The Sound of Silence

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The Sound of Silence

by Simon & Garfunkel

[Verse 1]
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
Still remains within the sound of silence

[Verse 2]
In restless dreams, I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath 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 touched the sound of silence

[Verse 3]
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

[Verse 4]
“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

[Verse 5]
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”

_______________________________

First… who is/are Simon & Garfunkel

Simon & Garfunkel were an American folk rock duo consisting of singer-songwriter Paul Simon and singer Art Garfunkel. They were one of the best-selling music groups of the 1960s, and their biggest hits—including “The Sound of Silence” (1965), “Mrs. Robinson” (1968), “The Boxer” (1969), and “Bridge over Troubled Water” (1970)—reached number one on singles charts worldwide.

Simon and Garfunkel met in elementary school in QueensNew York, in 1953, where they learned to harmonize and began writing songs. As teenagers, under the name Tom & Jerry, they had minor success with “Hey Schoolgirl” (1957), a song imitating their idols, the Everly Brothers. In 1963, aware of a growing public interest in folk music, they regrouped and were signed to Columbia Records as Simon & Garfunkel. Their debut, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., sold poorly; Simon returned to a solo career, this time in England. In June 1965, a new version of “The Sound of Silence” overdubbed with electric guitar and drums became a US AM radio hit, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The duo reunited to release a second studio album, Sounds of Silence, and tour colleges nationwide. On their third release, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966), they assumed more creative control. Their music was featured in the 1967 film The Graduate, giving them further exposure. Their next album Bookends (1968) topped the Billboard 200 chart and included the number-one single “Mrs. Robinson” from the film.

Simon and Garfunkel had a troubled relationship, leading to artistic disagreements and their breakup in 1970. Their final studio album, Bridge over Troubled Water, was released that January, becoming one of the world’s best-selling albums. After their breakup, Simon released a number of acclaimed albums, including 1986’s Graceland. Garfunkel released solo hits such as “All I Know” and briefly pursued an acting career, with leading roles in the Mike Nichols films Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge and in Nicolas Roeg‘s 1980 Bad Timing. The duo have reunited several times; their 1981 concert in Central Park attracted more than 500,000 people, one of the largest concert attendances in history.

Simon & Garfunkel won 10 Grammy Awards and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Richie Unterberger described them as “the most successful folk-rock duo of the 1960s” and one of the most popular artists from the decade. They are among the best-selling music artists, having sold more than 100 million records. They were ranked 40th on Rolling Stone‘s 2010 list of the Greatest Artists of All Time and third on its list of the greatest duos.

What is The Sound of Silence about?

In the first stanza, the singer has a friendly relationship with “darkness” which he describes as existing within “the sound of silence.”  The singer wants to speak with darkness to discuss a vision/dream he is considering.

The second stanza describes the dream. Therein, he was walking alone down a narrow street when “the flash of a neon light” “touched” the sound of silence. (The meaning of “the sound of silence” remains ambiguous at this point within the lyrical story.)

In the third stanza, a “naked light” – apparently the same neon light as mentioned in the second verse – allows the singer to see10,000 people caught up in their own solitude and isolation despite being in a large group.

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared disturb the sound of silence

The people described seem to have lives which are not impacting each other despite their apparent attempts to communicate. The last line in the stanza makes the picture even more bleak by implying that everyone caught up in their unconnected lives are aware of their own reality. However, everyone fears doing anything to create connection because it would “disturb the sound of silence.” As a result, the ambiguous “sound of silence” begins to feel both personified and menacing.

In the fourth stanza, the singer states plainly that the silence is evil as he declares that “silence like a cancer grows.” Once aware of this situation, the singer attempts to warn the people of their situation. However, his words do not penetrate “the sound of silence” and he describes his efforts as falling “like silent raindrops.” The singer’s impression of the people in verse three was that they were afraid to disturb the sound of silence. Here, in verse four, he finds that it might not even be possible.

The fifth stanza provides an ambiguous conclusion.

The people bow and pray to a (false) neon god. This appears to be a reference to the neon sign as described in verse two. In the second verse, the neon sign is what allowed the singer to see the people who are trapped. Now we learn the sign is the thing that traps them. The neon god/sign also ends the song issuing a warning to those same people that might inform their efforts to escape:

“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls
And whispered in the sound of silence”

The neon god/sign enables the singer to see the people. It traps them. It warns them. But the context is deeper because the singer tells us that the people are trapped by a god “they made.” The “god” would not be a god if the people did not make it one. They are their own ruin and they know it – which is why they also included a warning for themselves.

The people living meaningless lives, in the light of the neon god sign, can still hear whispers of truth among the poor if they would go and look. They have to put down their false god, though, and most will not. Staying where they are, though, in that light, they will remain trapped and purposeless.

The music of the song is interesting. It has no bridge, no key change. no intro or outro to start and end the song.  Verses 1, 2, 4, and 5 each begin with rhyming couplets (AA-BB in each instance.) Each verse ends with by referring to “the sound of silence.”

The song has been covered numerous times. I recently saw and enjoyed a version performed in a TV talent show by a musician named Wolf Winters, whose voice is deep enough to fit his ultra-cool name. Below, I have embedded a version as performed by Simon & Garfunkel.

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