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"It's quiet... too quiet..."

If a scene, response or view is shown in total silence, often the audience may simply think the sound is out on their TV or movie theater. Having a background noise that is normally drowned out by foreground noise-- a quiet wind, faint crickets chirping, etc. --is a marker to say "nothing is happening" to the audience. The Manga Unsound Effect shiiiiiiin[1] does the same thing. A visual of a tumbleweed blowing across the scene is used in Westerns, and nowadays mainly in comedies, to convey the same effect. A low rumbling is often also used, to simulate that sort of feeling a person gets in their ears in a dark, quiet room.

If it's quieter than that, the hero's heartbeat may be amplified. This kind of silence almost always ends with a Scare Chord.

Compare Visible Silence, Nothing Is Scarier, Chirping Crickets, Loading Screen (so that Video Games make it clear they are still on while the level loads). The inverse is Music Video Syndrome or Sorry I Left the BGM On.

Examples of Quieter Than Silence include:

Anime and Manga

  • In One Piece, when Zoro first learns to cut steel, the whole world goes silent save for his heartbeat--you can even see his opponent yelling, but no sound can be heard.

Film

  • The subtle sound of wind can be heard in the external shots of the capsule in Apollo 13, providing an ambiance Quieter Than Silence. Of course, there is no sound in space in Real Life.
  • Played straight in ~2001: A Space Odyssey~ where some of the most terrifying scenes in the film play out in the cold dead quiet of space.
  • An example of the exact opposite: Actual dead silence was used to punctuate the seismic charges (shown here) in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, considered an experiment in cinematography by the film's sound engineers.
    • A similar effect is used in the climax of Aranofsky's The Fountain, just before the star goes supernova and explodes.
  • Not quite total silence, but the background noise of crowds and traffic fades to almost nothing just before the eruption kicks off in Volcano. The effect is to convey the impression that the eruption is really loud, without actually deafening the audience.
  • Non-threatening example: in Thank You for Smoking, a hot-shot's assistant points out that their building's elevator is completely silent.
  • During the filming of ~Ferris Bueller's Day Off~, director John Hughes told the sound editor that he wanted the scene in which Rooney and Jeannie sneak up on each other to be completely silent. When he got the finished footage back, he asked why a fly was buzzing. The editor said "If it was really quiet, you could hear a fly buzzing."
  • No Country for Old Men does this a lot, and Nothing Is Scarier...
  • Done so perfectly in Equilibrium that the commentary says audiences thought that the movie itself had been accidentally turned off. It's completely silent and totally black for several seconds.
  • In Dead Silence one of the signs of Mary Shaw's appearance is sound slowing down, then fading to nothing. The only things that make any sound are the victims and her.....
  • In the middle of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" video, Michael raises his hand and causes a skylight to shatter, at which point the music stops. The crowd inexplicably starts moaning, then chants "Annie are you okay?" until the music starts up again.
  • Prior to the final duel in Sanjuro, it becomes completely silent as the duelists stare each other down. The eventual strike is punctuated by the Scare Chord as indicated above.
  • In the movie Fourteen Oh Eight, the sound of a baby crying on the other side of a wall builds and echoes, deafening Enslin until - it stops. Along with all other noise in the scene. We (and he) can't even hear Enslin trying to call out.

Live Action TV

  • On Gerry Anderson shows like Captain Scarlet, UFO, Space: 1999, the airless silence of space or the moon's surface is conveyed by a slow droning sound like a cello or double-bass.
  • Twice in the Eleventh Doctor Who's run, total silence falls. First, at the end of The Vampires of Venice, when all the sounds of Venice cut out, like the birds, the waves, and the people, then at the end of The Pandorica Opens (including the music this time). According to Word of God, these two episodes actually take place around the same time, so it's actually the same silence.
  • In the Buffy episode "The Body", there was no background music in the entire episode. This led to a lot of silent scenes, which made the episode much more depressing than it probably would have been if there had been music.
  • The Walking Dead loves this trope. If it's not actually silent, then the air hums with the call of cicadas, to emphasize that there's nothing human to hear.

Theatre

  • A sound engineer colleague was asked to provide a "pin drop" silence for the opening scene. The solution? White noise, played throughout the theatre's speaker system and slowwwwwly raised in volume over 10 minutes. When the sound was cut your ears popped with the sudden silence
  • In the musical Les Misérables the only time the pit does not play is during Gavroche's death scene.

Video Games

  • In Pokémon Colosseum, Nascour's battle is mostly silent aside from the crowd in the background constantly chanting, "BATTLE! BATTLE! BATTLE!"
  • The fight with, and the scenery around, Giygas from Earthbound.
  • Fire Emblem Path of Radiance (9) has this when Ike calls out the leaders of the game's most powerful country for toying with him earlier, even though his country is dependent on their help.
  • The final boss of Sword Of Jade uses a One-Winged Angel attack pattern with music. After defeating him and keeping chase, you fight him a final time in a more conventional form with no background music.
  • The only thing in Silent Hill more scary than the monster-made radio static or the ghoulish background music? Dead silence.
  • Halo: Combat Evolved uses this trope for the Flood. In the cutscene there are 0 enemies around even though a dead body just fell at John. However, the music and faint sounds kee some sound around. Then the Flood arrive.
    • The others also use this, but to a lesser amount.
  • Gears of War uses this trope. The sounds of you moving and some ambient sounds in the Locust tunnels help convey it, as does the line "It's quiet... too quiet."
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum also uses this trope by having Batman make some noise and having music at times.
  • Quake II is much scarier without its industrial metal CD soundtrack. Likewise, although Quake 1 has dark ambient music, it is best played without the music (only background noises) and with the lights off for maximum Nightmare Fuel effect.
  • The Resident Evil series uses this at points, such as right before you encounter the Licker.
  • Super Mario Galaxy 2's Slimy Spring Galaxy uses a very minimalistic background track, while the rest of the game's levels were timed to music. Well, even the insignificant tones get turned off, ending with nothing but birds chirping to finish the serene effect. Cue finale immediately afterwards.
  • Several levels in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, such as The Communications Blackout, are entirely devoid of music until you complete the main objective.
  • The middle third of the Battleship Raid level in R-Type Final lacks music, and with the (intentional?) slowdown it becomes even creepier.
  • Played straight in Dead Space with all the portions of the game where Isaac is in the vacuum of space. This makes it even more chilling when necromorphs attack you out of nowhere with no audio cues.
  • Used for dramatic effect in the first section of the final dungeon in Xenoblade Chronicles.

Web Original

  • In Marble Hornets, whenever Slender Man appears, the camera typically produces heavy audio distortion before the sound cuts off completely.
    • The series does this a lot even in entries which don't feature the Slender Man. The video footage is mostly recorded with only ambient background noise (that is, without a soundtrack), most of which doesn't get picked up by the camcorders that the characters are carrying.

Western Animation

  • Chirping Crickets are classically played for laughs in Looney Tunes, when one of Daffy Duck's jokes falls flat to accentuate the lack of response, even though crickets aren't usually found in the same places as vaudeville stages.
  • Invader Zim would often use a stock hawk scream in place of a Chirping Crickets.

Real Life

  • In The Vietnam War, soldiers could tell when stuff was about to go down because the ambient animal noises and scurrying would stop if there were already other humans about.
  • Also true at former concentration camps, which are unnaturally silent 70+ years later.

Notes

  1. Tinnitus?.
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