Without Words

Without Words


sleepingatlast_3We are living in an age of hyper communication. Collectively, we write more than 180 billion emails each day. The average person (there are 7.1 billion of us) speaks about 16,000 words a day. That’s a heap of writing and talking. But a study at UCLA shows that 93 percent of communication effectiveness isn’t related to words at all.

As important as our words are, they have their limitations. Tone, body language, facial expressions, touch, attire, images, art and music – we pull from a well of cues to interpret what others are trying to convey. This multidimensional reality of communication is significant to our awareness of others and understanding of messages.

Ryan O’Neal of Sleeping at Last recently explored more of this world of creating messages without words. For his latest EP, Oceans, released this week, Ryan wrote his first completely instrumental album.

“I wanted to create a collection of music that would reflect the characteristics, experiences, dynamics and moods of each of the world’s oceans – all without lyrics,” says Ryan. “It’s a very different craft, and in some ways it’s a more pure process. You’re expressing yourself without being limited by language.”

Ryan, who was initially discovered by Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins, is a prolific writer and can be heard on the soundtracks of Hollywood films, prime-time network shows and documentaries. As lyrically talented as he is, Ryan has always been fascinated by instrumental film scores and how those are such powerful vehicles of communication.

We may not all be scoring soundtracks, but we are all creating and sending messages without words. Below Ryan expands on this theme from the perspective of creating his latest project:

Communicating Emotion:

“It’s a significant focus for me right now. Underscoring moments without words is an interesting challenge,” says Ryan. “Take away verbal communication, and you still have a body of music that communicates a message, an emotion, an expression. With lyrics, your verbal identity and associations are wrapped up in them. But with the instrumental, you can write and express something that doesn’t get caught up in that filter. At the end of the day, it’s answering the question: ‘Does this move me?’ ”


“Before I set out to write, I found inspiration by watching footage of oceans and waves – since the sea is such a visual experience. When I watched waves crash over each other, I found a rhythm and a color scheme in my head. I studied each ocean and tried to figure out their characteristics. Some were notable for their temperatures, others the amount of life flourishing in them.”

Expressing Characteristics:

“On the song Arctic, I sampled sounds of icicles crashing and the crunch of snow to use as the drums. Also, since I imagine it is such a cold and somewhat desolate place, I liked the idea of creating a sad, darker score. Southern starts off as if you are underwater – the tones are muted and they feel closed in. Then as the song continues, you feel as if you’re coming to the surface of the water and the sounds are brighter.”

Finding Inspiration:

“The inspiration comes from different places, and the seed of the idea will be random. I’ll sit at my piano and try to write little themes and see if they resonate with me. I’ll spend a day playing around with the key that I think fits best with what I want to communicate. There is so much social understanding in our association with instruments and how we use them – certain instruments are brighter in timber – so even using a specific instrument communicates something on its own.”


“I’ve always been obsessed with the ocean. It’s a spiritual experience being near it. But at the same time it’s beautiful and extraordinarily dangerous. I wanted to write songs that were as beautiful as possible, but allowed some of that darkness and seriousness to be expressed.”


To hear the result of Ryan’s instrumental expression of our oceans, click here to buy Sleeping at Last’s Oceans now. Also, in another example of communicating without words, Ryan commissioned Geoffrey Benzing to create five watercolor works to represent each ocean and song.

Photos by Jeremy Cowart

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