Silence is the absence of sound.

Or perhaps… another way of looking at things! This is a little meme I made; I’m pretty certain I made up this phrase. 🙂

TL;DR (Overview)

  • Silence is the absence of sound.
  • Silence is as important as notes in music.
  • There are several ways of indicating silence:
    • Rests
    • Tacet
    • Caesura and breath marks
  • When performing, the rests must be counted as beats
  • Silence in music can create suspense, emotion, and even humor.
Go to the extras to test yourself!

Is silence really an element of music?

While many people don’t consider silence to be one of the main elements of music, it’s so essential that music wouldn’t be the same without it.

Silence is just as important as the notes in music.

Imagine asking an instrumentalist to play on EVERY beat in EVERY measure for the WHOLE song. It would be impossible, especially for wind and brass players. When would they breathe? How could they play every single note without stopping?

What if a singer had a score with NO SILENCE in it anywhere? How and when would he or she be able to catch a breath?

What if all the instruments in an orchestra just kept playing all the time, never stopping? Wouldn’t that be exhausting to listen to?

Fortunately, these things never happen, thanks to the moments of silence that are indicated in a score. There are several ways in which a composer can indicate moments of silence.


In music, silence is usually represented by rests. A rest can come at the end of a phrase, or in the middle, or even before.

A rest allows a singer or instrumentalist to take a breath. It can also show where a musical phrase begins or ends. It can also make a phrase sound more interesting, by adding a bit of suspense…

Musical notes have different “note values”. For each one, there is a corresponding rest. Look at the chart below:

Notes and rests

When we want the silence to last several measures, we use a “multirest”. This is found more often in instrumental music than in vocal music.

The example below shows a 7-measure multirest:


Other terms for silence in music

There are other musical terms to speak about silence. “Tacet” indicates “a long period without playing”, from the Latin “it is silent”.
A caesura is indicated by a double slash – // – and tells the player to make a break in the music. The length of the break is variable, and depends on the situation, the artist, the conductor… A breath mark in a score looks like an apostrophe – ‘ – and tells a singer where to breathe.

Counting Silence

When you’re counting the beats in music, you have to count the rests as well as the notes. Look at the example below. In the first line, there’s a note on every beat, so it’s easy to count. In the second line, there are rests among the notes. The rests have to be counted as well!

Look at the first measures of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachmusik, and listen to the recording. The first few measures of this piece are very famous, and without the rests they wouldn’t be the same!

Mastering silence: adding another dimension to music

When we have a conversation with another person, silence can have a lot of different meanings. Some people are very good at using silence when speaking to others. The same is true in music. Mastering silence is an integral part of being an excellent musician.

Bonus Question

In what language is the word "ma", which means "the space between sounds?


The Japanese have a special word, "ma", meaning "the space BETWEEN sounds", is something a musician must master.

Silence can be exciting

Listen to this recording of a Fantasia by C. P. E. Bach (one of J. S. Bach’s sons.) Can you hear how the silence makes the music more exciting? (The instrument he’s playing, by the way, is called a “fortepiano”, which was invented in the 1780s, and is a predecessor to the piano.)

Silence can be suspenseful and funny

In the “Presto” movement of Haydn’s string quartet, “The Joke”, silence is used to create suspense (you’re not quite sure when the piece is going to end!) and it’s even kind of funny.

Here’s the whole quartet (all three movements); the “Presto” movement starts at 13:55, so you can skip to that if you’re short of time. Once you get to the presto, be sure to listen all the way to the end, or you’ll miss the fun!

Silence can make the music live a moment longer

During a live performance, especially in a space where the acoustics are very good, a short moment of silence at the end of a piece can help the music continue to “live” for just a bit longer after the instruments stop playing.

Listen to the song below, and focus on the end of the song. When she finishes singing, there’s a pause in the audience before they applaud. Can you feel how they’re still “in the music” during that brief moment of silence at the end?

When silence IS the music

In 1951, the composer John Cage “wrote” a piece composed ENTIRELY of silence. It’s called 4’33” (Four minutes and 33 seconds.) This is the Berliner Philharmoniker performing the piece. (Side note: they performed this piece in 2020 to mark the beginning of the shutdown for the orchestra… and therefore, months of silence to come.) At the beginning, you’ll see the term “tacet”. What do you feel when you “hear” this piece? How does the audience react?



Silence = absence of sound; silence: as important as notes; rests: whole rest, half rest, quarter rest, eighth rest, sixteenth rest; tacet, caesura, breath marks; rests must be counted; silence in music can create suspense, emotion, humor…