The other day, we talked about negative space in print and digital text and our need for visual breaks in order to process what we’re looking at. It’s no different with sound. You’ve probably noticed this if you’ve ever been at a concert or a sporting event. The sheer din can make you feel like you’re going insane after a while.
Sound designers and producers of audio content are aware of this, too, so they incorporate periods of silence to help offset some of that. That silence, strangely enough, is the negative space in an audio track. And while the performer or sound designer might be using that space for dramatic effect, they’re also using it to give the brain a break from processing sound for a moment so it will be ready to receive the next group of sounds.
This has two effects on the listener. First, it allows a moment of rest from the otherwise continual input of sound, because otherwise we have no real means of doing that ourselves beyond leaving the noisy space or covering our ears. Second, it allows our brain a moment to make sense of the noise. In noisier spaces like concerts and sporting events, the brain really has to work to sort out sounds from each other and figure out what to focus on and why. In quieter spaces or situations designed to help the listener, the brain has less to process and can more quickly latch onto what it’s hearing so the rest of the body can respond appropriately.
In teaching and narration, this pause also allows time for what’s been heard to be processed and added to what had been heard previously, since there’s rarely an easy way to go back quickly and re-listen to what was just heard, as opposed to reading where eyes normally jump back routinely to re-read a passage. It also helps to show how information has been organized in the listening material. A longer pause is a shift in topic; a shorter pause is a continuation of the current topic.
For some, the silence can feel annoying, but in the end it’s really there as an aid to the listener. When employed well, it can tell the listener a lot about what they’re listening to and help them sort out auditory information.