The Sound of Silence

Simon & Garfunkel


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Hello and welcome to Explained in English. I’m Ki and today I’m explaining the song The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel. I chose this song not only because it’s one of Simon and Garfunkel’s biggest hits, but also because I can relate to it. The song is about a dream. Dreaming is, of course, what sometimes happens when you fall asleep at night. You go to bed, close your eyes, fall asleep, and then enter into this dream; this dreamworld. Dreams by their very nature play by different rules than this world. Ideas of time are different. Ideas of communication are different and particularly, I often feel a need to let it out in some way or at least to better understand what the meaning of this dream was. But, it’s always a little bit difficult to translate the very powerful experience of a dream and have it make sense in this world, in this reality. We definitely see that struggle to make sense of this dream in these lyrics. The song begins:


[Verse 1]
Hello darkness my old friend
Darkness is an absence of light. That is, where there’s no light, there’s darkness . I always picture him waking up from a dream and being in complete darkness with the after effect of this dream still fresh in his mind. However, darkness could also be symbolic and it could mean evil, like a negative part of life, a lack of clarity, or even blindness (right?); not being able to see. In any case he’s greeting this darkness. He says, hello darkness my old friend . A friend is usually someone that you know and connect with; someone that you spend time with or trust a lot. And an old friend would be someone that you’ve known for a long time, maybe you met them many many years ago. So, we get the idea that whatever darkness means, this isn’t a new experience for him; this isn’t the first time that he’s had this conversation with darkness.

I’ve come to talk with you again
I’ve come is like saying here I am; I made a journey to get here; I went from one place to another place; I have come. So, I’ve come to talk with you, to discuss something with you; have a conversation. Again, once again, it’s not the first time. It’s an old friend and this conversation is happening again . And why is he talking to darkness again ? He says:

Because a vision softly creeping
The word vision is another way to say his dream. Some kind of visual or an image in his mind. He sees some image, some visual picture, and that’s a vision . Sometimes visions can be predictions of the future but sometimes they can also involve the past, it really depends. But, visions are almost always symbolic, a little bit cryptic, and often need some kind of interpretation. Here, he says that the vision was softly creeping . This is the verb to creep , which means to move slowly and silently. It’s like the vision was sneaking up on him, was creeping and moving very slowly. In fact, it says softly creeping, which means quietly, gently, without making any noise. He says it…

Left its seeds while I was sleeping
Seeds are the small grain-like objects that you find inside fruits like apples -- they have seeds inside. Even things like peaches, watermelon, they all have seeds . Seeds are the way that fruits reproduce themselves. So, if you plant a seed in the ground and you have the right conditions then a tree will sprout from that seed and begin to grow. He says, the vision left its seeds. This is the past tense of the verb to leave . It means that some part of the vision remains. Some part of it is still in his mind even though he’s not experiencing the vision in the dream now. The remnants of the dream, or the seeds, are still fresh in his mind. So, from the beginning we have: 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 verse ends with:

And the vision that was planted in my brain still remains
Here we have the word vision again, which means the images. He says the vision was planted in my brain. Planting is something you do with seeds. It means that you dig a hole in the earth, in the ground, and you put the seed inside and then you fill the hole with dirt or soil again. This is called planting a seed . Here, of course, it’s figurative. The vision that he had in his sleep was the seed. So, the seeds of this dream, they still remain, they haven’t gone away and they’re still in his mind. They remain there. It’s like when you eat or drink something that has a very strong taste. Even after you swallow it, the taste in your mouth still remains, it’s still there, you can still feel it. So, this vision still remains...

Within the sound of silence
Within literally means inside. With and in, happening alongside the sound of silence. This is a very interesting phrase because silence literally means no sound, a lack of sound, no noise. When you hear nothing, you can say that it’s silent . But sound is the opposite of silence . Sound is any kind of noise, any kind of vibration that can be heard with your ears. So, my voice, for instance, is sound , music is sound. So, what is the sound of silence ? Of course, true silence, or complete silence, is something that most of us will probably never experience. Even when it seems silent there’s generally some kind of noise, and we could call this the sound of silence. As I said before, I often picture him waking up in the middle of the night, it’s dark and very silent, yet this dream is still fresh in his mind. So, he begins to write the dream down. In verse two he says:

[Verse 2]
In restless dreams I walked alone
Restless means not calm. In fact, very agitated, a little bit stressed. If you look at the word restless you can see two words in there. There’s the word rest, which means you’re calm, you’re at peace, you’re relaxing. But this is restless . Less means fewer or without. So, without rest or without much rest, that’s restless. And here he says restless dreams . If you’re having restless dreams or a restless night of sleep, then you’re tossing and turning in bed, you’re not sleeping peacefully, you’re having a restless night. So, in his restless dreams he walked alone. So, he was moving his feet and his legs and he was walking alone, without other people, all by himself and with no one else around. In restless dreams I walked alone.

Narrow streets of cobblestone
A street is a road or a path used for transportation. So, he’s walking on this narrow street. Narrow means not wide. When there isn’t much room or much space you can say that the street is narrow. And this narrow or small street without much space is made of cobblestone. A street of cobblestone is one paved by cobblestones . These are rounded stones that you place in the ground to make a relatively flat surface for cars or for people to walk on. Paving a street with cobblestone is a rather old style. In many places of the world it’s much more common to use cement or concrete to pave the road. But nevertheless we see him walking alone on these narrow streets of cobblestone.

‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp
‘Neath is short for beneath , which means under or below. So, you can think of an umbrella. When it rains you open your umbrella and stay beneath the umbrella in order to protect yourself from getting wet. Our protagonist here is beneath the halo of a streetlamp. A lamp is an artificial light, usually a kind of electrical light, and a streetlamp is one that is placed on the side of the street in order to light it up and illuminate the area so people can see where they’re going. He’s beneath the halo of a streetlamp. A halo is like a ring or a circle of light that’s surrounding something. For instance, if you look at the moon at night it gives off a light and the light immediately around the moon could be called a halo . It’s kind of like a glow, the glow of the moon or the glow of a streetlamp. Underneath the halo means underneath the light of the streetlamp. So, beneath the halo of a streetlamp.

I turned my collar to the cold and damp
Turning your collar up is something you would do when you feel cold. When the temperature is low outside and you want to warm up, you might turn your collar. Your collar is the part of your shirt which folds down around your neck. Generally it’s used as a kind of decoration. Dress shirts and formal business shirts often have collars and usually they’re turned down. However, if it was very cold outside you could unflip or flip the collar up in order to keep a bit warmer around your neck. And that’s what he did. He says, I turned my collar . It means, he unfolded the collar of his shirt or his coat so it covers more of his neck. He turned his collar to the cold and the damp . Damp is a way to say mildly wet or a little bit humid. We get the idea that the temperature is low, that it’s cold outside, and also that it’s damp , that it’s a little bit wet. Maybe there’s a light sprinkle of rain. In any case, he turns his collar to the cold and damp , when… (his)

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
So, it was dark and then all of the sudden, (boom!) there’s a flash ! A bright light, a bright neon light. A flash is a kind of sudden brightness. For instance, if you turn a light switch on and then off quickly you’ll get a flash . Or, if you take a photo at night you often will use the flash , which will give you a quick burst of light. Neon light is a kind of light that’s often used to make signs for businesses at night. Neon is a type of gas or chemical element that shines in bright colors when electric current flows through it. So, a neon light is kind of like a bright and colorful electric light. So, there was this flash of neon light and he says my eyes were stabbed by it. That means his eyes were shocked or surprised by this flash of neon light. Stabbed comes from the verb to stab , which means to penetrate with a sharp object. Usually people stab things with a knife, which means that they forcefully push the pointed end of the knife into something else. But here the meaning is quite figurative. He means his eyes were shocked or stabbed by this flash of neon light. And this flash was so bright that it split the night:

That split the night
To split something is to divide it, to cut it into pieces. This flash of neon light split the night in the sense that it ended the darkness. The light was so bright that it cut the darkness in two; it split the night...

And touched the sound of silence
To touch means to make contact with, normally with some part of your body, like your hands. But here we have the light touching the silence. It touched , or was present at the same time as the sound of silence. So, now there’s light and he can see. It’s not so dark anymore and in the next verse he tells us what he sees. It begins:

[Verse 3]
And in the naked light I saw
Naked literally means without clothes. If you take off all of your clothing then you would be naked . But here he says in the naked light . This means in the raw light, in the light which shows the true nature of things. Not the outside appearance, not like the clothing, but the naked , the natural, raw sense of it. In the naked light I saw. Saw is the past tense of the verb to see, and it means that he witnessed or observed something with his eyes. And what did he see? He saw…

10,000 people, maybe more
So, ten thousand is literally the number one with four zeros after it, but here it means many many people. He says, 10,000 people or maybe more . Perhaps more than 10,000. He’s not sure, but definitely he sees a lot of people. So, in the naked light I saw 10,000 people maybe more.

People talking without speaking
So, what are these people doing? They’re talking . They’re having some kind of conversation. They’re communicating with one another. Usually when we talk we’re saying words out loud, we’re using our voices and speaking. But here it says people are talking without speaking , without making literal noises. Somehow people are communicating and having conversations without actually saying words out loud. So that’s, people talking without speaking. He continues:

People hearing without listening
Usually you hear sounds with your ears. But somehow these people are hearing even though there is no sound, and they’re hearing without listening. This means without paying particular attention to the meaning of what they’re hearing . Just because you hear a sound doesn’t mean that you’re paying attention to it. I think many of us have had experiences like that where there’s sounds going on in the background but you’re not really listening to them. You know that they’re there but you’re not really paying any attention. So, in his dream he saw: people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening, and finally...

People writing songs that voices never share
So, if you write something, then you’re putting words on a page that represent, usually, sounds, so that people can read them later. You can write with a pen (and) a paper or with your keyboard and a computer. So, writing songs is writing words for music. He says, people are writing songs that voices never share. We all have a voice , it’s what we use to speak or what you would use to sing songs. But, if voices are not sharing something then they’re not singing them, they’re not communicating them. Sharing literally means to show something to someone else or to allow them to participate in the experience with you. For instance, we can share words and have a conversation, we can share experiences and do some activity together, or we can share things like objects: food, music, songs. But, these voices are never sharing; it means not ever. It’s not happening. People are writing these songs but they’ll never be sung, they’ll never come to life in the form of music and sound. But why won’t they share these songs? It says no one dared ...

No one dared disturb the sound of silence
Dared is the past tense of the verb to dare. It means to have the courage to do something. It means that there’s some kind of risk, some kind of possible loss or vulnerability that may occur if you do something. We understand that there may be some kind of fear in the people. That they’re scared to disturb the sound of silence. Disturbing means to change the state of something in a negative way. Imagine someone who is sleeping very quietly, very peacefully, and then you go in the room and you shake them and you say, “Hey wake up!”, and you splash some water on their face! You just really disturbed their sleep. You changed their sleep in a very negative way and that’s disturbing it. So, here no one dares. No one will even have the courage to disturb the sound of silence. So, after seeing -- after observing -- this scene of the 10,000 people, he tries to help them. He wants to try and save them. He says...

[Verse 4]
“Fools!” said I, “you do not know”
A fool is a person who doesn’t act wisely. Someone who perhaps does or says things without thinking of the consequences. Another way to say fool is an idiot or a stupid person, or perhaps someone who’s ignorant. He says, fools you do not know. Which is like saying, you don’t understand, you don’t have a good grasp of this situation. He says, fools you do not know...

Silence like a cancer grows
When you’re quiet, when you’re in silence , when you don’t express what’s on your mind or your heart, it’s like a cancer . Cancer is a type of disease or a sickness that can often be very serious and can result in death. So, he says staying silent is like a cancer that grows . To grow means to get bigger, to become larger, literally. For example, a baby can grow into a young child. Or, from earlier, a seed can grow into a young plant and then later a tree. Growing is like incrementally becoming a bigger thing or figuratively, something more and more important. So, he really thinks that their silence will hurt them. He wants to help and he says...

Hear my words that I might teach you
Hear my words means listen to what I say; please pay attention to what I tell you. Hear my words that I might teach you. To teach is to help someone understand something new. It could be some kind of knowledge or an ability. For example, right now I’m trying to teach you some English by explaining these songs. He says, hear my words that I might teach you. Might means possibly, or hopefully. Hear my words so that perhaps, I might be able to teach you something. Hear my words that I might teach you...

Take my arms that I might reach you
Take my arms means he’s offering help. He’s saying, let me help you. Your arms are literally the part of your body that extend from your shoulders all the way to your hands. If you reach your arm out to someone, you’re extending your arm in help. He wants you to take his hand, take his arm , and connect with you to be able to help you. We get the idea that he thinks these people are lost. And he wants to teach them, he wants to get to them, but he just can’t. In the next verse he says...

But my words like silent raindrops fell
So, his words were silent . They didn’t make any noise at all. Which means no one heard them, no one paid any attention to his words. They fell from the sky like silent raindrops . Raindrops are the small, tiny little bits of water that fall from the sky when it rains. And his words left his mouth and didn’t make any sound. It’s like he tried to speak and then they just (.....) fell to the ground. And he says they...

And echoed in the wells of silence
An echo is like a reverberated sound. If you’re in an enclosed space, when you speak the sound will vibrate and hit the walls, it will bounce off the walls and continue sounding. An echo sounds like this: ECHO ECHO ECHO ECHO ECHO ECHO ECHO ECHO… So, his words, they echoed in the wells of silence. A well is like a hole underground. Usually a well contains water at the bottom. A well is like a sort of reservoir of underground water. And this line is pretty bizarre because, of course, your words, if they’re silent, would not echo. But I really like the way that he describes this. I think it’s very beautiful to imagine a sound echoing in silence. And now he describes the last thing that he sees in this vision, in this dream. He says...

[Verse 5]
And the people bowed and prayed
Here we have two actions which are very religious or spiritually oriented: bowing and praying. To bow means to lower your head in respect or in reverence, usually to God or some superior power. You can also use your whole body to bow , but it’s a sign of humility. So, the people bowed and prayed . To pray is to say prayers. It’s kind of like asking God for your wishes to come true, or explaining your desires to God, but people often pray in many different ways. Here it says they bowed and prayed…

To the neon god they made
So this neon god, a kind of bright god, a god that’s full of light or giving off light. And it says that they made him. We understand that the people created this god, that he isn’t necessarily a real or a true god but sort of a creation of these people. So, the people are bowing and praying to this neon god. The verse continues...

And the sign flashed out its warning
A sign is some kind of notice which gives information to other people. Its purpose is to communicate a message without talking, either by writing or some kind of visual image. We often see signs on the road to tell us where to go, or we see signs that display the name or the logo of certain businesses. Here we have a sign that is flashing out a warning. We remember the verb flash from before, which is the idea of light appearing and disappearing very rapidly. So, this neon god -- this neon sign -- is flashing out, or writing with light very quickly a warning . And a warning is a message which is trying to tell people of some kind of potential danger, some kind of risk, something that we should avoid. For example, a traffic sign might warn you that there’s a railroad crossing or a train crossing ahead. Or, a bottle of beer or liquor might warn you that excessive drinking will cause imparied vision and be generally harmful to your health. So, this sign is flashing out some kind of warning. It says, the sign flashed out its warning…

In the words that it was forming
So, how does it warn us? With words , with written words, and it’s forming them it’s putting them together, it’s giving them shape or form. So, it’s flashing out some message to us a little bit at a time. And what message is this sign flashing out? It says:

And the sign said, “The words of the prophets ...
Prophets are people who predict the future. It’s connected to religion, usually, and prophets are generally people in touch with God and -- they’re connected with God -- they relay some sort of message to the people that will later come true or be fulfilled. In simplistic language, prophets have a message. They have a message for people and they want to usually warn people of some potential future. So, apparently, the words of the prophets, the prophecies…

Are written on the subway walls…
Are written or put down in writing, on the subway walls. If you’re in a building, every room in it has walls. These are barriers which can separate one room from another room, and they’re also sort of the boundary between outside and inside, these are the walls . Subway walls would be the walls of an underground train station; that’s what subway means. In New York City, where Simon and Garfunkel spent a lot of time, there is an underground subway or metro. So, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls…

And tenement halls”
So, a hall is usually a corridor in a building; it’s what you use to move from one part of a building to another part of a building. And halls are usually quite narrow. Hall itself is short for hallway, so you might hear that word sometimes, hallway. You can think of an apartment building with multiple apartments and usually there would be a hall outside the entrance to each apartment. Here we have tenement halls. So, people who live in apartments are called the tenants. Tenement halls are basically another way to say apartment buildings, places where people live. So, whatever this prophet wants to warn us of, the warning is written on subway walls, tenement halls, and finally it says, they’re also:

And whispered in the sounds of silence
A whisper is speaking very softly, very quietly, and without vibrating your vocal cords. For example, I’m whispering right now, this is a whisper . So, the prophets words are also whispered in the sounds of silence.

Okay, so, I think those final lines are probably the most confusing lines of the entire song. While we know that the prophet’s words are written somewhere where we can easily see and access, we don’t know what they say, we don’t know what they’re warning us of. I think an obvious interpretation of the song is that it’s a dream. It’s that Paul Simon was writing the words of his dream as he woke up and dreams often don’t make sense when you put them into words. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do that yourself, but maybe you had a dream and in the dream it feels so real, everything feels full of meaning and significance, and then you wake up and the longer you’re awake, the less that you feel that you understand the dream. It’s like, the meaning of it kind of fades into nothingness, into silence you could say.

However, dreams can really be interpreted in two different ways. Dreams can have external meaning, like a vision. This song itself has a lot of religious overtones, it talks about gods, prophets, teachings, bowing, praying, a vision, and even silence itself, can all be spiritual or religious elements. I think a lot of people interpret it that way, that the dream is to try and warn us not to be silent, that silence kind of kills, that we need to express ourselves, and that we shouldn’t hold things inside.

Other people kind of interpret it as sort of giving up the real god for some kind of fake god, an electric god that they’ve made. You can think of all the technology that was beginning to come out in his time.

However, besides being externally meaningful, in my own experience I find that dreams are often a reflection of our own psychology, our own thoughts and our own experiences and fears. Paul Simon is a singer songwriter, he’s an artist, he’s a musician. He loves writing, he loves words, he loves sounds, and I think he believes in their power. To be silent to him is kind of like a cancer. In this dream he’s trying to express himself, he’s trying to make himself understood. But as he tries to help the people, all we hear is silence; we hear nothing. From his perspective the people need help, but maybe he’s the fool. Maybe he’s the ignorant one. Perhaps he is overvaluing the power of his words and undervaluing the power of silence. To him it really seems like the neon god is a bad thing, but perhaps it’s not, perhaps it’s good. And perhaps, maybe, it’s telling him to wake up; that the answers to his questions can actually be found everywhere, all around him, where he lives, in the subway, and even in the sound of silence.

Okay, that does it for my explanation of The Sound of Silence. Now is the time for you to go and listen to the real song. And hopefully you can understand all of the words and, perhaps come up with your own interpretation of the meaning. Thank you very much and I will see you next time, bye bye!



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