It may seem counterintuitive to examine silence as part of our study of sounds and music in film. Silence is in fact a very important element.
Silence can endow a scene with profound or transcendental meanings.
The interplay between silence and sound can also draw audiences’ attention or highlight a character’s alienation.
Silence can be unnerving. It can also be calming, depending on the dramatic situation.
Silence can simulate a character’s perspective. For instance, silence with muffled ambiance noise is often featured in scenes when realist films take the perspective of characters who survive a bomb attack. These characters would suffer, temporarily or permanently, sensorineural hearing dysfunction, due to the blast.
Akira Kurosawa uses silence creatively in his Throne of Blood (an adaptation of Macbeth, 1957) and in the “division of the kingdom scene” in his Ran (1985),a samurai adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
In the opening scene of The Throne of Blood, there is a long sequence showing a barren land enshrouded by fog. Without any nondiegetic sound and without a musical soundtrack, the film audience’s attention is directed toward silence and howling wind.
The camera eventually pans over to a castle, but strikingly there is no human in sight other than a single samurai on horseback rushing toward the castle gates.
The film’s closing scene shows the image of a stele shrouded in fog, with isolated mountain ranges in the background, accompanied by the piercing Noh flute and percussion. The stele marks the spot where the once glorious Spider’s Web Castle stood, and the beginning and end of Washizu’s career and ambition.
In Ran, shown below, silence befalls the Great Lord (King Lear) and his retinue when he falls asleep in the middle of an important meeting with his three sons on the mountain top. No one speaks up or dares to wake the Great Lord up from his slumber.
Silence here makes the characters and film audiences uncomfortable. The following film still shows the division of the kingdom scene after a boar hunt on the mountains in Ran.
Another film with striking uses of silence is Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010), which chronicles the tribulations and eventual triumph of Britain’s King George VI (known as Bertie among friends) who overcomes his stammer under the guidance of his Australian therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
The film frames Bertie’s vocal disability “in aural as well as visual terms,” as Alexa Alice Joubin theorizes. During their first meeting, Logue asks Bertie to read a text aloud and assures him that he can read without stammering even before treatment begins. He ventures to record Bertie’s speech on a Silvertone Home Voice Recorder—the latest technology of the time.
Bertie reluctantly gives in, only to be surprised when Logue puts headphones on his ears and plays music. The text in question turns out to be Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. (Read the speech here on the Folger Shakespeare Library.)
With music in the headphones, Bertie cannot hear himself (a form of silence from a character’s perspective), and the film puts the audience in his aural perspective as we hear the Overture from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro on the soundtrack.
Visually, however, the film audiences take Logue’s perspective. The gap between hearing and seeing is highlighted by the dual visual and aural perspectives. The Overture drowns out Bertie’s recitation.
Unable to hear himself, Bertie assumes he has humiliated himself again with his stammer and decides to end the session, but Logue persuades him to keep the record even if they will not meet again.
Your Turn: Analyze the interplay between silence (as pauses and hesitation during a speech) and music in the final scene of The King’s Speech. George VI prepares to address the country on radio in 1939 when Britain declares war with Germany. Logue is present to help ease the king’s anxiety.
Bertie’s script has been so meticulously marked up that it resembles a musical score. The cues signal not only dramatic effect in delivery but elocution and letters or words that Bertie tends to stumble over.
Answer Key: The soundtrack is as important as silence, static, and stuttering. With the rhythmic second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 on the soundtrack, Logue conducts the king as he reads the speech to the compelling pulsation that persists throughout the piece.
Logue’s hand gestures and the pauses the king takes synch up with the symphony, beginning with a repetitive rhythmic figure in the calm melody played by cellos. The tempo of this particular movement is a moderately paced allegretto that hints at an underlying melancholy but not depressing sorrow.
The constant repetition of themes and rhythm interweaves counter melodies, rising up through the instruments and sustaining an ominous undertone.
Just like in the “to be or not to be” scene, music here is both a cinematic element and a heuristic curative device for the character.
Read more in Alexa Alice Joubin, “Can the Biopic Subjects Speak? Disembodied Voices in The King’s Speech and The Theory of Everything,” A Companion to the Biopic, ed. Deborah Cartmell and Ashley D. Polasek (Wiley-Blackwell, 2020), 269-282.