Research in Game Music: Silence

While working on the second installment of Research in Game Music:  Writing effective and non-repetitive game music (Part 1 here!), I stumbled upon an article from highlighting a 2007 Stanford University School of Medicine study about music.  The study (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here) basically wanted to scan people’s brains while listening to music.  It would appear “that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory.” (SD)  I mean, that makes sense.  We all get a bit mesmerized by music from time to time.  As we sit and listen, we may attempt to figure out where the music may be “going” (tonally, structure-wise, etc).  This prediction clearly requires brain power and focus.

However, what this study points out, and I think is worth further exploration, is this:  “Peak brain activity occurred during a short period of silence between musical movements – when seemingly nothing was happening.”  (DC)  Uh, wow.  The SILENCE had a profound effect, in fact, the PEAK of our listening prediction/brain activity occurs during the silence.

I also stumbled upon another article by Marcel Cobussen, a music professor at Leiden University in The Netherlands.  If you check out his website,, you can check out his entire dissertation, online: “Deconstruction in Music“.  It reads like a subway map and is full of small articles that branch off the main topic.  There were couple sections on John Cage and Silence, other composers and Silence, etc.  Out of all this, though, the article that interested me the most was, “Silence and/in Music“.  An expanded excerpt for you:

This brief and incomplete summary immediately shows the heterogeneity of silence. Silence and silence do not necessarily match. For that reason alone, silence deserves more attention. As Martin Zenck concludes in ‘Dal niente – Vom Verlöschen der Musik’ [On the Extinguishing of Music], however, the attention to silence is a peripheral moment in composition and music analysis. By no means is its status equal to sound (cf. Zenck, p.15). The pause in music, identified as an absence of sound, is the exception to the rule that has music designated as the center of the musical spectrum. Eduard Hanslick’s famous definition of music as ‘die tönend bewegte Form’ [‘form propelled by sound’] in no way indicates a music that is present in its absence, in non-sound. Sound and silence relate to each other as the essential versus the supplement, as the primary versus the secondary. It seems that not the tritonus (the augmented fourth), but rather silence is the true ‘diabolus in musica’ in Western music. Contrary to the tritonus, silence was never banned, but its raison d’etre has been thoroughly questioned up until the 20th century. Its function was mainly dramatic or rhetoric. Silence is subordinate to sound, and has for the longest time (still?) been regarded as something less significant.

Music, for the most part, has been either ON or OFF for many hundreds of years.  Notationally, how do we show “silence”?   In composition, we document silence during a piece with a rest.  In Famitracker, we simply leave it blank. It is, to us, a simple ABSENCE of sound and therefore, not AS valid.   Cobussen would agree (begrudgingly) that we do, in fact, treat silence as a second class citizen.

So how does this relate to the Stanford article?  If silence/anticipation stimulates the listeners’ brains, how can we effectively deploy these tactics in our own music?  Is is possible to write a piece that upgrades silence to first class and gives it a martini?

My brain really started to wrap around this after really digging into some chiptune tracks I’ve been working on for the past couple weeks.  With digital music, I feel like it’s even easier to convey this juxtaposition of silence and sound.  Built-in to digital sound is the ability to create both with the flick of a switch or code.  Most chiptune composers already employ this.  Imagine chiptune tracks without space, with all the channels activated and meandering.  There needs to be space (IE mistakes that all beginning composers make- “I have 7 tonal channels, I gotta use them ALL, ALL THE TIME.”  No.)

Face it.  We all love SOUND.  We all STRIVE to have wonderful sounds.  C’mon, sound is where it’s at.   LISTEN TO THIS GREAT NEW SYNTH I MADE.  DUDE, YOUR WAVE CHANNEL IS BALLIN’.  etc. etc. etc.  Still, our study shows that silence can be just powerful… and we don’t need cool wave table effects to create silence.

So where am I going with this?  Video games, much like symphonies and other predetermined and measured pieces of interactive art, find ways to employ silence as well.  In a video game, where there is already a ton of sensory overload via lights and colors and sound, does silence have an impact on us as players?  Can silence HELP our immersion and attention when playing games?

Example of Silence in Games #1:  LOADING…. LOADING…. LOADING….

Andrew High and I would agree (though we didn’t here) that loading screens definitely ruin our immersion while playing games.  Many of the older games had completely silent loading screens.  Hell, loading screens sunk entire consoles (I’m looking at you, Sega Saturn!)

Here’s a well known example of a loading screen:

If you’ve played any of the games in the Madden, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  The average delay from the game options screens (Franchise Screen, Online Screen, etc) to the actual game was usually enough for me to go downstairs, grab a beverage and some food, and come back to the screen, with time still remaining on the load.  Pretty darn awful.  On the loading screen, the game usually plays whatever music is cued up and then fades out slowly when the game is about to load.  Once it goes silent, you pretty much know the game is about to begin.  It’s a cue that we pick up on.  The silence SAYS something to us.  Interesting.

I mean, this is just one example of how the music and load screen typically line up.  A lot of the new games have music that just plays over the load screen or through it… and you’re going to need that little bit of music if you’re playing Skyim on PS3, for sure:

That’s pretty infuriating.  But at least it’s not complete silence.  Entering a new area cues up new music too, so that itself is a reward haha.

Example #2:  HARVEST MOON:  THE HERO OF LEAF VALLEY – y u no load music gud k?

Perhaps a personal example as I’m not sure how many of you guys played this but Harvest Moon:  The Hero of Leaf Valley for PSP has some major issues with the music.  I mean, the music itself is kind of nice and sweet and what you’d expect from an RPG about farming… but I’m more concerned with what happens when you change areas:

You wanna talk about “losing immersion”?  This game is a nightmare.  Every time you zone, the music cuts out.  It’s interesting though, because the music doesn’t restart… it picks back up where it left off… which makes it stutter along.  It totally drives me crazy.  I don’t understand what they were thinking.

Still, oddly, I sometimes find myself humming the next bar to the phrase during the silence.  I want my sound!  Where is my sound?  The delay creates anticipation.

Example #3:  Cue the death music!

Perfect example, again, is Super Mario Bros.  Let’s highlight this in an amusing fashion:

Dying plays the dying music… and then what happens?  There’s silence, followed by a load screen that displays how many lives remaining.  That’s your musical prep – your silence between movements.  It gives you ample time to think about what you’re going to do differently.  It’s not just Super Mario Bros too.  There are plenty of other games that have screens that give you a second to think about it after dying.

Example #4:  Dead Space IE I know there’s necromorphs here, I just can’t see them yet!

The Dead Space series employs silence to add to the drama of the game.  Nothing is more frightening than walking into a large open room with vents.  Clearly, something is going to happen.  Is it now?  How about… now!?  Let me walk a little… OH GOD NO!  MY FACE! Once a necromorph appears, the music rushes in and attempts to startle the player.  For example:

A very loose conclusion:

Obviously, there’s a lot to study about this.  My intention here was not to go into a 3000+ word paper on this but to point out some moments where silence could have some kind of affect on us.  Any thoughts out there?  Let me know and thanks for reading, as always!

About Classical Gaming

Steve Lakawicz holds an MM in Music Performance from Temple University as well as a BM in Tuba Performance from Rutgers University . His teachers include Paul Scott, Scott Mendoker, and Jay Krush. His love of video game music has lead him to form a blog, Classical Gaming, to promote discussion both casual and academic about the music of video games. He is the co-founder of the video game/nerd music chamber ensemble, Beta Test Music and regularly composes/performs chiptune music as Ap0c. He currently resides in Philadelphia where he teaches college statistics at Temple University. View all posts by Classical Gaming

2 responses to “Research in Game Music: Silence

  • veryverygaming

    Really interesting. There’s something I think a little unsettling about silence in games, like in that Super Mario Bros example. It’s something to avoid if possible for me. I used to have a problem with my Saturn when music wouldn’t play at certain times, which was also weird. During multiplayer games when the music cuts and just sound effects are left it would eventually get to the point where I’d ask to reset the console just to get it back! I think I might just be over-sensitive to sound though.

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