The Sound of Silence: How You Can Use Silence to Tell Better Stories

The visual components of a movie are obviously integral to filmmaking; the images that are the hallmark of our medium allow us to see the narrative unfold. However, cinema is also a medium of sound, and how we use the audible elements can drastically change how our audiences respond to our stories. In this eye-opening video essay from Tony Zhou, the concept of using silence is investigated in-depth, primarily through Martin Scorsese's use of it in his films, like Raging Bull, to demonstrate how silence can actually speak louder to your viewers than a cacophony of sound effects, dialog, and music ever could.

Since filmmakers essentially build a film out of nothing, compiling raw footage, sound effects, dialog, and music to form a visual story, it might be difficult to recognize that what we don't put in a film is just as important (if not more) as what we do put in. Take the example that Zhou mentions in his video: the use of sound in films from the last several years. Contemporary movies, especially action films, don't use the same restraint or method when it comes to using sound in films. Granted, their sound design is meant to get the audience's heart pumping and their adrenaline rushing, and it absolutely does that well. However, excessive use of it can have adverse affects that you didn't expect. It can lead to a raucous film experience (Man of Steel, anyone?), as well as missed opportunities to take advantage of building the emotional impact in a scene. In fact, it often seems as though many films treat silence merely as the empty space between the sound rather than a bona fide storytelling device.

So, how can we as filmmakers utilize the absence of sound to tell stories? Zhou zeros in on Scorsese as a good example, though there are plenty of others. It might seem ironic to many who know Scorsese's work to find that he is the subject of the use of silence in film, since the director's films are known for their soundtracks. However, Scorsese uses silence as a vehicle for storytelling in a number of ways, like, as Zhou points out in the video below, to create a "numbing effect", namely when Jake La Motta in Raging Bull is in the ring and about to get decimated. This device is pretty wide-spread -- whenever we see someone get clocked in the head in a film, we expect to hear that deafening silence coupled with a faint ring to indicate that, yeah, that one was a doozy.

But, Zhou touches on several ways silence can add to your narrative, as well as the atmosphere and tone of your film. Check out his video essay below.

By no means does this mean that films with more silence than others are inherently better. Jaws wouldn't be Jaws without that cello piece, nor would Psycho by Psycho without those screeching violins. In fact, that shower scene is a great example of how sound can bring so much to a film, because Hitchcock actually intended that scene to be silent -- good thing he changed his mind! If you take just one thing away from this let it be that silence can be your friend and can be used as a tool in your film rather than an absence of creative content or inspiration.

[via Tony Zhou & Cinephilia and Beyond]

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Your Comment


If film analysis was the way to learn how to tell stories the scientists would be the best film makers.

June 17, 2014 at 11:59AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Right. What could anyone ever learn from Scorsese?

June 17, 2014 at 12:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I really enjoyed this analysis but when these film theorists/critics start telling filmmakers what they should be doing and how they should be making films, or criticising a particular type of filmmaking because it doesn't follow the artistic choices of a type of cinema they do like, things become problematic.
This guy seems really smart and is an interesting critic, but whenever he makes statements like "In popular cinema writers and directors have moved away from having any silence at all, or misusing the silence that they do have," I just have to roll my eyes. It's such a sweeping statement and the examples he gives are cherry-picked. Is he talking about popular American films or popular cinema from all over the globe? Films made by the major Hollywood studios or films made by Independent studios and mini-majors that receive wide distribution? All genres or just super-hero/action movies? Can he show that dramas and psychological thrillers have moved away from using silence? Have horror films stopped using silence to build tension or set tone? Animation is one of the most popular genres of cinema; Pixar and Disney films haven't moved away from using silence and clever sound design. To really support his point he would have to randomly sample films from each year and analyse them for their use of silence.
Comments like ,"structure the film so that the silences derive from your characters and what they're feeling," smacks of film theory speak. The kind of stuff you'd find in a Masters or doctorate thesis dissertation and not the kind of thing people who do actually structure films--whether that's writing, directing, or editing them--say. Who structures a film around silences? I've never once heard of that. Not from filmmaker/screenwriter friends or listening to hundreds of hours of director commentaries and filmmaker interviews.
I read a lot of screenplays and they are full of dramatic moments of silence (beat, pause, a moment of silence etc.) I watch a lot of popular films and many have quiet moments. Not all directors want to build their films around or employ the impressionistic use of sound. Mr Zhou seems to really favour impressionistic filmmaking and that is fine; I'm a big fan of it myself, but it's a very particular aesthetic choice and it just doesn't work for many kinds of films.

June 17, 2014 at 12:45PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


As much as it annoys me, I think you guys should just concentrate on gear porn - this Kubrick/Scorsese/Welles/Anderson merry-go-round is getting pretty tired.

June 18, 2014 at 11:05AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Fresno Bob

I have to agree with Fresno Bob. Is there even any original content on this website ? All the latest posts I've seen have been cherry picked from Vimeo Staff picks and the work of other blogs. This site will continue to degrade if it continues to be a middle man for other peoples content.

June 19, 2014 at 8:43AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Please do not mention trash/ fake film making on this blog. Porn dirties the creators name. And in my personal opinion is cheap-cop out to anyone that could not hack it has a true story teller.

Again please leave the trash where it belongs.

August 24, 2014 at 8:28AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


What in the wold is Fresno Bob even talking about? I take it that he is doing comedy with his comment?

June 20, 2014 at 7:21AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

james winters

I like what you have explained here and you are correct. The one movie that comes to mind where I feel it was used very well is Pulp Fiction.

June 26, 2014 at 8:03PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I do need to learn when to be quiet.

October 2, 2014 at 7:35PM

Jesús J. Borges

Not many people have written about silence in media, and for that matter, there are very few writers who have explored sound design. I came across this new publication by Danny Hahn called 'The Silent Sound Designer - Rediscovering Cinema Through Quietness'. Maybe this is worth a read:

July 31, 2015 at 7:01AM

John Vincent
Sound Designer