“The Sound of Silence”, originally “The Sounds of Silence”, is a song by the American music duo Simon & Garfunkel. The song was written by Paul Simon over a period of several months in 1963 and 1964. A studio audition led to the duo signing a record deal with Columbia Records, and the song was recorded in March 1964 at Columbia Studios in New York City for inclusion on their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M..
Released in October 1964, the album was a commercial failure and led to the duo breaking apart, with Paul Simon returning to England and Art Garfunkel to his studies at Columbia University. In the spring of 1965, the song began to attract airplay at radio stations in Boston, Massachusetts, and throughout Florida. The growing airplay led Tom Wilson, the song’s producer, to remix the track, overdubbing electric instrumentation. Simon & Garfunkel were not informed of the song’s remix until after its release. The single was released in September 1965.
The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending January 1, 1966, leading the duo to reunite and hastily record their second album, which Columbia titled Sounds of Silence in an attempt to capitalize on the song’s success. The song was a top-ten hit in multiple countries worldwide, among them Australia, Austria, West Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. Generally considered a classic folk rock song, the song was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” in 2013 along with the rest of the Sounds of Silence album.
Originally titled “The Sounds of Silence” on the album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., the song was re-titled for later compilations beginning with Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits.
Simon and Garfunkel became interested in folk music and the growing counterculture movement separately in the early 1960s. Having performed together previously under the name Tom and Jerry in the late 1950s, their partnership had since dissolved when they began attending college. In 1963, they regrouped and began performing Simon’s original compositions locally in Queens. They billed themselves “Kane & Garr”, after old recording pseudonyms, and signed up for Gerde’s Folk City, a Greenwich Village club that hosted Monday night performances. In September 1963, the duo performed three new songs, among them “The Sound of Silence”, getting the attention of Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson, who worked with Bob Dylan. Simon convinced Wilson to let him and his partner have a studio audition, where a performance of “The Sound of Silence” got the duo signed to Columbia.
The song’s origin and basis remain unclear, with multiple answers coming forward over the years. Many believe that the song commented on the John F. Kennedy assassination, as the song was released three months after the assassination. Simon stated unambiguously in interviews however, “I wrote The Sound of Silence when I was 21 years old”, which places the timeframe firmly prior to the JFK tragedy, with Simon also explaining that the song was written in his bathroom, where he turned off the lights to better concentrate. “The main thing about playing the guitar, though, was that I was able to sit by myself and play and dream. And I was always happy doing that. I used to go off in the bathroom, because the bathroom had tiles, so it was a slight echo chamber. I’d turn on the faucet so that water would run (I like that sound, it’s very soothing to me) and I’d play. In the dark. ‘Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again’.” In a more recent interview, Simon was directly asked, “How is a 21 year old person thinkin’ about the words in that song?” His reply was, “I have no idea.” According to Garfunkel, the song was first developed in November, but Simon took three months to perfect the lyrics, which he claims were entirely written on February 19, 1964. Garfunkel once summed up the song’s meaning as “the inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly internationally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.”
To promote the release of their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., the duo performed again at Folk City, as well as two shows at the Gaslight Café, which went over poorly. Dave Van Ronk, a folk singer, was at the performances, and noted that several in the audience regarded their music as a joke. “‘Sounds of Silence’ actually became a running joke: for a while there, it was only necessary to start singing ‘Hello darkness, my old friend…’ and everybody would crack up.” Wednesday Morning, 3 AM sold only 3,000 copies upon its October release, and its dismal sales led Simon to move to London, England. While there, he recorded a solo album, The Paul Simon Songbook (1965), which features a rendition of the song, titled “The Sounds of Silence”.
The original recording of the song is in D♯ minor, using the chords D♯m, C♯, B and F♯. Simon plays a guitar with a capo on the sixth fret, using the shapes for Am, G, F and C chords. The vocal span goes from C♯4 to F♯5 in the song.
Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. had been a commercial failure before producer Tom Wilson was alerted that radio stations had begun to play “The Sound of Silence” in spring 1965. A late-night disc jockey at WBZ in Boston began to spin “The Sound of Silence” overnight, where it found a college demographic. Students at Harvard and Tufts University responded well, and the song made its way down the East Coast pretty much “overnight”, “all the way to Cocoa Beach, Florida, where it caught the students coming down for spring break.” A promotional executive for Columbia went to give away free albums of new artists, and beach-goers only were interested in the artists behind “The Sound of Silence”. He phoned the home office in New York, alerting them of its appeal. An alternate version of the story states that Wilson attended Columbia’s July 1965 convention in Miami, where the head of the local sales branch raved about the song’s airplay.
Folk rock was beginning to make waves on pop radio, with Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” (also a Dylan song) charting high. Wilson listened to the song several times, considering it too soft for a wide release. Afterwards, he turned on the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, which gave him the idea to remix the song, overdubbing rock instrumentation.[dubious – discuss] He employed musicians Al Gorgoni (and Vinnie Bell) on guitar, Bob Bushnell on bass, and Bobby Gregg on drums. The tempo on the original recording was uneven, making it difficult for the musicians to keep the song in time. Engineer Roy Halee employed a heavy echo on the remix, which was a common trait of the Byrds’ hits. The single was first serviced to college FM rock stations, and a commercial single release followed on September 13, 1965. The lack of consultation with Simon and Garfunkel on Wilson’s remix was because, although still contracted to Columbia Records at the time, the musical duo at that time was no longer a “working entity”. It was not uncommon at the time for producers to add instruments or vocals to previously existing recordings and re-release them as new entities.
In the fall of 1965, Simon was in Denmark, performing at small clubs, and picked up a copy of Billboard, as he had routinely done for several years. Upon seeing “The Sounds of Silence” in the Billboard Hot 100, he bought a copy of Cashbox and saw the same thing. Several days later, Garfunkel excitedly called Simon to inform him of the single’s growing success. A copy of the 7″ single arrived in the mail the next day, and according to friend Al Stewart, “[Paul] was horrified when he first heard it … [when the] rhythm section slowed down at one point so that Paul and Artie’s voices could catch up.” Garfunkel was far less concerned about the remix, feeling conditioned to the process of trying to create a hit single: “It’s interesting, I suppose it might do something, It might sell,” he told Wilson.
“The Sound of Silence” first broke in Boston, where it became one of the top-selling singles in early November 1965; it spread to Miami and Washington, D.C. two weeks later, reaching number one in Boston and debuting on the Billboard Hot 100.
Throughout the month of January 1966 “The Sound of Silence” had a one-on-one battle with The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” for the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. The former was No. 1 for the weeks of January 1 and 22 and No. 2 for the intervening two weeks. The latter held the top spot for the weeks of January 8, 15, and 29, and was No. 2 for the two weeks that “The Sound of Silence” was No. 1. Overall, “The Sound of Silence” spent 14 weeks on the Billboard chart.
In the wake of the song’s success, Simon promptly returned to the United States to record a new Simon & Garfunkel album at Columbia’s request. He later described his experiences learning the song went to No. 1, a story he repeated in numerous interviews:
I had come back to New York, and I was staying in my old room at my parents’ house. Artie was living at his parents’ house, too. I remember Artie and I were sitting there in my car one night, parked on a street in Queens, and the announcer [on the radio] said, “Number one, Simon & Garfunkel.” And Artie said to me, “That Simon & Garfunkel, they must be having a great time.” Because there we were on a street corner [in my car in] Queens, smoking a joint. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves.
For his part, Garfunkel had a different memory of the song’s success:
We were in L.A. Our manager called us at the hotel we were staying at. We were both in the same room. We must have bunked in the same room in those days. I picked up the phone. He said, ‘Well, congratulations. Next week you will go from five to one in Billboard.’ It was fun. I remember pulling open the curtains and letting the brilliant sun come into this very red room, and then ordering room service. That was good.”