What Silence Says: U2, “Seconds” (1983)

Anechoic chamber with tank

Silence is impossible.  Deaf people who have never heard sound know that information available to other people is not available to them, but they can’t recognize the absence of sound as such.  For the rest of us, sound is inescapable.  John Cage went into an anechoic chamber at Harvard to listen to silence and instead heard two hums in his body, one from his nervous system and one from his blood circulation.[1]

On the other hand, without relative silence there can be no sonic event—no beginning or ending of a note, no breathing in a beat.  Silence is indispensable.  Some pop music furiously denies this principle by ladling on overlapping thick layers of sound in a dance-groove or industrial roar format that implies no beginning or end.  But any music that really got rid of silence would lose all identifiable character.  As a reminder of this universal truth it’s good to listen to a sharply articulated track like The Zombies’ “Time Of The Season,” shot through and through with tasty little silences, a piece of Swiss cheese in comparison with the omnipresent Velveeta on contemporary pop radio.

A truly distinct silence hook would be a segment of a song in which we’re conscious that nothing is being played and there’s something to relish in that interruption.  How might that happen?

The big silence we’re most likely to encounter in a rock piece is not an acoustical event so much as a kinesthetic one—a stop for several beats, enough to create suspense but not enough to throw a song off track.  The silent second measure of “Manic Depression” by Jimi Hendrix sounds at first like an anxious hesitation before the song takes its plunge; when that opening sequence repeats later, we realize that the cleared-out second measure makes a nice space for shouts and drum fills.  The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” stops for two great beats to gather itself before its final dash to the finish.  “Strange Brew” by Cream stops near the end for a four-beat measure which at first, before we learn to count it out, strikes us as a false ending, pulling our leg.  “Time And Time Again,” one of The Smithereens’ niftiest songs, contains a full four-beat measure of silence twice, each time at the pivot from verse to chorus, which makes it a structural part of the song rather than a one-off stunt.  (It’s an anti-fanfare heralding the line “Time and time again . . .”)  Jane’s Addiction does the same thing in “Stop,” and so does Busta Rhymes in “Break Ya Neck.” Taking advantage of our knowledge of blues structure, Chris Thile gets away with two empty measures at the turnaround of each verse in the a cappella section of his recording of “If The Sea Was Whiskey.”

Besides challenging us to count out the beat, how otherwise might a silence hook be meaningful?

There is silence that the edges of musical sound seem to want to flood into, like water into a pan pushed down in the sink.  The “Good Vibrations” break, shimmering with reverb from the last sound preceding it, has this receptacle-power.[2]

There is silence that seems to push the edges of sound back, like a high-pressure center pushing away clouds.  The fierce stop in “Stop” is like this.

There is silence that settles into its place in a discourse and helps frame it all together.  The stop measure in “Time and Time Again” is intelligible and reassuring in this way. (Compare the nice think-about-what-I-just-said stop in T-Bone Burnett’s “Monkey Dance.”)

There is breathing-spell silence that lets you recover from a bombardment of stimuli, as in the hectically rapped “Break Ya Neck.”

There is a calm, confiding silence that knows you can fill in information yourself or just wait, as in Chris Thile’s “If The Sea Was Whiskey.” (Another silence that knows you can wait: six beats’ worth boldly placed in the intro of The Zombies’ “I Love You.”)

But then in “Lulu” by Trip Shakespeare there’s a fraught silence of looking for a departed lover in vain, heard in between “your shoes step across the leaves, and old fall has come to still the trees . . .” and “I can’t wait up endlessly, how have I come to be alone?” (Compare the love-gone-AWOL silence in “Love Is A Deserter” by the Kills.)

There is silence that sounds like a tooth taken off a larger rhythm gear.  That’s how “Manic Depression’s” second measure sounds.  (Is it a poignant absence of efficacy, a limping, or part of a sneakier efficacy, a skipping?  Keep listening and find out.)

There is silence that puzzles, making you wonder, like the false ending in “Strange Brew.”  (You can keep hearing it that way.)

A subspecies of the Puzzling Silence is the Rosemary Woods Silence that sounds like part of the recording was erased by accident, as in Garbage’s “Supervixen”. Now you’re curious what you should have heard there (and later they’ll let you hear it).

There is silence that takes you ahead to whatever lies beyond the action now ended.   (You can hear the stop in “Strange Brew” that way too, as a visionary rather than false ending.)

There is silence that springs you free altogether, giving you what John Cage was after, “a way to change one’s mind.”[3] For this effect, more is required than a stop, which stays chained to the beat.  Consider the longer break—an intermission, one could call it—in the middle of “Seconds” by U2.

“Seconds” silence

Becalmed without music for eleven seconds, we can’t help wondering where we are.  Has the world ended?  (This is the song’s nuclear worry:  that some joker launches the missiles and we have only seconds to say goodbye.)   No; another possibility of silence is realized as we notice faint sounds of talk we can’t understand, like a whisper of what would be heard from the Other Side of our world if we could be perfectly still.  When we start barely hearing a field-recorded chant of military madness, “I want to be an airborne Ranger/I want to live the life of danger,” we have to ask, Are we hearing this old world’s power to rule us from behind all our scenes, even in silence?  (Now reconsider the moments when speaking voices leached through in the preceding verses.  What did that mean?)  The relative silence of this intermission is overdetermined now—or underdetermined, depending on how you look at it:  you have to find your own lifesaving relation to it, as U2 hopes, or perhaps not have a relation, which is Cage’s (non)aim:  “The essential meaning of silence is the giving up of intention.”[4]


Postscript:  For a very different perspective on our topic with a lot of other examples, check out Chapter 12 of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad (New York:  Knopf, 2010), “The Greatest Rock and Roll Pauses.”


[1]. John Cage, Silence (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), p. 8.  This discovery made him realize that he could compose a piece with no notes at all, the famous 4′ 33”, that nevertheless would be full of musical interest in any actual performance.

[2]. Since we listen to songs on albums, the silences between tracks can become meaningful.  Perhaps this intertrack silence hook is of the receptacle kind:  “And then there’s ‘Love You More,’ from the Buzzcocks compilation Singles Going Steady.  It stops, abruptly, brutally, with the line ‘Until the razor cuts.’  And then, before ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ arrives, there’s a yearning, anticipatory silence, possibly the most profound silence in rock ‘n’ roll” —Tim Footman, post of 7-5-07 on his blog Cultural Snow.

[3]. Cage, “Autobiographical Statement,” Southwest Review 76 (Winter 1991), pp. 59-76.

[4]. Cage at U. of Cincinnati in 1968, in Richard Kostelanetz, ed. Conversing with Cage (New York:  Limelight, 1988), p. 189.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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One Response to What Silence Says: U2, “Seconds” (1983)

  1. Steve Smith says:

    There’s a good suspense-silence hook in Pink’s “Sober” at 1:23. It’s a literal gloss on the word “silence” but long enough to make you wonder.

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