THE BLOG

What Is Music Without Silence?

06/06/2013 17:29 BST | Updated 06/08/2013 10:12 BST

There is one phrase I overuse to an almost criminal extent - "the power of music". As a Nordoff Robbins music therapist, it is both my currency and an easily digestible sound-byte that trips off the tongue when I haven't the time or inclination to explain what it is I actually do.

When music therapists talk about the 'power' music has, I think we are describing music's inherent potential to connect us, to move us, to remind us who we are and to change the way we think and feel.

Everyone has an instinctive understanding of the language of music. Consequently, we can't help but respond to it. As a (faintly embarrassed to admit) monolinguist, I find it pretty easy to ignore an overheard train conversation spoken in Spanish or Mandarin... yet if it's in English I find it nigh on impossible not to earwig at least a little. So it is with the language of music; we all understand it, so when we hear it we can't help but tune in.

Where did this innate, universal understanding come from? Well many would say that it is because we are all formed by music.

When we enter the world our primary relationship, usually with our mother, is fundamentally a musical one. There are the obvious musical tools - the lilting melody of her voice as she sings to calm us or her rhythmical rocking to lull us to sleep. But the musical nature of the relationship runs far deeper. In fact when trying to describe the nuances of how a mother and her baby interact with each other, child developmentalists such as Daniel Stern found that they constantly borrowed from musical terminology to do so; the rhythm of the interaction, the shifting dynamic range, a shared crescendo, and so on.

Even before that, our earliest experiences in the womb are essentially musical in nature. We hear the rhythm of our mother's heart beat on average about 26 million times before we leave the safety of the womb. We experience and internalize the regular meter of her pulse, her breathing, her walking.

We also hear the melody of our mother's voice. Or to be specific, we hear the melody, and we hear the silence when it stops. Many now consider this 'presence' and 'absence' creates our first meaningful experience of ourselves - of something being with us, then, through silence, absent.

I've recently found myself considering this relationship between music and silence in music therapy, which has been prompted by David Hendy's excellent Radio 4 series, Noise: A Human History. In this week's episode, in which he focused on humanity's affiliation with silence, Hendy said that 'in a world full of noise, the value of silence is rocketing'.

As a Londoner who spent 10 years living under the Heathrow flight path I know all too well what he means. But his insight reminded me that we take silence for granted at our peril. Indeed I believe that the source of the 'power' of music is, to a large extent, the power of silence. It is the silence before, after or during a musical experience that articulates and structures that experience, and in doing so helps us to make sense of it.

So silence, perhaps counter-intuitively, is one of the most powerful tools in a music therapist's armory. Because through the journey from silence into music and back again, comes meaning. And often our job as music therapists is to help clients find a balance between the two; for example with clients on the autistic spectrum.

Much of the original work that Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins did when formulating their approach to music therapy was with autistic children. Today, 50 years on, the range of client groups whose lives are transformed by the charity that bears their name has expanded enormously. However, at the Nordoff Robbins music therapy centre in London where I work we still see a lot of children and adults with ASD.

Commonly, these children develop repetitive, self-isolating cycles or patterns to create order and sense from what can be for them an incomprehensible, orderless world. So often they will come in to the music therapy room, find an instrument to play and soon get stuck or lost in one of these repetitive patterns - endlessly playing up and down the xylophone or beating a drum, unable or unwilling to stop; perhaps for fear that in the silence the incoherence of the 'real' world will return.

One of our tasks as therapists in this situation is to make that silence bearable. To use it to punctuate the music we make together, in order to make our musical connection meaningful and understandable. In doing so, we can then offer a pathway out of isolation to be able to communicate in a slightly more endurable world outside.

Silence in music therapy, as in life, can take on many qualities. It can be oppressive or mutual, uncomfortable or soothing. I often find in music therapy with verbal adults that when a long musical improvisation ends it is very difficult to come straight back 'into words'. Here an instinctive shared silence - sometimes of as long as a minute, can act as a de-compression chamber allowing us time to return from the intimacy of spontaneous shared music-making back into the realm of words and interpretation.

Many who go to classical music concerts will recognize that instinct in the couple of seconds' silence between the music ending and applause starting. It brings audience and musicians together in a moment of shared, intimate stillness, reminding us that what was experienced individually was also experienced together. And again it acts as a transition back into the wider world. That is of course unless some idiot ruins the silence with a self-agrandising 'bravo' before the final note has even ended.

So really when we talk about the power of music, perhaps we have in mind the eternal dance between music and silence, one framing the other to create meaning that is unique to each of us, spoken in a language that is universal.

The O2 Silver Clef Awards, raising funds for Nordoff Robbins takes place on Friday 28 June 2013. For more information visit nordoff-robbins.org.uk