The Sound of Silence
Today I would like to explore the lyrics and the meaning of the Simon and Garfunkel song “Sounds of Silence”
The story of the song is quite fascinating. It was first recorded in 1964 by Simon and Garfunkel, but the song and the album was initially a commercial failure, which led to Simon and Garfunkel disbanding and going their separate ways in that same year.
The following year, the song’s producer, Tom Wilson decided to give the song a bit of a revamp, and without the knowledge of Simon and Garfunkel he remixed the song, adding electric instrument and drums to the original. It was released as a single in September 1965, and by January 1966 it had become a number 1 hit in the USA and soon after all around the world.
Very quickly, Simon and Garfunkel got back together as a duo to record their second album to capitalise on this unexpected success. It is quite something to think that almost 60 years later the song is still listened to by millions of people all around the world on radio stations and over the internet.
What is it about the Sounds of Silence that has helped it to remain such a success over this period :
The answer list in the fact that it touches on universal human experiences and emotions. :
1. The experience of times of darkness coming over us, when life doesn’t go our away, or experiences of grief and sadness, it is all summed up in those simple words: Hello Darkness my Old Friend… there is almost something Biblical about that phrase. It is almost a paraphrase of Psalm 88:18 “Darkness is my only companion”.
2. Similarly we all have experienced the Sound of Silence… in our dark times when we cry out looking for answers, often it feels like we are met with a wall of silence. Again we see this experience reflected by the psalmist in Psalm 88:13-14
But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
In the face of his cries, it seems like God is silent.
3. Thirdly, the song has a melancholic feel about it that touches on our universal experiences of loneliness… we reach out sometimes, but we battle to connect with those around us.
4. Fourthly, in the lyrics there are religious allusions, which means that the song appeals to our deeper human longings for meaning and purpose.
I think often when we listen to popular music we listen in an impressionistic way… we don’t always know all the lyrics. It is often the feel of the song, and particular phrases that speak to us, but we don’t always explore the song lyrics in their totality. And so today I would like to spend a few minutes exploring a possible meaning of the song as a whole. This is not the definitive guide to the song, but ultimately an interpretation as would often be the case even with many of our interpretations of Scripture.
And so, reading through the lyrics as a whole, what might the meaning be of “The Sounds of Silence”?
Like many folk songs of the 1960’s it would seem that the lyrics of the song are really a form of social commentary. The post war period of the 1950’s and early 60’s was a period of rapid change including social change and one of the biggest changes of the period was the wide-spread availability and use of Television in the UK and the USA. One website suggests that the Sounds of Silence is a warning of the social isolationism that was beginning to take place with the advent of television.
With the advent of television, rather than getting out and interacting with other people, there was an increasing trend of people simply staying at home to be entertained by their televisions.
And so in the opening verse of the lyrics, we find Simon and Garfunkel speaking almost in religious language speak of having seen a vision, or perhaps a deep insight being implanted in their brains… an insight and a vision that exposes the reality in which many people had begun to live.
It is a vision that leaves the writer restless and disturbed and the Sounds of Silence which is heard appears to be the silence of emptiness, loneliness and perhaps even meaninglessness.
And the moment of insight comes upon being confronted by the flash of a neon light. The reference to a neon light is significant, firstly because this was relatively new technology that had begun to proliferate in the post war period. It provided light, but there is also something quite un-natural about neon lighting. Also significantly, neon lighting formed the basis of the television set and the way images were projected in the tube of an early television.
It would seem that the author’s see the advent of this new technology as a catalyst for this increasing social isolationism. In the naked light of of this vision, the author see’s thousands upon thousands of people becoming more and more estranged from one another -
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
with no-one daring to disturb the sound of silence that was being created.
They see this social isolationism growing like a cancer in society, and speaking out like prophets trying to wake people out of their spiritual lethargy the authors make an appeal to try and rescue those lost in the sounds of silence:
In verse 4 “Hear my words that I might teach you. Take my arms that I might reach you”.
But the words of the author fall like silent raindrops and simply echoes in the wells of silence. Instead of responding to the call the author writes that the people continue to bow and pray to the neon god they have made.
I was rather intrigued with the last phrase of the song: And the sign flashed out it’s 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”.
What are the words written on subway walls: Adverts… is it possible that the song is commenting how modern society from the mid-20th century has increasingly turned away from the words of true prophets who speak with true wisdom, and have traded those words of ancient wisdom for the superficial wisdom of commercial advertising which invite us to constantly feed our more superficial appetites but leave the soul empty and hungry.
All in all, the song paints a fairly desperate and bleak picture of modern industrialised society, and I can’t help but think there was something quite prophetic about the song. A few weeks ago I flipped over the Al Jazeera news channel to get a different and perhaps a wider perspective on world events, and instead of the news they were airing a half hour documentary entitled: An Epidemic of Loneliness. The show was exploring the fact that in recent years people living in modern industrialised societies are indeed becoming increasingly lonely and disconnected from each other. On the documentary they highlighted that in the past two years there has been a dramatic spike in the number of people Googling the question: How to make Friends? It is quite fascinating. At a time when social media has grown bigger than ever before, connecting more and more people, at the same time, many people are feeling more and more isolated and lonely. And at the same time, traditional places of community like churches and other social clubs have begun to steadily decline. The increase in our technology, to which we often bow down and pray as the saviour of all of humanities problems has in many ways created many of the very problems we are trying to solve.
And all the while, from a Christian or a spiritual perspective the thing that all of us a really looking for is love and a sense of belonging. From a Christian perspective, it could be said that the essence of our human existence is that we were made by Love, in love and for love. It is in love that we find our true fulfilment in life. Love is what brings colour and warmth to our hearts. In the words of Jesus it could be said that love is like the salt that brings out the true flavour life. Without love there is just emptiness, isolation and disconnection. One could say, the sound of an empty silence.
It raises the question: How can we make sure that our churches are places of loving connection? That is the only way we are really going to survive? When people come to church do they feel connected and do they have a sense of belonging?
I want to close with a final reflection on the word Silence. In the song, Silence is seen in a negative light, and indeed when we speak of the silence of disconnection and isolation, then silence can indeed be a negative experience.
But from a religious and spiritual perspective, the Sound of Silence can also be a profoundly positive experience. The Psalmist suggests that it is in silence and stillness that we can truly come to know G-d, the Great Spirit of Love that connects us all to each other. Be Still and Know that I am God (Psalm 46:10). It is in the sound of the still small voice that we hear the whispers of God’s love. It is as we drop beneath the incessant chatter of our internal dialogue of constant opinions and judgements, that we experience the subtle realm of God’s love and joy at the depth of our beings. For as Jesus reminds us: The Kingdom of God is within you, the subtle and gentle realm of God’s love, peace and joy reside in the stillness of our own hearts, within the Sounds of Silence. Amen.