Our attempt to review the greatest hits of all time would fall short if we did not write about this particular song. In fact, it would be a cliche to call “The Sound of Silence” just a hit. This is a song that transcends music as we know it – transforming into something more than an auditory experience merging with life itself. Rarely do we find music that touches us to the depths of our very souls, and “The Sound of Silence” is definitely one of them.
“The Sound of Silence” is a song about alienation and it’s hard to believe that it was composed by a 21-year-old. Simon Paul, the singer-songwriter of the folk music duo Simon & Garfunkel, composed the track during his university years. The song was initially included in Simon & Garfunkel’s debut album ‘Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.’ released in October 1964. However, as most debut albums tend to be, it was a commercial flop.
Yet, “The Sound of Silence” somehow found its way into the college crowd, as it was aired overnight by a DJ in Boston. The song’s producer Tom Wilson was alerted to this trend and he took the initiative to dub a rock rhythm section to the song over the folk rendition, transforming “The Sound of Silence” as we know it, into a success. This version, re-released as a single in 1965 and later included in the album ‘Sounds of Silence’ released in 1966, pushed Simon & Garfunkel from obscurity into the spotlight.
For songwriter Paul Simon, the song was inspired by his teenage years when he was just happy to be alone with his guitar. Simon tied in that experience with the first lines of “The Sound of Silence”:
“The main thing about playing the guitar, though, was that I was able to sit by myself and play and dream. And I was always happy doing that. I used to go off in the bathroom, because the bathroom had tiles, so it was a slight echo chamber. I’d turn on the faucet so that water would run – I like that sound, it’s very soothing to me – and I’d play. In the dark. ‘Hello darkness, my old friend/ I’ve come to talk with you again’.”
For singer Art Garfunkel, “The Sound of Silence” was a track that changed his life. Looking back on what he felt at the time, Garfunkel said:
“The words to me were very appealing, and it was one of those melodies Paul wrote that made you feel like ‘we know this song. It’s been under our noses all of our lives. Doesn’t this already exist?’ And so it is with really basic, wonderful stuff. ‘It’s always been around. Paul just uncovered what was, right?’ No he didn’t – he wrote it!”
Of course, a song so iconic has an amazing track record. “The Sound of Silence” secured the top spot on Billboard Hot 100 as well as the US Cash Box Top 100 charts. The track is listed on Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and was preserved at the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress along with the rest of the songs in the album ‘Sounds of Silence.’ Gold certified by RIAA and Platinum certified by BPI, “The Sound of Silence” was covered by multiple artists, with the hard rock version by Disturbed being the most well-received after the original.
Listen to “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel
Download ‘Simon & Garfunkel: Greatest Hits’ Album on Apple Music & Amazon
Simon & Garfunkel “The Sound of Silence” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
The lyrics of this song follow an interesting pattern. Instead of the usual verse-chorus-bridge structure, “The Sound of Silence” has only five verses lined up one after the other. Each of these verses describes a setting, an action, a thoughtful comment, finally concluded by that iconic line we are familiar with – “the sound of silence”.
“Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again”
One of the most well-known opening lines there is, “The Sound of Silence” starts off with a greeting. We imagine a conversation carried out in the darkness of the night, in the quiet. But the darkness is also a symbol of loneliness, of being in a place where confessions are made in secret and there is no one to listen to. The loneliness comes out more because this is not the first time the narrator has done this – he has greeted the darkness again and again. It is familiar darkness to him and perhaps a place of comfort where he feels seen and understood. The narrator is there to confess a “vision” that came to him in sleep that he can’t seem to get rid of. So in darkness and in silence, he is there to say it out loud, giving voice to the thoughts that are in his head even if there is no one listening to him. This brings out a sense of urgency that keeps rising as the song progresses, emphasized by the music that accompanies each verse.
“In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone”
Now we come to the vision itself that the narrator saw in his dreams. Again there is an emphasis on the sense of loneliness. The imagery created through the poetry of Simon’s language enhances this feeling – narrow streets lighted by the soft glow of a street lamp, a collar turned up against the cold as the narrator is out walking alone in the dark. The lyrics make it seem as if the narrator is the only man alive, making his way in the cold and dark. And this loneliness is suddenly interrupted by the glare of a neon light. The contrast of this line is striking. With the word ‘neon,’ the listener is transported to modern times – bustling streets full of people. The light itself is unnatural and artificial, standing apart from the cold and dark, stunning the narrator – because now the silence is broken.
“And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more”
The third verse is a significant one in “The Sound of Silence”, as indicated by lyrics, music, and the harmonization that is included in it. This is the vision that Simon wanted to share with the world. The neon light under its cold glare exposes droves of people, each of them trapped in their own version of loneliness. Simon at the time of composing saw how each individual and humanity as a whole has become isolated from each other as a result of progress. The neon light symbolizes the impersonal and modern world, where lives are defined by goals and ambitions of reaching the top while leaving others behind.
“The Sound of Silence” expresses how the rat race of life has taken away people’s ability to communicate, except at the most superficial level. True communication that took place around the dinner table is now replaced by dinners in front of the TV, with people only speaking just because they have to. The song is a criticism of those who are unable to connect with others. As time passes they no longer dare attempt to rebuild this bridge, for fear of rejection or finding out that they are truly alone. So the silence continues undisturbed, with people carrying out their lives blind and deaf to those around them, stifling their feelings and thoughts. This detachment has taken away chances to experience deep conversations and even creativity that comes from the soul, replaced by preoccupation and selfishness.
One of the most well-known covers of “The Sound of Silence” was done by the American heavy metal band Disturbed. Watch their rendition below.
“The Sound of Silence” Cover by Disturbed
“”Fools” said I,”You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows”
Here we find a young Simon challenging this new norm of social withdrawal and isolation. He chides the multitudes surrounding him, saying that silence can be deadly cancer – it kills unseen and unnoticed. He braves this cold and lonely world to reach out fearlessly, so that he may teach how to communicate again and to break away from the silence. However, his words go unheard and unheeded, like raindrops that become background noise.
“The Sound of Silence” shows how hard it is to shatter the silence and how easily people can fall into habits that are hard to break. Again it is a criticism of the modern world, where we let injustice happen just because it is easier to be silent than to speak out against such things. Soon enough, this silence and apathy become a habit that we cannot get rid of while the silence kills the best parts in us. Hence, the silence carries a sound, giving meaning to the oxymoron that is the title of the song. The sound of unspoken thoughts and words remains trapped, making the silence louder. All the while humans become incapable of empathy and compassion, merely living like machines functioning according to the ways they were programmed.
“And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made”
Once humans are unable to communicate with each other, they become slaves to the system. Their lives are ruled by dollar bills and superficial pleasures. Culture and society are likewise shaped by these people, fast living marked by celebrities, gossip, billboard signs, and the mass-produced art and literature that panders to their new religion. Commercialism and mass media has taken over every aspect of human life. The truth of humanity is now hidden in the places that are abandoned and overlooked – subway walls, apartments of the poor, and whispers uttered in the dark. There the people would still sing their songs, graffiti marks their dissent, and pockets of quiet resistance against the system will continue to grow in the dark until silence becomes sound again.
“The Sound of Silence” became the signature song of Simon & Garfunkel because of its depth of meaning. As critics point out, there are many ways to interpret this song. Some take it to be a criticism of commercialism and the growth of mass media, others as a song about alienation or an anti-war song. Some also view it as a track that challenges discrimination and inequalities, or about the entertainment industry as a whole which is lacking true substance.
“The Sound of Silence” is a metaphorical masterpiece that warns us about the dangers of becoming isolated and indifferent and serves as a reminder to break the silence that separates us from each other. Whichever way the meaning is interpreted, it is a song that asks the listener to reconsider their worldview, delivering a message that is undeniably timeless!
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.