence. In the multi-cam format, there’s a pavlovian expectation of an audience reaction, or at the very least any reaction to tell the audience how they should act. But instead, the viewer feels that the studio audience is silently processing the raw emotion they’re watching on-screen, each coming to terms with what is unraveling in front of them.

There are many films that have relatively no score and some with zero score entirely that use it to their advantage. Some recognizable examples include Dog Day Afternoon, No Country for Old Men, Network, My Dinner with Andre, Winter Light, The Birds, Rope, Blair Witch Project (although found footage could be considered cheating), and many more. Although it is possible to argue that in order to pull off a film with no score, you’d need to be a master filmmaker, but the attempt is admirable nonetheless. After all, getting into the habit of letting everything on-screen communicate what it needs to without the addition of non-diegetic sound can’t be a bad thing. So, why not give silence the chance to speak for itself?

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