“The Sound of Silence” is about humanity’s inability to authentically speak and listen to one another. It criticizes the parts of society that drown out the sound of genuine communication.
Simon and Garfunkel wrote this masterpiece during the struggle of the 1960s. It’s one of those songs that seems to speak to everyone. Specifically, Simon is delivering a message that cries out against people’s inability to honestly open themselves to one another and talk – even if there is sound on the surface. This results in a deep metaphorical silence, which really means meaningless chatter.
In this article, we’ll take a close look at the details in these expert lyrics to discover a precise interpretation of what Simon was saying about society, spirituality, religious imagery, the human condition, and the struggles of modernity. Let’s dive in – this one has a lot to unpack!
“The Sound of Silence” Lyrics Meaning
The track begins with one of the most iconic opening lines in the history of music: “Hello darkness my old friend.”
This line sets the scene on many levels. It’s saying that Simon views the darkness as a positive force – a force that helps him focus on what matters. In a world with so many flashy diversions, sometimes it’s necessary to look at nothing for a while and be alone with your thoughts.
Simon will later refer to “the sound of silence” to describe situations when there is noise but no meaning. Simply put, Simon would rather have us sit in physical silence in the dark than run our mouths for no reason in public.
Funnily enough, this interpretation is not purely symbolic. In an interview with Uncut, Paul Simon explained that the song was written in the bathroom of his parent’s home at age 21.
Simon went on to explain that he “used to turn the lights off and leave the water running” for focus and “white noise.” It looks like the phrase “sound of silence” comes not only from Simon’s poetic mind, but also from his experiences with a real quiet environment.
The rest of the first stanza describes Simon’s descent into a “vision” during a dream state. Simon receives his “vision” from something beyond himself. A higher truth is “planted,” perhaps a prophecy. We do not yet know what this vision is really about, but that will be revealed in the coming lines.
Stanza two sets the scene further, as it puts our feet on “narrow streets of cobblestone” right alongside Simon. This line is being used not so much to directly relate to the message but to set the mood of the song. He’s painting a mental image in your mind to prime you for what he is about to deliver.
Next, a bright “neon light” stabs Simon, shifting the tone. This light will expose the reality of Simon’s surroundings. It’s a cynical picture!
In the “naked light,” Simon sees deafness and muteness in his fellow men. As the masses continue “talking without speaking,” Simon notes that “the sound of silence” is still dominating.
Humanity’s inability to communicate with one another troubles Simon. After all, a lot of the injustice, conflict, and suffering we see in the world comes from a failure to communicate.
In addition, Simon is also criticizing all the people who fill the air with empty words (politicians, advertisers, false prophets, personality cults, etc.) in our society. He wishes that they could be replaced with humble people who have something real to say. At the core, Simon is saying to “be genuine or be quiet!”
Garfunkel once famously revealed (during a live performance) that they intended the song to address the prevalence of empty communication to the point where “what you see around you are people unable to love each other.”
Next, Simon feels pity for the people. He pleads with them to take hold of him “that I [Simon] might reach you.” He warns them that if nothing is done, this consuming silence will grow unchecked, “like a cancer.” His words, like “silent raindrops,” fall on deeply deaf ears. We leave this stanza in a hopeless state.
However, Simon doesn’t leave you there. At this point the song transitions into genius. In a tragic climax, the masses submit to “the neon god they made,” which stands above them like an idol.
Here, it’s important to understand that the “neon god” is not a reference to any currently existing person or figure in world religions. Instead, it represents the way modern people, in Simon’s eyes, worship shallowness and dishonesty in society.
It’s referred to as a god because people devote their lives to it. Simon uses this religious imagery simply to communicate the significance of this event. While the song is not necessarily religious, it can have implications that relate to religion and religious leadership.
The “words that it [the neon god] was forming” offer a hint of hope. Simon learns where he can find real insight, strangely enough, from the source of everything he criticizes, which is the great “neon god.”
By gazing into the emptiness, into the blinding neon light, Simon understands where he can find truth, honesty, and value.
In essence, the message Simon is sending is that if we were to look long enough at things that are empty, we could understand what something fulfilling would look like by comparison.
“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.” Simon is using this line to say that real truth may be found in places where we might not expect it.
He’s trying to get us to separate things that look important from things that actually are. To look deeper than the surface words, and focus on the message of the things we hear.
The Story Behind “The Sound of Silence”
Simon wrote this song at a young age – and at a transformative period in life. He was still trying to hone in on what his goals were. This apparently included ridding himself of the idea that he would be able to play baseball professionally. Despite all of this, he continued pursuing music out of his love for it.
Perhaps his willingness to listen to his artistic voice, rather than the other pressures that might have distracted him, has something to do with the theme of “The Sound of Silence” and its timing in Simon’s life.
After the initial idea struck Simon, he fleshed out the song over the following three months. Simon created many demos around this time, some of which would be featured in Simon and Garfunkel’s debut album. That album is full of themes that were fairly common in the 60s folk arena, of which Simon and Garfunkel were a part.
In addition, the truth is that several large-scale failures of communication were happening in the 1960s. This includes the strife resulting from the Civil Rights Era and other politically heated events like the assassination of JFK. That Simon felt compelled to write about listening to your fellow man at such a time is no wonder.
Today, “The Sound of Silence” is still a very popular song. Surprisingly, this is not only due to Simon and Garfunkel.
In 2015, the rock band “Disturbed” covered the song offering a more modern and intense version. In fact, Disturbed’s interpretation of the song has exceeded the original song’s number of streams on Spotify.
The acapella group “Pentatonix” has also made a great version of “The Sound of Silence.” I can’t listen to it without getting goosebumps. Take a listen for yourself below.