The Sound of Silence in Film

Martin Scorsese is famous for his use of music but one of his best traits, is his use of silence in film. If you go through Scorsese filmography there are lots of interesting variations on this concept when comparing him to others. For example, in the original Infernal Affairs, music was used in crucial story moments, but for the remake, silence was chosen. Sometimes Scorsese builds the entire film to a climax of sound then, silence. The loudest moment in a film is immediately followed by the quietest and gives us, as the viewer, that stark contract Scorsese intended.

After a while we had so many sound effects that we always talked about pulling them out of the track and letting things go silent like a numbing effect, like you’ve been hit in the ear too many times.

  • Frank Warner

Silence in film is often used as the central dramatic beat of a scene too. In Goodfellas, there is a brilliant example of how Scorsese uses silence in film as a beat which is shown in the video below by Tony Zhou from Every Frame a Painting.

If you go back through the Scorsese back catalogue you’ll find a lot of great examples of his use of silence to heighten the subjectivity, to make a creepy scene even creepier, to show us love at first sight and to bring our happiness to a halt. A common theme in the sound design choices is that it derives specifically from character when they are making an important choice that will have a consequence. Because these moments are used sparingly and deliberately in each movie, the silence feels different and ties to a distinct theme. This also lets the director build up a full cinematic structure around the use of sound. This isn’t easily achieved and it certainly can’t be done if you write your movie with wall to wall dialogue, explosions or music.

I don’t have anything against a film being loud for a moment or two or a short period of time, I think that’s completely appropriate. But if you have a sequence that’s loud for 20 or 30 minutes you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be quiet and so nothing really seems loud because everything is loud.

  • Randy Thom

In popular cinema today, we’ve moved away from having any silence at all in films or misusing the silence that we do have. Consider your silences and use them deliberately, don’t cheapen them by overusing them and give them meaning. If you can build structure around silence so that this choice is derived from your characters and what they’re feeling, you’ll have something much better than just silence, you’ll have an emotional reaction.