Monday, May 5, 2014

The sounds of silence: a brief history of silent recordings

The band Vulfpeck made the news recently with its new album Sleepify, a full-length digital platter of total silence that the band released to exploit Spotify's revenue model. The idea behind the album was that if fans streamed the silent tracks at night while they slept, the band would rake in money from the streams. 

Hilarious, brilliant, and apparently successful (the band made about $18,000 from it), the album was later pulled from Spotify for violating the terms of service. 

Sleepify is novel within the context of Spotify, but it isn't the first silent record in history, so today Music Weird presents a brief—and surely incomplete—history of silent records. 

John Cage's "4' 33""

Composed in 1952, John Cage's "4' 33"" consists of three movements of silence during which the musicians do not play. The composition has been performed and recorded a number of times, including once by Frank Zappa for the 1993 album A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute.

Here's Lawrence Foster conducting a performance of "4' 33"" on the BBC:

Silent records for jukeboxes 

In 1959, Billboard reported that three silent records had been placed in the jukebox at the University of Detroit so that people could buy a few minutes of silence. The article, quoting Student Council President Mike McCann, said that "future records will feature 'stereophonic silence' which will be 'twice as silent' as monaural disks." 

A year later, Reading, Pennsylvania's Reading Eagle reported that the first week of January was Silent Record Week, "an international tribute to juke box peace and quiet." The article said that, in recognition of the event, the University of Detroit's 65-member chorus would appear at a concert at which they would not sing. 

The article also mentioned that the University of Detroit's three silent records were so popular on the jukebox that they developed noisy scratches, so the records had to be replaced. 

Headline from the Jan. 2, 1960 Reading Eagle

Records without records

A series of joke records came out around 1962, including the one pictured below, Songs for Swinging Mothers. The record jackets contained an unplayable cardboard record that had no music, just a printed message that said, "I bought this album for you as a gift... sorry, I couldn't afford the record!" 

John Lennon's "Two Minutes Silence" and "Nutopian National Anthem"

John Lennon released two silent recordings: "Two Minutes Silence" on Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (1969) and "Nutopian National Anthem" on Mind Games (1973). "Nutopian National Anthem" is three seconds long. 

The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan

Hat tip to "Kid Eh?" in the comments for mentioning this one. 

In 1980, Stiff Records in the UK, under the Magic Records imprint, released the comedy album The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan. The joke was that the record had no content. Both side A, "The Wit of Ronald Reagan," and side B, "The Wisdom of Ronald Reagan," were grooved but silent, unlike the actual Reagan, who liked to crack jokes now and then. 

Blank cassettes with nonexistent Satanic messages

During the Satanic panic of the 1980s, a rumor circulated about Satanic messages on blank cassettes. According to the rumor, if you listened to a blank cassette at high volume, you could sometimes hear ghostly—and presumably Satanic—murmurings. The assumption was that the companies that manufactured blank cassettes were using the medium to transmit dastardly occult messages into the subconscious of impressionable kids. We "knew" at that time that the Proctor & Gamble company was Satanic, so why wouldn't Maxell and Memorex be Satanic too? 

Normally, I wouldn't have included blank media on this list, because it's not meant to be listened to until after audio is recorded on it. But because of this rumor, some kids listened intently, for as long as their patience held out, to blank cassettes. 

Ciccone Youth's "(Silence)"

The Whitey Album, the 1988 album by the Sonic Youth side project Ciccone Youth, contained a 63-second track of silence. 

CDs with "bonus tracks" of silence

Countless CDs contained unlabeled silent tracks at the end of the program to obscure the presence of hidden tracks. One of the most extreme examples is the 1994 album Kerosene Hat by Cracker, which had a total of 99 tracks, most of which contained no audio.

One-sided singles and three-sided albums

A number of artists over the years have released one-sided singles or three-sided double albums that had no music on the leftover side. The indiepop label Four Letter Words put out a number of one-sided singles in the 1990s. 

A lot of the time, these one- and three-sided records had no grooves on the extra side, but sometimes the extra side would have silent grooves. One example is the 1996 album Nai-Ha/Superunit by Zeni Geva, a three-sided double album that has silent grooves on side D. 

Pootie Tang

In the 2001 Louis C.K. film Pootie Tang, the main character, Pootie, scores a hit with a new recording of silence that he performs with great feeling.

The Royal British Legion's "2 Minute Silence"

In 2010, the Royal British Legion notched a Top 20 hit in the UK with "2 Minute Silence," a self-explanatory charity single in honor of Remembrance Day. What had been a joke in Pootie Tang became reality in less than a decade. The context was different, but the "music" was the same: total silence.  


  1. Another excellent article Greg, but you missed one of my favourites ...

    The Wit & Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, was an LP that was completely silent on both sides, which sold over 30,000 copies, on Magic Records, with its own slogan, "If it sells, it must be Magic".

  2. Yes, another silent classic!!!

    Thanks for the comment! I'll add this album to the post later today.