For anything to have an effect there must be contrast. The same applies to sound. If you have a really intense scene with music, sound design and a lot of action you’re bound to have some silence to enhance those sounds. The longer you’re exposed to loud sounds, the more you get use to it and it loses the effect of it. It is therefore quite common to have a moment of silence in the middle of action scene, to be able to pick up and amplify the feeling of excitement and action.
But there can be other uses of silence as well. In an video essay by Tony Zhou posted in the article ‘The sound of silence: How you can use silence to tell better stories’ on the site ‘No film school’, he talks about using silence tied to a certain character. For instance in Superman, every time superman gets a hug there’s silence. He also gives the example of Tom Hanks character in ‘Saving private Ryan’, in battle scenes throughout the movie a silent moment will appear, where Zhou argues this is tied to the fact that Tom Hanks know’s he’s about to die and has accepted that. The use of silence in these ways will enhance the different choices or aspects of the characters, making us pay attention. The silence is in this way signaling to us that something important is happening.
As we are primed to pay attention to sudden changes, when it suddenly goes quite in a very intense scene, we direct the attention to what’s happening on screen and learn that this is an important moment.
Silence can also be used to enhance a feeling of creepiness, or that something’s off or wrong. Maybe in a scene where you would expect there to be a lot of sound, either because it’s a scene where we learnt from watching other movies that there should be sound, or either because there would be sound cause it’s a action filled scene. The movie ‘No country for old men’ plays a lot with silence, which makes the movie very creepy. I think it also ties back to the character Javier Bardem plays, Anton, while he is a psychopath and stays very and oddly calm throughout the movie. If someone commits murders, you wouldn’t expect them to do so while being very calm and easy-going with it. The use of silence in this case would then first, add to the creepy uneasy feeling of the whole movie, the silence signals that something off and odd. It is like the calm before the storm, you know something bad is about to happen and you’re just waiting for it to kick in. Secondly it represents Anton’s state of mind, the creepy silence and calmness throughout even violent scenes.
In this scene the silence is burdensome for the viewer. From the moment Carson discovers Anton in the stairs, and he knows he’s about to die and so does the viewer. The silence makes us the clip very uncomfortable as we have to guidance by the score, and nothing to lean against as we usually do in movies. It becomes very creepy and the feeling of something being very wrong enhances. It also makes us perceive the scene as longer. Watching something without sound makes us pay more attention to the time, and we have less impressions to process which makes us pay more attention and more awareness to the scene we’re watching. The moment when he picks up the phone there’s a moment of almost complete silence, the only thing we can hear is the some wind and ambience noises. This stretches that moment, making it feel like it’s taking forever until someone answers the one the other side of the line.
This scene is filled with tension, thriller and action. With no music we’re suddenly left out ‘to dry’. We are so used to having music to guide us in action scenes and to enhance the excitement that it feels weird not to have any musical guidance.
Another very powerful example of the use of silence is from Interstellar.
Here we have the musical guidance to build up a tension and guide us towards excitement, when the rocket actually explodes we hear a loud ‘boom’ and then it’s dead silent during the whole explosion. It works in this movie with the complete silence because it represents the total lack of sound you would have in space. In an other movie, total silence would probably feel really weird and off, but here it works. The explosion is happening so suddenly without warning that the silence enhances the shock and makes it more effective. This is an example where you would normally expect to have scoring and sound design to amplify the explosion, and when you don’t it makes you pay attention because it’s something new, and it signals the importance of this event.
I do want to point out, as Chris Knight as did in the article ‘The power of the silence in the movies’, that silence is a somewhat misleading term as the the “silent” scenes in movies is hardly ever ‘silent’. There’s almost always some ambience noise, except for the scene I posted further up where it actually is dead silent.