"The Sound of Silence"—More Theological Than You Realized?

            Released in September of 1965, “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel became a hit within a few months, claiming the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 from The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.” In the half-century since then, the song has remained a staple of music history with multiple successful covers, and it is often considered the best song Paul Simon has written. Even so, its subject has been the debate of many listeners, the general theory being that it was written about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A close examination of the lyrics lends more towards the school of thought that the song is about the breakdown of communication in the wake of mass media, though it can be contested that the song expresses the idea that the breakdown of communication is not new. Though much of what follows is subjective, this listener found a narrative that she previously didn’t realize was in one of her favorite songs, one that was oddly and perhaps unintentionally biblical.

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

            The first line of the song is its most memorable: “Hello darkness, my old friend.” In one phrase, Simon uses apostrophe to address the abstract notion of darkness, which establishes the tone and message of the entire song. The audience is given a glance into the speaker as an individual who is used to isolation. The subsequent six lines of the verse elaborate that the speaker has experienced a vision while dreaming, which “still remains within the sound of silence.” Using the imagery of a seed being planted in someone’s brain, Simon establishes that the speaker has something to share but is unsure or fearful to express. This verse mimics prayer, sounding as if the speaker wants guidance and setting up the comparison of the speaker to a religious prophet.

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

            Providing the image of the speaker walking alone on a cobblestone road, the second verse elaborates on the vision itself. Though one could interpret the speaker as actively walking down the street, the implication of the first line is that the subsequent verses of the song take place in their “restless dreams.” The diction of this verse is interesting; there is a noted juxtaposition of harsh and soft words. Line ten uses the phrase “halo of a street lamp,” which sounds heavenly and angelic, while lines twelve and thirteen use violent verbs such as “stabbed” and “split.” These words were meant to convey the severity and urgency of the speaker’s vision. 

            Additionally, the verse recalls the apostle Paul. First, the speaker is described as having turned their collar “to the cold and damp,” which recalls Paul’s time as a Pharisee and tax collector under the name Saul. During his time as Saul, Paul was cruel and did selfish things in the name of god, turning his collar to the cold and damp as in the suffering of those around him that he could help and did not. The last three lines convey a story of the speaker being blinded from a vision that broke through “the sound of silence.” In the book of Acts chapter nine, Saul is shown an apparition of Jesus on the road to Damascus, and after Jesus chastises him for persecuting his people, he goes blind for three days. After this point, Saul becomes Paul, destined to bring the word of god to the gentiles. In the same way, the speaker experiences a vision that stabs their eyes with “the flash of a neon light,” possibly god, while walking down the road.

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 share

No one dared

Disturb the sound of silence

           The remaining three verses describe the vision itself in greater detail. The speaker sees thousands of people who are “talking without speaking” and “hearing without listening.” It’s not a lack of communication, it’s a lack of expression. Through repetition of form in lines seventeen and eighteen, Simon further establishes the theme of struggling to convey meaning by breaking that structure in line nineteen. “No one dared disturb the sound of silence” meaning that no one dared to say what they truly meant in favor of following the norms of what they were supposed to say. Like Charles Bukowski’s “Bluebird,” the songs in this vision remain a secret kept only by their owners.

"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

            The fourth verse sees a shift both in structure and content. While the previous three verses were seven lines and the first two had a rhyme scheme of three sets of rhyme with one non-rhyme, the fourth verse is six lines with two sets of rhyme and two non-rhymes. Additionally, this verse sees the speaker attempting and failing to share their message, warning them that “silence like a cancer grows.” Loss of meaning will fester with time; their words fall on deaf ears. Interestingly, lines twenty-six and twenty-seven contain one of the only references to sound in the entire song: “my words like silent raindrops fell and echoed in the wells of silence.” This could mean that, though they remain unheard, the speaker’s words did penetrate the sound of silence. The image of the well collecting raindrops also poses a double-meaning. Of course, the audience could interpret this as an actual well, or simply a deep abyss, but “well” is a verb used in conjunction with crying. As such, the well could be in reference to tears welling, the speaker’s or the people’s, in response to their shared loss of meaning.

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 sounds of silence

            Maintaining the religious overtones, the final verse showcases the response to the speaker’s attempt to express themselves. Duly ignoring their words, the people bow and pray to their “neon god,” an interesting choice of descriptor given that it is repeated from the second stanza. Line twenty-nine is often taken to be a representation of mass media, business, or the like, though it harkens to the biblical concept of false gods and idolatry. In lines thirty-two through thirty-four, the speaker reads a sign warning that “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” This line serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it acts to convey a final biblical allusion. In Daniel chapter five, the king of Babylon sees an apparition of a hand writing a message on a wall in the midst of a party. He calls the prophet Daniel to interpret the words, and Daniel tells him that god is displeased with his behavior and punishment is coming, which comes to pass when the king dies shortly thereafter. The second intention of this line is to echo a sentiment expressed by Jesus himself: that the poor and downtrodden of society are just as valuable as everyone else and their voice matters. Even so the use of “whispered” in the last line hints that this message may not be heard by everyone but that it will reach those who listen for it.

            Through its use of repetition, religious imagery, and a gently ominous tone, “The Sound of Silence” pleads with its readers to think with a story of a prophet receiving a vision. Though the song is open to many interpretations, it has proven time and time again to have an appeal that goes beyond generations--which makes the revelation that Paul Simon wrote it in a dark bathroom all the more amusing.