By Theodore Lai, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio
From the 1964 Album “Wednesday Morning, 3 A. M.”
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 Sounds of Silence
The introductory verse places the author in the first person, greeting and personifying ‘darkness’ as an ‘old friend’. Revisiting it to confide and speak of a ‘vision softly creeping’ that ‘left its seeds’ while the author slept. This can most likely be interpreted as a dream the author experienced. The fact that it ‘still remains’ seems to suggest it being a powerful and moving fantasy.
In restless streams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
Beneath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touch the Sound of Silence
Following the previous verse, this verse most likely describes the dream the author experienced. It narrates, in a rather exaggerated sense, how the author arrived at the climax of his dream, as shown in the line: ‘when my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light’. This could be a suggestion of an epiphany the author experienced while walking in ‘restless streams’ and ‘narrow streets’. Such a description of his environment, the ’restless streams’, could suggest feelings of turmoil. The ‘narrow streets’ evoke a sense of claustrophobia, and can be interpreted to be abysmal loneliness. This is further amplified when he narrates how he “turned my collar to the cold and damp” in the fourth line, giving an impression of solitude. The street lamp is described to be a halo, and can be interpreted as an oasis for the author’s loneliness. Describing the ‘neon light’ being strong enough to ‘split the night’ could be used to reinforce his strong and powerful epiphany.
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
And no one dared
Disturb the Sound of Silence
This verse describes the epiphany mentioned previously. The revelation is described as a large group of “ten thousand people, maybe more”. The author, however, criticizes their interactions as meaningless, shown by the lines “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening”. This suggests their conversations as passing and weightless; by “talking without speaking” they could not convey any meaning or emotion. By “hearing without listening”, the “people” are unable to interpret or view conversations with any significance or understanding, and treats their interactions as mere routine. The third line concludes this idea with “people writing songs that voices never shared”. This can be interpreted as ideas that are never conveyed or supported by peers, and therefore no longer have any impact or influence. The line also suggests individualistic views, where the “people” keep their emotions and thoughts to themselves. The final two lines describe an unspoken authority or doctrine that prevents people from breaking the endless chain of empty communication. The word “dared” seems to suggest that the people are in fact aware of their meaningless interaction, but choose instead to remain ignorant in fears of upsetting the status quo. The title and recurring line of the song: “sounds of silence”, is also finally explained by these two lines. The sounds of silence can be interpreted to be the author’s acknowledgement of the people’s lack of communication. Although silence suggests void and emptiness, the author beautifully uses its antithesis: suggesting it has “sounds”, to symbolize its salient quality.
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 whelms of Silence
This verse shows the author reprimanding and lecturing the people. Labeling them as “Fools” shows his anger and unhappiness. He further mocks their ignorance, claiming that they “do not know”. His accusation of their blind ignorance, as well as the edifying tone being used suggests his desperation to convey his meaning. He then tells of what they “do not know”, that “silence like a cancer grows”. This line is particularly powerful and important, as it conveys much of the purpose and message of the song. The author teaches that silence proliferates much like a virus, going so far as to compare it to “a cancer” that “grows”. His lampoon ends after the second line, where he takes a more maternal and didactic tone. His imploring of the people suggests his desperation to correct them of their iniquity, to show them of their ways and have his words resonate within them. His dismay, however, is shown in the following line, of how his “words” are like “silent raindrops” falling. This imagery suggests his efforts hitting a blank wall; of how his teachings, powerful as they are, being unable to reach the people. A decrescendo is also used after the word “fell” is sung, adding depth to the image of disappointment and failure. Further drama is added to this with the closing line, where he describes his unheeded words that echo in the “whelms of Silence”. This image also conveys void and emptiness, a theme that is carried throughout the song.
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 Sounds of Silence
The final verse is particularly powerful, as it conveys the author’s helplessness and grief. The transition of tone from the previous verse to the final is one of edification to disappointment to hopelessness. The author adopts a melancholy tone, choosing to resign himself to watching the people fall to their doom. The verse suggests he has come to terms with and accepted the people’s perdition, and has given up on them. Furthermore, almost every line in the verse begins with “and”. This allows for a servile like sequence, with the author narrating in a nonchalant style, existing only to describe his observations without emotion. He narrates that the “people bowed and prayed”, suggesting an image of total submission and dependency. The ensuing line tells of them promising their allegiance to “the neon god”. The “neon” description was used before in verse two, at the beginning of the author’s dream. The author reveals the connection between his initial encounter with the people, and that which they now worship. Neon lights can be used to represent a sort of psychedelic urbanization, themes that emphasize the overall message of the song. The use of the word “made” suggests mockery and irony, as the people are worshiping that which they created, resulting in a paradoxical cycle. The third and fourth line seem to suggests a prolonging and delaying of the narration, with two whole lines dedicated to describing the “warning” being displayed on the “sign”. This tautology could suggest the attempt of suspense by the author. Furthermore, the use of the word “forming”, together with this prolonging of narration suggests that the “sign” is taking a long time to form its “warning”. The “sign” could refer to the “neon god” mentioned in the previous line, with the use of the word “flashed” suggesting glowing lights. The fifth line seems to be the most powerful and moving in the song, as it is sung with a forte fortissimo direction. The higher voice part also departs from the close knitted harmony employed throughout the song, as if clawing to reach the high and powerful notes. The passion and urgency from how this line is sung seems to implore the listener to understand its message. The line reveals the result of the prolonged narration performed in the previous two lines, where the “sign” tells of the “words of the prophets” being “written on the subway walls”. This first appears particularly puzzling, as no “prophets”, nor their “words”, are mentioned in any of the previous verses. However, the energy in which the line is sung suggests that these “prophets” are very much significant and important in the context of the song. The “prophets” can perhaps be interpreted as ancestors or previous leaders of the people being described in the song. These “prophets” were perhaps trying to convey the very message the author is desperately trying to tell the people. It can be imagined that the people refused to listen, forcing the prophets to document their “words” or teachings on the ideal representation of the urbanization that the people crave, hence the “subway walls”. The penultimate line is sung with a significant decrescendo, taking on a placido, almost pietoso musical direction. It also reverts back to the original closely knitted harmony of the two singers. This reversion and drop in emotion suggests the author exhausting any form of energy left, indicating that the author has completely given up hope on the people, amplifying his disappointment and sadness. This short line is a continuation of the observation being narrated in the previous line. The “words of the prophets” are not just “written on the subway walls”, but on the “tenement halls” as well. These “tenement halls” are perhaps places that the people used to patron. The final line has an obvious calando, signifying the end of the song. The line is also sung with the dominant note Bb, resolving in a perfect cadence to the root note Eb. This musical cadence further emphasizes the feeling of finality and conclusion. The author reveals the final place where the “words of the prophets” are being published. Unlike the previous two lines that suggest the “words” being “written”, the final line narrates the “words” being “whispered”, conveying secrecy and the ubiquity of the “words of the prophets”. This idea suggests that the people are able to hear if they only take the effort to listen. The line concludes with the phrase: “in the sounds of silence”. This not only brings the subject back to the title of the song, but also signifies how the prophets’ teachings seem to resonate within the people. It can further be inferred that the people are aware of this message, but blithely choose to ignore it. The song ends with a drop in dynamics and a dragging of the last syllables; signs of finality and conclusion. This could be interpreted as the death of any hope left, an acceptance of the perdition and decadence that has engulfed the people, a resignation to leave them to drown in their own artificial and engineered way of living.
This song was written in 1964 in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. While this coincidence may be a hint as to the allusions and message in the song, I prefer to identify it within and only within its musical and lyrical context.
I feel it is, on many levels, a very personal work of music. Unlike most other pop releases, this song tends to show the introverted and closed-up personality of Paul Simon. The way it is performed on the record, with fluctuations in emotion and feeling, presents a powerful message in a docile and benign manner. It is neither complacent nor pretentious, and seems to exist solely to convey its message and meaning. That is its only purpose.
The use of closely knit homophonic voice parts, accompanied only with an acoustic guitar, contributes to the song’s deceptive simplicity. Its 4/4 time signature and straightforward minor key progression further testifies to its simplicity. Unlike other Simon & Garfunkel records, little finger-style (a technique well mastered by Paul Simon) is employed. Only simple and amateur strumming patterns are used throughout the chord progressions. This is, musically speaking, very much a beginner level piece of music. I feel this ironically gives it its uniqueness. The song chooses simply to remain approachable and down-to-earth.
The song also makes use of paradox and contrary devices. The title itself gives evidence to this; the oxymoron: ‘sounds of silence’. Further examples of this is given in the third verse, where the author describes seeing “people talking without speaking”, and “people hearing without listening”. The author makes use of dramatic contrast and comparison, as highlighted in verse four. “Silence” is described to be a “cancer” that “grows”. This is also the use of hyperbole to emphasize his point. Another example of contrast and comparison is where the author describes his “words” to be “like silent raindrops” that “fell”. Such imagery emphasizes the bleakness and abysmal hopelessness of his situation; his desperation to save the people goes unnoticed.
Many themes run throughout the song, most distinct of all being the social impact of urbanization and evils of technological advancement. The “neon god” represents the technological infrastructure built by the people. Other supporting themes include miscommunication and bureaucracy, as shown in the two powerful lines: “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening”.
The song draws several similarities to dystopian fiction. The “neon god” alludes to Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984: an unseen but omnipresent entity fashioned out of the progression of society; all-knowing, all-powerful, and bent on dominance and control of the human psyche. The author has many similarities to 1984’s protagonist; despite living in a sheep-like society, he embraces his own ideals and chooses to rebel against the teachings his fellow citizens have come to submit to. These themes also echo the famous Milgram Experiment, with similarities in their observations of conformism, obedience and authoritarian ideals.
I feel the song’s dark ideas are very much significant and relevant in today’s context. Although written nearly 40 years ago, this song is now more important than ever to remind us of what it means to be human and possess the human attributes of emotion, empathy and thought. The song’s story-like sequence, together with its edifying tone does not try to change or disrupt our lifestyle, but simply wants us to listen and understand what it is trying to convey. I feel its lyrics carry much food for thought; endowing in us the awareness and understanding if we only choose to take a step back and listen.