The Value of Silence in Creativity

I often spend a large part of my days in silence. I know, I’m a musician so one would think that I couldn’t live without a soundtrack for my life. The thing is, when I listen to music, I focus on it. I find that the only way I can multi-task while listening to music is if I’m doing something that doesn’t require actual focus, or something that I need to avoid focusing on in order to do; then music provides an escape because it occupies my mind. For instance, I absolutely must listen to music while I exercise, otherwise I focus on how uncomfortable I am and won’t finish. I also use it to manage my perspectives or mood, such as when dealing with city driving around Chicago, or going in to work at my day job. But if what I’m doing involves language skills, analysis, or other forms of critical thinking I find that silence is my best friend.

Silence, or a lack of human produced sounds, has been a part of my life for quite a long time. I used to be a person whose mind was in constant motion, honestly I’ve always been somewhat ADHD, especially when I was younger, now I’ve lost the hyperactivity aspect. In my early thirties I worked in a bank in central New Mexico; I wasn’t doing much musically, or creatively for that matter, and was having issues with depression. It was at this point in my life that I found the ability to still my mind. Often during my lunch-breaks, I would go to open areas at the base of the Sandia Mountains, or to a mesa overlook and simply sit and listen while staring out at the miles and miles of uninterrupted desert stretching out to the west. By doing so I found that I could empty my mind and shut down the seemingly endless chatter that was my thought process. Compared with the vast landscape and the sound of the ever-present wind brushing through, my problems and my very self would seem truly insignificant. The relief I got from this was absolutely amazing. I felt refreshed afterward and had a break from worrying about anything and everything.

After that silence became a sort of refuge, a place of stillness that I could access at home through controlling the amount of noise present in my environment and then through extension into my mind. I spent years cultivating the ability to silence my inner voice to the point where it became habitual. Housework, yardwork, you name it, I did it in silence without talking to myself. Probably I scrunched it all into my subconscious, but I wasn’t overtly thinking about anything. I wasn’t listening to my inner voice at all anymore and would feel annoyed when my inner silence was disrupted. Some might call this a meditative state, but only if the point was to silence the self because there really was no enlightened state being achieved. I think in some ways it became a means of escaping by denying a mental self-existence. What was once a means of relief became a way of life, and I recently came to the realization that while my inner silence was providing me with some peace in some aspects, it was causing damage in others. For one thing, I have always been stimulated by ideas. I find them exciting and like to work with them, puzzle them through and take them places. Self-talk is where ideas get hashed through and is one of the primary well-springs of creativity. I realized that by habitually stifling my inner voice I was crippling my creativity.

I still spend a good portion of my day surrounded by quiet, or what passes for it in my contemporary urban environment. But I have been making a conscious effort to re-engage my inner voice. Interestingly enough I am discovering that an active mind can also in some ways be a quiet mind. Just as the wind and land features filled the silence in my mind in New Mexico, so can the creation and pursuit of ideas, whether it is through musical forms or verbal. Now I use quiet to permit me to focus on things and to cut back on the number of distractions, not as a means to pass things by.  It allows me to see the subtleties in a musical passage or can be used as a background for rearranging language to communicate and play with ideas.

What does this have to do with music? That’s a fair question. Music, in and of itself, is a means of communication whether it is instrumental or includes vocals with lyrical content. It is a means of creative expression that requires connection to others and to both the emotional and reasoning centers of our beings. This requires us to be able to use both verbal and non-verbal communication and thinking skills. We also need to be able to use both sound and silence to express ourselves musically. When we combine sound and silence; the mix of the two with the addition of rhythm is what actually makes the difference between music and noise. (Yes, there is definitely room for argument on that one, but please bear with me!) If we don’t permit ourselves to openly communicate with ourselves, then we hamper our ability to communicate musically, and our ability to perform meaningfully. When I opened the door to my inner voice, I opened the door to expression. This has created further connection with the pieces I was, and am, working on and has promoted a much more musical performance of them. Self-knowledge and an understanding of what makes us we function best with others are of supreme importance to what we do and how we can improve as musicians. When we make a life-long commitment to learning and bettering our craft we must always take time for self-reflection and self-assessment. Inevitably what we learn from doing so will assist us in moving forward in our endeavors. So now I have to ask, what have you learned about yourself lately?

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