Superimposing Silences

Progress has been made, thanks to the combined efforts of Robert Green, Tommy Cliff, Lin Zou, Professor Hongji Yang and myself. The starting point was the question raised by Robert: what happens if one silence is superimposed on another? In other words, if we combine a silence that has a joyful affect with one that has a tense affect, what is the result?

Given that every silence is a new silence, we may be certain that the result will not be simply a combination of the two previous silences. The affect will be unknowable. However, we may nevertheless undertake some analysis to get some idea of the result.

Mathematically, this leads to set theory, in the first instance, and possibly to group theory in the long run (although that may be overkill). Robert suggests:

The Space (S) of all Silences is partitioned into L disjoint sets of silences (where L is infinite) S1, S2, Sn… Su is a (hopefully empty!) set of silences unclassified by a particular method of partitioning – i.e. the remnants.

We can refine this partitioning by affect and effect, as follows: Sa1, Sa2, Sa3 etc. and Se1, Se2, Se3 etc. It is possible that certain sets have no common elements (silences) then another from the other partition e.g Sa2 ∩ Se3 = ∅. This introduces the idea of incompatibility, i.e. that there silences that cannot coexist at the same time.

When compatible silences are superimposed, therefore, a third silence will be the result, which itself may be judged under the variables in the ontology. This process may be written as follows:

∫:SxS→S, where S is the space of silences. S is two dimensional (affect/effect). The axiom:

  • I. Closure – every product of superimposition is another silence.
  • II. Associativity – the order of superimposition is not relevant and produces the same product.
  • III. Identity – There is an element such that superimposition by it makes no change.
  • IV. Invertibility – that every silence could be superimposed with another to yield the identity.

Robert went on to speculate about how this relates to group theory. If I-IV all hold, it forms a group. If I and II hold, it forms a semi-group. If I, II and III hold, it forms a monoid.

Tommy Cliff commented further that: I. is a question whether two silences combined make a silence. For III, the identity element is ideal silence as well, since if you superimposed a Silence with the identity, you would want to get exactly your original Silence out. I cannot think how you could have the invertibility property (IV) though, ie. for any silence, there exists another silence such that when superimposed, you get ideal silence as your output. If you can’t have this, then you only have a monoid.

Clearly this all  has some way to go, and we settled on using more empirical tools to analyse the silences for now until we can arrive at a judgment as to how much of this is purely subjective speculation (most of it, one suspects).

Hongji Yang proposed using Fourier transforms to analyse the silences. This has the great advantage that it will work across any media type, providing a scientific method for structuring the database. Lin You has undertaken a survey of databases. We have to go for a free platform (there is no budget for this project yet!) so it is a choice between NoSQL and MySQL solutions. Having something that works effectively with semantic web queries is essential. However, this also led on to a discussion about the extent of the use of semantic web in the project. As Jim Hendler puts it: “a little semantics goes a long way”. This is to be resolved. In the meantime, we are absorbing Lin’s survey to make some decisions.

At the same time, the psychological tests being undertaken by Dr Marie Thomas and her team could include superimposed silences. Perhaps something will emerge from that process that gives us an objective measure.

I stressed that user interaction will be key to this project. Whatever decisions we may make about the effect/affect of a given silence, users may well have a different opinion. They will be given the opportunity to record these opinions and the app will learn from their interactions. I envisage something quite alchemical: combine a drop of this silence with a dollop of that one, to produce something quite extraordinary. It could be magical!

Finally, I note that we have already had some uploads of silences. The individuals are beginning to appear! It’s exciting.







Ontology of Silence


The Ontology of Silence is a project by Andrew Hugill. Please spend some time investigating the site at to get an understanding of the project.

You are invited to contribute silences and to get involved in discussion via this blog page or contact me directly.

Future blog posts will update you about the project and include the most recent discussions. This is very much work in progress, so it is to be expected that these pages will evolve and change over the coming months and years.

Meanwhile…. ssshhhh!


If you wish to contribute, please upload a silence using the UPLOAD link below. If there is a problem with that method, please email me using the Contact Form.

Your silence could be a sound file, image file, text file, etc. Sound files will be recordings of silences. Image, text, and other similar files will evoke silence in some way. To understand how that might work, please read the ontology carefully.

Name uploaded files with your name and any title, separated by underscores, as in the following example: andrew_hugill_wry_silence.aif

Files may be in any format, but please try to achieve the best quality.

Uploading a file indicates that you are willing to make the contents available to the Ontology of Silence project. Files must therefore be free from any copyright restrictions.

Along with the silence itself, please also upload a text file with the same filename as the silence. The text file should contain a very brief description of the silence. Do include any relevant factual information such as: sound recordist, artist, writer, date, location, etc. Finally, indicate the Affect and Effect of the silence, from your perspective.



Ontology of Silence

Domain Concept

  • A silence is a duration containing no intentional sound.
  • An intentional sound is that sound which is intended to interrupt a silence.
    • Unintentional sounds may have local intentionality but are made without awareness of the silence.
      • A silence in a forest may include the singing of birds who make intentional sound but without awareness of the silence.
      • Two lovers falling silent as they gaze into one another’s eyes in a crowded restaurant sustain their mutual silence despite the many unintentional sounds around them until they are interrupted (perhaps by a waiter bringing a menu).
    • A person disrespectfully calling out as a rugby union player tees up a kick at goal intends to disrupt the silence.
      • The extent to which an interruption successfully breaks a silence is a matter of common agreement. In some instances, a silence is deemed to have continued despite an attempted interruption. In this case, the intentional sound becomes absorbed into the silence.
  • A duration may be specified or unspecified, but silence will always have a duration.
    • The limits of the duration of a silence are set by the intrusion of intentional sound.
      • A duration may be measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, lifetimes, or eternities.
  • Silences may be Real or Ideal.
    • Real silence is full of sound.
      • Since “a complete absence of sound” (OED) is an ideal condition, there will always be some sound in a real silence.
  • A Real Silence is an experience which can be either recorded or unrecorded.
    • A recorded silence is not the same silence as that which was experienced, but is rather a new, mediated silence.
  • Recorded silences have a Recording Type, which refers to the conditions under which the recording was made.
    • An Accidental Recording is an unintended silence on a recording.
    • An Ambient Recording is a silence in a given space.
    • A Concert Recording is a silence in a musical concert.
    • A Field Recording is a silence recorded in a specified location.
    • A Personal Recording is a silence recorded by an individual for private use.
    • A Studio Recording is a controlled silence recorded in a studio situation.
  • An unrecorded silence is an actual experience that may be represented in any medium other than recorded sound or may not be represented at all.
    • The typology of unrecorded silences is: Image; Music; Verbal; Written; or Unrepresented.
      • Image Types of unrecorded silence represents silence in an image, that may be: a movie; a painting; a photograph; a sculpture; any other image.
      • Music Types of unrecorded silence include both silent pieces of music and music that otherwise attempts to represent silence. They may be either composition or performance.
      • Verbal Types of unrecorded silence represent the silence through spoken words.
      • Written Types of unrecorded silence may be either poetry or prose.
      • Unrepresented Types of unrecorded silence are silences that are experienced but not represented in any way. This type exists but is necessarily void.
  • An ideal silence can only be evoked, but not experienced.
    • An ideal silence is the one described by the dictionary definition of silence as: “a complete absence of sound” (OED, 2017).
      • The silence in a vacuum is ideal, because it cannot not be experienced by a human being, but only evoked.
      • The “silence of the grave” is similarly ideal, because it cannot be experienced but only evoked.
  • The evocations of ideal silence are: Gestural; Imagistic; Sonic; Verbal; Written; Unclassified.
    • A Gestural Evocation conveys the ideal silence through gesture.
    • An Imagistic Evocation conveys an ideal silence through image.
    • A Sonic Evocation conveys the ideal silence through sound.
    • A Verbal Evocation conveys the ideal silence through spoken words.
    • A Written Evocation conveys the ideal silence through written words.
    • An Unclassified Evocation uses some other means than gesture, image, sound, or words (written or spoken) to convey the ideal silence.

Value Propositions

  • The Effect of a silence is defined by its frame (that which surrounds the silence in time and/or space).
    • Absolute Silence is the effect of a total absence of sound in a period of time or a given space.
    • Electronic Silence is the effect of an absence of signal in an electronic medium.
    • Environmental Silence is the effect of silence in an environment.
    • A Hush is the effect of a silence that is collectively willed.
    • A Silent Interlude is the effect of a silence that occurs during some event.
    • An Outer Silence is the effect of a silence manifested by an individual or group.
    • A Silent Postlude is the effect of a silence that follows some event.
    • A Silent Prelude is the effect of a silence that precedes some event.
    • Quiet is the effect emanating from a silent source.
    • Radio Silence is the effect of no signal from a broadcast medium or a normally communicative group.
    • Ritual Silence is effect of a silence that forms part of some ritual.
    • A Still Silence is the effect of stillness.
    • Silent Space is the effect of silence in a given space.
  • The character of a silence is determined by its Affect.
    • Affect is a subjective perception of the personal or emotional consequences of a silence.
      • An Ambient Silence surrounds you.
      • An Amiable Silence is friendly.
      • An Amusing Silence makes you smile.
      • An Angry Silence is an expression of rage.
      • An Anticipatory Silence makes you expect something.
      • An Anxious Silence is a troubling experience.
      • An Attentive Silence is the respect shown by a listener.
      • An Awkward Silence is when words will not come.
      • A Bittersweet Silence produces mixed emotions.
      • A Boring Silence seems to never end.
      • A Brooding Silence suggests that something is going on.
      • A Cheerful Silence is a happy one in which sound is unnecessary.
      • A Contented Silence occurs when all sonic needs have been fulfilled.
      • A Crepuscular Silence feels like the “still of the evening”.
      • A Deafening Silence is a notable absence of response.
      • A Disgusted Silence occurs when it is better that no sound is made.
      • A Dramatic Silence is a silence used for effect in some performance.
      • An Empathetic Silence is the shared moment when you become lost in someone else’s profound thoughts
      • A Fascinating Silence is one which does not wish to interrupt.
      • A Fearful Silence is afraid of the consequences of making a sound.
      • A Good-natured Silence is the natural product of wellbeing.
      • An Incidental Silence goes unnoticed by most people.
      • An Inner Silence may be achieved through meditation or religious contemplation.
      • An Interested Silence is polite but nevertheless engaged.
      • An Interrupting Silence is intended to interrupt sounds.
      • A Joyful Silence is when there are no sounds left to express the joy.
      • A Longing Silence awaits fulfilment.
      • A Meditative Silence accompanies some inner process of spirituality.
      • A Mindful Silence attends only to the present moment.
      • A Moody Silence occurs when one’s emotions get the better of one.
      • A Musing Silence is quizzical yet contemplative.
      • A Mute Silence cannot make a sound
      • A Mysterious Silence is inexplicable.
      • A Performative Silence is perceived to have a function within a performative setting.
      • A Polite Silence will eventually be broken by the need to utter.
      • A Political Silence is both the suppression of a voice and a strategic form of resistance.
      • A Silly Silence is unnecessary and ridiculous.
      • A Stunned Silence is a reaction to a shock.
      • A Sullen Silence is a reluctant response to some perceived oppression.
      • A Surprising Silence jolts one into a reaction.
      • A Sweet Silence is seductive and delightful.
      • A Tense Silence creates a palpable atmosphere.
      • A Transformative Silence changes a situation.
      • A Valedictory Silence bids farewell to something.
      • A Visceral Silence is raw, emotional and affecting to the core.
      • A Volatile Silence behaves unpredictably and wildly.
      • A Whimsical Silence is some kind of joke.
      • A Wistful Silence is full of a vague sense of regret.
      • A Witty Silence is all about timing.
      • A Wry Silence is used to mock.

© Andrew Hugill, 2017.