Asked in Lyrics and Sheet MusicAllegory and SimileSimon & Garfunkel
What is the meaning of the lyrics Sound of Silence?
September 14, 2011 1:24PM
For the meaning of this song, you may wish to consider the introduction by Art Garfunkel in this early live performance on YouTube at the Related Link.
Also note the original title is "Sounds" not "Sound" of Silence. (later renamed)
"The Sound of Silence" was first released on Simon and Garfunkel's initial album, "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM." The album sold only two thousand copies. After watching their album sink, Simon and Garfunkel parted ways; however this was not the end of their career together. Without their knowledge, Simon and Garfunkel's recording company had Bob Johnson rework the song with electric guitar, bass, and drums. With these changes, the song became an instant hit and soon climbed to the top of the charts. Simon and Garfunkel rejoined and quickly became one of, if not the, greatest duos of all time.
But behind the song's beautiful melodies and enjoyable rhythm is a deep message within the lyrics that has been interpreted in many different ways. I have read and heard many people's opinions. Some of them are a little abstract and others seem believable. One fellow said it was merely about a man dreaming of neon lights revealing numerous people bowing to him as if he were a god. Another stated it was a song regarding the lack of communication between people. These interpretations may or may not be correct; however I have a different perception of "The Sound of Silence."
I personally believe this song portrays a vision or dream that Paul Simon had. The lines, "Because a vision softly creeping,/Left its seeds while I was sleeping" lead me to believe that he had a dream. Yet perhaps it is highly possible he never had a dream or vision or anything of the sort but merely used this image to get a point across. Yet the message of this song lies in the contents of his dream.
Paul Simon seeks to convey a message of how ignorance taints the minds of so many people. "Silence" refers to submission. He reveals how people so foolishly follow rulers without actually knowing a ruler's true intentions and background. "People hearing without listening" reveals a people's willingness to take heed to the commands spoken by a leader without fully realizing the consequences of this obedience.
Simon, or whomever is having this dream, tries to warn these conformists in the lines that read "'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 his warning is swallowed in the abyss of submission: "But my words like silent raindrops fell,/And echoed/In the wells of silence."
This song may refer to a particular nation or people, but most likely it refers to people in general who submit themselves too freely. The song continues to describe the people's capitulation in several lines, most notably in the words, "And the people bowed and prayed/To the neon god they made." The song's meaning is for the listener to decide and there are many different ideas; however, I personally have always believed that it pertains to a people's readiness to support a leader without fully realizing the possible outcomes
An alternative interpretation is one of the neon sign in the dream being the Television medium personified (or deity-fied[sic]). This would explain the 'people talking without speaking' and 'hearing without listening' lyrics - as one who is observing people watching television as an unnatural phenomenon would have a hard time reconciling the observed conversation without any active participation by the viewer. Also the 'writing songs..' lyric is not as form fitting here but it is somewhat foreign in the song itself and may be a songwriter's (in this case Simon's) translation for a message especially an original one which will never be entertained by the T.V.'s captive audience. Also, the neon glow from the 'sign' goes on to further parallel the light properties of the T.V. supporting this comparison
Finally the 'words of the prophet are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.." This is a bit more deductive. There is a train of thought that a "prophet is not recognized in his own house", which is another issue on itself, but I think this lyric implies that the true prophets are living in Subways and Tenements There is also a hint of the 'read the writing on the wall' saying which is generally a call to face reality, which either way you view the lyric the "neon god" defers truth and possibly power to the words on the walls and halls. Graffiti-esque literature is what you indeed find on those specific walls and halls. Ironically or not those without a 'voice' in society are the ones who use this dissemination of information for self expression, i.e. "crack is wack" murals. I interpret this then to mean look to the people with no voice (or 'silenced'?) to hear the truth/prophecy. As we recall the dreamer or Simon was him/herself one of those people without a voice silenced by the crowd.
So I think that a holistic universal meaning to the song is one that we are searching for (truth, guidance) and it is already right under our noses. We walk by the truth (on subway walls and tenement halls) everyday and take no note but rather we construct elaborate gods and complicated idols to interpret a reality we are, by definition, already in tune with. The title of the song itself seems to me to reflect that paradox.
I am aware Simon in an NPR interview has admitted there was no profoundly deep meaning to the lyrics when he wrote them. He said he was possibly expressing teenage angst and frustration as to how they are largely ignored by society, however, my interpretation I think is one to give clarity to the stream of consciousness with analogous symbols (where I didn't ramble too much) and largely holds true to that theme.