Meaning Behind “The Sound Of Silence” By Simon & Garfunkel

The Sound Of Silence is an utterly beautiful song that has been covered by a slew of artists since it was first released, but Simon & Garfunkel’s original version has withstood the test of time.

A signature folk-rock classic is one that even young people today know, though they might have been introduced to it through memes and internet culture. In spite of that, the deep meaning behind the track is as relevant today as it was in 1964. In this article, we’ll dive right into that and explain the true meaning behind Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound Of Silence

The Origins of the Song

The Sound Of Silence has some of the most vivid and apt imagery ever written into a track. It’s heralded as one of the best songs of all time and perfectly captures every single feeling meant to be placed into the track. But how did the idea for it form and where did it come from?

June 28, 1966 – Arrival of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel at Schiphol. Image source: Joost Evers / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel separately became interested in folk music and the counterculture movement of the 60s on their own early in the decade. While the pair had performed together during the 50s, they dissolved to attend college. In 1963, the duo got back together again.

After playing local gigs, the pair got the attention of Tom Wilson. He was a producer for Columbia Records, and The Sound Of Silence was one of the songs that got them a record deal in the first place. 

 July 11, 1963 – John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office. Image source: Cecil Stoughton, White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the real inspiration for the track is mostly a mystery. Some people thought it was a commentary on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, though Simon & Garfunkel had written and performed the song before that event happened. 

Others believed it was inspired by a college friend of Garfunkel who had suddenly gone blind and left college in a deep depression. Some lines in the track were definitely inspired by that friend, who incidentally also helped the pair fund the recording of the album The Sound Of Silence appeared on. 

1986 to 1987 – Paul Simon. Image source: Bernard Gotfryd, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But, Simon was the one who wrote the song at the age of 21, coming up with it in a bathroom because it had great acoustics, and he could play in the dark, allowing himself to do so without distraction. The reality is that both Simon & Garfunkel’s experiences and observations lent to the creation of the track, which quite a bit helped inspire it. 

June 12, 1982 – Simon & Garfunkel performing in Feijenoord Stadium, Rotterdam. Image source: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bonus interesting tidbit. The Sound Of Silence was also literally responsible for keeping Simon & Garfunkel together. It was part of their first album Wednesday Morning, 3 AM. That album was a failure, and the pair split up. However, their record company reworked the song into what we know it today.

Taking advantage of the folk-rock movement’s popularity, they added electric instruments to the acoustic track and released it as a single. The two had no idea this was going to happen, but it became a number-one hit and got them back together to continue producing music. 

Meaning Behind The Sound of Silence

Simon & Garfunkel - The Sounds of Silence (Audio)

The Sound of Silence is honestly an easy song, to sum up, if you just want to look at the meaning of it, though there are multiple things hidden inside of it, and it takes a lot of time to fully express all the points of the track. In essence, it’s a track about people’s inability to communicate with each other on an emotional level, failing to show each other the love they deserve. Boiling it down, it’s about social alienation. But we’ll go further than that quick synopsis. 

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

November 22, 1975 – Paul Simon performing at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Image source: Harry Chase, Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Back to the origin of the song, Simon literally talks to the darkness surrounding him, and the visions coming into his dreams are a commentary on his mental state when he wrote the lines. Remember, he wrote the track sitting in a pitch-black bathroom. He’s literally talking to the darkness in the room he’s sitting in. The acoustics of the room allowed him to focus and play guitar, drifting through dreams. But it also isolated him and blocked out a lot of outside sounds. 

Analyzing the lyrics gives a different take. The narrator is utterly alone and is drowning in that loneliness. He’s surrounded by darkness, the only thing that understands him and the one thing he’s familiar with. It’s interesting to think of darkness as a void, a void that represents a lack of love and social acceptance. 

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

December 22, 2007 – A powerful light shines in the dark. Image source: Zouavman Le Zouave, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Even in his sleep, he feels alone. But that isolation doesn’t let him see beyond his own experiences. But the flash of light reveals thousands of other people that feel the same way. People seek refuge from hardships and the lack of love in their own darkness, their own peaceful place that blocks out all the noise of society. The sound of silence in the track is a safe place, though it does disconnect you from reality. 

“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

November 29, 2017 – Depression distress. Image source: whoismargot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The next verse sees the narrator shouting out to people that the silence they take comfort in is consuming them. Like depression, it’s an overwhelming feeling that you can sink into to the point of no escape. Isolation becomes comfortable, but it isn’t healthy. The people in the song don’t listen though, preferring to remain in their unhealthy comfort zones and stick with the status quo. 

It’s also important to note that this feeling of darkness and it becoming your friend is a common thing that people dealing with mental health issues go through. It feels like it becomes part of you, so you attempt to go into it in a sort of comforting way. Anything trying to draw you out and help you actually get better feels like a waste of time or an attack, which is why the people in the track react the way they do here. 

1551 – Netherlandish Proverbs (The Blue Cloak). Image source: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy here to state that the verses are a comment on consumerism and conceding to the way things are. It speaks to social alienation, the lack of love in the world, and people not being able to express themselves to each other to build a better community. All of those things are very common themes of the counterculture movement, or at least the things it is attempting to rectify. 

We can also look at interviews and comments from the two to explain the meaning that was meant to be in the song. 

May 27, 2011 – Paul Simon playing at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Image source: Matthew Straubmuller (imatty35), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Simon discussed it like this:

“It wasn’t something that I was experiencing at some deep, profound level – nobody’s listening to me, nobody’s listening to anyone – it was a post-adolescent angst, but it had some level of truth to it and it resonated with millions of people.”

He also had this to say about the track in an interview with NPR:

“Really the key to “The Sound of Silence” is the simplicity of the melody and the words, which are youthful alienation. It’s a young lyric, but not bad for a 21-year-old. It’s not a sophisticated thought, but a thought that I gathered from some college reading material or something.”

Disturbed - The Sound Of Silence (Official Music Video) [4K UPGRADE]

The point of the song was that it resonated with people. And still does to this day Numerous artists would come along to cover it, but Disturbed’s version in 2015, 50 years after the original release of the song, is probably the most famous one out there today.

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