Speak So Softly that Everyone Can Hear You

Quietness in music can be a powerful tool. Use it wisely.


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Essential Chord Progressions - Gary Ewer


Joni Mitchell - Magdalene LaundriesI love quiet songs. I like when a songwriter can get their point across using transparent instrumentation and a quiet voice. That’s certainly not to say that music that’s loud is just a lot of bluster for no reason. But I love quiet songs.

My love for quiet probably reflects my personality. When I used to instruct up-and-coming teachers at university, classroom discipline would be a big part of the curriculum. My favourite saying, one I used to describe my own way of keeping classes quiet and focused, was this:

Speak so softly that everyone can hear you.

I used to conduct a boys’ choir, the members of which were between ages 9 and 12. I typically spoke very softly in rehearsal. If the music wasn’t sounding the way I wanted, I would use hand gestures that showed the shape of a phrase or the kind of sound I wanted. And I often did that silently, or with a one- or two-word comment delivered quietly. Discipline was rarely a problem.

People who speak quietly have a way of hushing a room. When you speak quietly, you imply that your message does not need the extra power that comes from volume. The softer you speak, the more people listen.

In reality, of course, quiet music can have its loud moments, and I am certainly not saying that loudness is a negative quality. But when everything is loud, you rob your music of the power that can come from the transparency of quietness.

Some of my favourite “quiet” tunes, ones that really make me focus in on the message, are:

  1. The Magdalene Laundries (Joni Mitchell, with The Chieftains) A truly stunning song, with an astonishing lyric.
  2. Flume (Justin Vernon).
  3. We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37) (Peter Gabriel) For the background to this song, read this article. Then watch this video. Jaw-dropping.

We are all creatures of habit. If you find that everything you write and produce is on the loud side, it may be time to quiet down and get your message across more introspectively. Over the longer term, mixing in quiet music with your louder ones gives your own personal catalogue a diversity and depth that will ultimately draw in a larger audience base.

In that sense, you’ll demonstrate your own version of speaking so softly that everyone will hear you.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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