In the TV series Classic Albums (now available on DVD), Roger Waters talks about the Pink Floyd song “Us and Them.” He says, “I find myself very very often, in my capacity as a producer, having to say to people, ‘No, leave a hole. Just play for half a bar and leave a bar-and-a-half empty.'” I love this quote, and think of it often while I’m writing. It reminds me that I don’t need to fill up every moment with notes. Sometimes music needs space to breathe, silence to give form and beauty to the sound.
As Daniel Levitin wrote in his book This Is Your Brain on Music, Miles Davis “described the most important part of his solos as the empty space between notes, the ‘air’ that he placed between one note and the next. Knowing precisely when to hit the next note, and allowing the listener the time to anticipate it, is a hallmark of Davis’s genius.”
This idea of space also reminds me to play only what’s absolutely necessary to get the point across. Do as little as you have to to convey the energy, the mood or the feeling you’re trying to capture. Not out of laziness, but out of economy. Doing more with less is one of the signs of great writing. Pink Floyd were always masters of this, and the song “Us and Them” is a brilliant example.
I studied studio art in college, and in drawing classes we were always encouraged to look at the negative space just as much as the positive space, to see the shapes around objects as often as the objects themselves. The reason for this is that compositionally, shapes are just shapes, whether you’re drawing a vase or the air around a vase. It’s all equally important in context. If you ignore the negative space and just draw the things themselves your drawing may feel awkward, imbalanced or poorly-composed.
The same is true for music: you need to pay attention to the “air” around the notes. Focus as much attention on the space you leave around the notes as on the notes you play (or write). Give notes time to develop, to flower, and then to be appreciated. Who knows, perhaps you’ll write the next Dark Side of the Moon or Kind of Blue.
(If you want to watch the entire Dark Side of the Moon Classic Albums episode, it’s also available streaming on Netflix. I highly recommend it—it’s easily one of the best of the series. Most of the other episodes are streaming there as well.)