Song Review–Sound of Silence
The Sound of Silence (寂靜之聲), written by Paul Simon, is one of my favorite songs of all time. Actually I view it more like a poem than a song. Its lyrics are so insightful and carefully crafted that I never get tired of listening to the song again and again.
Analysis by stanzas
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
At the beginning, ‘darkness’ is personified as an ‘old friend’ of the persona, as he indulges in his spiritual world of lonely meditation with nothing material around. Other than darkness, the persona’s vision is also given human qualities, ‘softly creeping’, having ‘left its seeds’, showing its lasting impact and highlighting its significance, as reinforced by the line ‘the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains’
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turn my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
The ‘neon light’ metaphor is one of my favorites. It defies the conventional and stereotypical image of light–warmth and hope. Here, the neon light is personified to be stabbing eyes and discomforting viewers. It shows how materialism, as most represented by crowded, flashing, neon lights in extravagant capitalist cities, makes people blind to spiritual fulfillment and drown in superficial glamour instead.
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
The parallel construction used–‘People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening’ is a quote to be jotted down. By contrasting people’s talking and speaking, it implies the lack of content and sincerity in their conversation. This echoes the title–‘Sound of Silence’–amid the verbal sounds produced, the words have so little meaning that they are as good as silence.
By contrasting people’s hearing and listening, it shows how people only hear to reply, but not listen to understand; how they hear while wandering, but not listen with full attention; how they hear and forget, but not listen to remember. Both lines use action verbs depicting greater sincerity and minds of the doer as a foil for people’s acts. The couplet highlights people’s ignorance and insincerity in a clear and organized manner–from how they talk to how they respond to others’ talk.
The huge number ‘ten thousand’ and the generic term ‘people’ (instead of a specific group or nation) gives a sense of universality. As the people are under the ‘naked light’, the commonness of material obsession and communication-lacking problems is highlighted. (Personal opinion: Such collectiveness makes the song a fruit for thought for inter- and intra-generations.)
The ‘people writing songs’ is a metonymy of the literate people with a message to deliver to the crowd of fools through their songs. It also reminds me of the persona–probably not a dramatized character but Paul Simon himself, who is literally the writer of this song. The line ‘that voices never shared’ not only shows the frustration of the general song writers, but also that of the persona in failing to convey his message and enlighten the masses, as people fear to confront the majority–‘No one dared disturb the sound of silence’
“Fools,” said I, “you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
The simile ‘Silence like a cancer grows’ bolds the harmful and worsening effects of silence. While cancer deteriorates one’s physical health, silence damages one’s mental and social health by hindering communication and interaction. The harms done by silence is as serious and enormous as that by cancer.
‘Hear my words that I might teach you, Take my arms that I might reach you’ is another example of parallel construction. With the imperatives, the urgent tone of the persona is highlighted. The persona is demanding immediate actions from the people to get inspired by the persona and change their mindset. However, the word ‘might’ repeated shows uncertainty in the persona’s effectiveness in inspiring and sparking the change.
Another simile ‘like silent raindrops fell’ highlights the ineffectiveness of the persona’s words of wisdom, as they are given zero attention and do not register in the minds of the crowd. This echoes the line in previous stanza ‘People writing songs, that voices never shared’, implying the persona is also one of the ‘people writing songs’ who experience failure in inspiring the crowd.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sound of silence
The neon light elevates to the position of ‘neon God’, which is worshiped by people, showing the public’s surrender to materialistic values and desires. Such voracious appetite for material things originates from people themselves–‘they made’ their ‘neon God’.
The fact that ‘people bowed and prayed, to the neon God they made’ is ironic. Bowing usually implies sincere respect for spiritual quality and praying is perceived to be spiritual communication with God/one’s inner self. Yet what people bowed and prayed to is their materialistic desires, as opposed to spiritual wants. The ironic behavior implies a twisted moral, which is why the ‘neon God’ flashed out its warning. This differentiates the neon light from the ordinary comforting one and forebodes disasters that come when spiritual fulfillment is neglected.
‘The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls And tenement halls’ reinforces the sarcastic tone. Subway walls are where the street walking stay and tenement halls are where the poor live. Both places are humble and lackluster, as opposed to the rich and glamorous cities with enormous number of neon lights. However, it is in the poor that live the prophets–the ones who dare to speak their hearts, make a statement on the wall and not follow the crowd.
Unfortunately, the public only focus on worshiping the neon God and mistakes materialism as the prophets while neglecting the words of truth of the real prophets. Though seeming to be following the religious and spiritual way, people turn out to be totally drowned in materialism, so much so that they apply the way of worshiping the spiritual God to serve materialism, making it a neon ‘God’ and adding to its destructive power. In contrast to the strong God image, ‘the words of the prophets’ are described to be ‘whispering’ in the sound of silence, showing their fragility and lack of impact, as people continues with their spiritual deafness and emptiness.
Throughout the song, the word ‘silence’ or the phrase ‘sound of silence’ is repeated. The repetition highlights the spiritually empty void the people are living in. Though they are physically pronouncing words and producing sounds, their talk and even their existence are so empty that they are as good as nothing, as good as silence. In the fourth stanza, ‘wells of silence’ instead of ‘sound of silence’ is used to continue and complete the imagery ‘like silent raindrops fell’ in the previous line, making the whole scene consistent. The silent well image also highlights the lack of motion and energy of the spiritually dead crowd.
The word ‘silence’ also disrupts the aural harmony created by the rhyming couplets (such as ‘creeping’ and ‘sleeping’, ‘alone and ‘cobblestone’, ‘lamp and ‘damp’ etc) in every stanza. Despite the sense of unity formed by the couplets, the mood is always ruined by the non-rhymed ‘silence’ in every last line of each stanza. This shows that the previous harmony is superficial and illusory, like that brought by silence and absence of arguments. While in reality, there is no real communication and understanding, but only blind agreement with the majority. It implies that real harmony can only be accomplished through eliminating the non-rhymed word–breaking silence.
My personal interpretation of the message is ‘many are living in spiritual emptiness and silence, which is a tragedy for themselves and the society’. Prompting people to reflect on their own lifestyle or mindset is probably the aim of the writer. The writer’s overall adoption of a solemn tone also reinforces the message. It shows that he is addressing a real, serious social phenomenon of people’s living in a spiritual vacuum, which is not a light-hearted matter to be joked about.
There are several themes used to convey the message, including ‘worshiping materialism’, ‘lack of true communication and sincere relationship’, ‘not daring to change or confront the public’ and ‘failure of literate people in enlightening the fools’. This shows utter emptiness and ignorance of the people, the utter despair in the society with such people and the urgent need for reflection and change.
Minor, less than humble criticism
Overall, the song has impeccable techniques and thought-provoking themes. My only criticism for the song is the choice of words in the line ‘Hear my words that I might teach you’. From my point of view, the song would be better if ‘Hear’ was changed to ‘Listen to’.
In the song, the impressive line ‘People hearing without listening’ shows that listening involves more attention and attempt to understand while hearing is just an involuntary act. The persona’s intention when saying ‘Hear my words’ is to ask people to pay attention to him, understand his words and then change their behavior. Therefore, using ‘Listen to’ may be more appropriate.
With the modification, the reason why the persona’s words ‘like silent raindrops fell’ can also be explained, as the people can only hear and listening is out of their boundaries. As a result, the persona’s words fell on deaf ears.
Despite the above, the use of ‘hear’ is understandable when taking the melody and rhythm into consideration. Perhaps slight adjustment of the two musical elements would also be needed if the modification was adopted. After all, clarity in presentation is quite important and should not be easily compromised.