Silence is Golden...

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restI've been thinking about rests. As in the silent bits within a piece of music, not as in putting your feet up with a cuppa. In fact, that distinction shows why people tend to overlook them. The name makes it sound like the music is off-duty.

If you use Sibelius as a notation program, you start off with a page-full or rests and the act of writing music involves replacing rests with sounds. This makes it feel like rests are the bits that you couldn't be bothered to compose.

But rests are not merely negative, not-music moments. They have value for both performers and listeners, and their deployment by composers and arrangers can involve a great deal of careful thought. They are there to do things for you that no other musical element can do.

Their functions include the following:

  • Sonic: silence is part of the universe of sounds available to build a musical world. Never mind John Cage, have a listen to the end of Sibelius's (the composer, not the notation program) 5th Symphony. Moments of not-sound are the highlighting that make musical pictures more vivid and ear-catching. (This is also, you'll note, the point of staccato)
  • Textural: in a multi-part texture, having one or more parts cease to sound draws attention to what those still sounding are doing. You can only get the interplay between full and delicate, busy and spare, by having some participants in the musical texture shut up for a bit and let others through. Listen to some Webern - people get all hung up on the note-rows, but it's the rests that create its crystalline beauty
  • Harmonic: not every note, to state the obvious, goes with every chord. If you hang on and neglect to play/sing your rest on time or even at all, you mess* up the harmony. I'm sorry that this needs saying, but when you get musicians as accomplished as the Ringmasters doing the most harmonically egregious phrase overlaps as can be found at 2.08 in this video, I suspect that it's not as obvious to everyone else as it is to me. Don't do this! Sing the rests! It makes much more sense that way. Please. You know, like you stop putting ketchup on your dinner when you get to the pudding.
  • Technical: If you are a string player or a pianist, you can play pretty much continuously without dying. (Though you may eventually need a loo break.) If you are a bassoonist who has learned circular breathing, you can perform Berio's Sequenza with rather less discomfort than your audience will respond with. But if you are a musician whose breath is central to how you make sound, you will need to replenish that supply regularly. Guess what? The people who write your music know this and make an effort to accommodate your needs. Because if we don't, you're going to have to start shortening notes to make time to breathe, so it makes sense to build in these opportunities for you.

I'm writing this post the day after I finished an arrangement for Viva Acappella. As is my habit, I had a show-and-tell session with Jonathan that evening (his instinct for what works well and what doesn't quite work has been a significant factor in my development as an arranger over the years), and we talked through some of the bits where I had had to work quite hard to make it flow. Typically, the bits that sound self-evident once it's finished were the places that took a lot of detailed tweaking - the difference between 'clunky' and 'sings itself' can be very subtle and hard-won, and not at all obvious in retrospect.

Anyway, there were several places where I found myself saying how proud I was of a rest. Notes that would otherwise get clipped can be sung full length, because I found nearby opportunities to give those singers a chance to breathe, and simultaneously feature another part who could carry the musical thread onwards meanwhile.

And it made me realise that if performers gave as much attention to the rests as the people who provide their music do, then they would not only make more sense of the music, they would find it a lot easier to execute as well.

*Actually, the technical term for what you do to the harmony is a rather stronger word. I have bowdlerised this post to protect the sensibilities of my readers.

Hi Liz, Mark Hale was over for the BABS director's college and he was expounding the technique of staggered breathing, where chorus members choose their own places to breathe, leaving out whole words or syllables. Of course, written rests are still honoured.

Having tried this with my chorus it has its good and bad points but one of the things we think we are seeing is the need for breaths, even when there are no written rests, in order to give meaning to the phrasing.

What think you?

Hi Dyrck,
Funnily enough, I have a ready-opinion on this :-)

Executive summary: I'm less keen on this than I used to be - it seems on first acquaintance as quite a useful method, but it has more drawbacks than appears at first sight.

I would say that where there are no written rests, you choose your breath-points according to the sense of how melody and words combine. If it is not possible to do this without the end of a phrase sounding clipped short, that's the arranger's fault!

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