The Top 10 Uses of Silence in Film

Silence. Mozart and Cage loved it in music. Hitchcock loved it in film, as do many other directors. What makes silence so powerful is its ability to highlight that which is missing; its presence showcases that which is not. Here are 10 excellent uses of silence in film. 

There are many variations on "silence" in cinema, and though it is rarely present in its purest state, directors often take advantage of a sort of perceptual silence that takes many forms. One of my favorite examples is "Koyaanisqatsi," an 85-minute tone poem completely devoid of dialogue that nonetheless makes a statement via its manipulation of visuals and accompanying music. I think the choice not to include dialogue or even the diegetic din of crowds made the film more powerful, allowing the viewer to disconnect from the individual daily experience to take the more macroscopic impression its creators intended. 

And of course, there're films like "Castaway," where the presence of only environmental diegetic sounds reinforce the isolation of a character, and the appearance of dialogue — talking to Wilson the volleyball — serves to underscore the fragile mental state and desperation for socialization. Do you have any favorite examples of silence in film? Share them in the comments!

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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That's a good overview of the use of silence in its many iterations and a nice introduction to a few more films I need to put on my 'must see' list. I noted Michelangelo Antonioni got a nod with the clip from 'Blow Up', but perhaps my favorite use of near-silence as a comment on a collapsing relationship comes from the final scene of another Antonioni film, 'L'Eclisse'. There's avant-garde music and ambient sound, but completely absent is dialogue.

So, by silence it seems we're really talking about lack of dialogue... Along those lines I personally love the Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons (the new ones are really outstanding). I also love the hospital scene in The Godfather where the silence heightens the feeling that Michael is alone.

Finding creative ways to express an idea with video and no sound is increasing in importance. More and more today short video created for social media discards sound altogether and uses montages, text graphics, and/or timelapse/hyperlapse footage (think recipe videos) to get across one simple point. Someone looking at Facebook or LinkedIn at work isn't necessarily going to turn on the sound, and it's not always convenient or discrete to put in earbuds in a social situation. Having the message delivered visually is quicker, more convenient, more direct. The realities of how people view video content on mobile devices has brought us full circle back to a new silent era.

Interesting, I didn't know they remade the roadrunner cartoon. I haven't had pay TV for around 10 years so that could explain that.

Anyone else see the irony in a video about silence in movies and a narrator who talks too much? 🙄 The pace and style of his talking also made me want to mute the audio. It reminds me of the speed readers in radio and tv commercials trying to cram in all the side-effects of the latest drug. Ugh. 😖

Off the top of my head movies with a lot of silence, mostly through no dialogue:

The Omega Man
The Pianist - The second half
2001 A Space Odyssey
War of the Worlds - 2005 - The second half
Most older Horror pictures, like The Exorcist and The Shining

I didn't even recognize most of those movies. These days when I see such videos talking about movies and rankings you almost always see movies that span the world, and often obscure movies, indicating a sort of political correctness going on. I'm sure some may disagree with me on this but it's very off putting, and I say that as someone that occasionally enjoys watching foreign movies or TV shows.