White space

Last week my friend, Mike Cougill, invited me to watch a video titled Benjamin Zander’s Masterclass. The video he linked out to was from Youtube and was the first of a series. I don’t have the link handy as I type this but a quick search on Youtube will bring you to the video. Look for the one on Elgar and the cello. It was a comment Mr. Zander made that caused me to think this thought and to ask this.

White space is important to me. At its most simplistic, it allows us to transition from the things happening beyond the photograph, painting, or page to the thing we created and would like you to pay attention to. Bringing this home to designing a model railway, I am attracted to designs that feature space between elements such as structures, track, or towns. The importance of designing and providing enough white space between these elements is planning your experience with the complete scene. It’s a balance of providing a border that supports establishing an element as a feature as well as being a place that underscores the story we’re telling. Were I planning a siding to place some reefers for potato loading, I’d want enough space to really focus your attention on that particular scene. Equally important though is the way this same space, between loading points, describes the rural nature of the scene as the train travels to or from this siding. In his Masterclass video, Mr. Zander commented on a different white space and the idea of injecting moments of auditory white space which provides time during the piece for you to think about what you’ve heard instead of relying on the performer to tell you how to feel. Doing so could encourage you to build a relationship with the performance and assume a small measure of ownership over that particular moment. I thought of music that was important to me and could almost as quickly discover in so many of those pieces a moment between bars where the performer didn’t do anything beyond letting me dwell, as Mr. Zander described, where they had left me until we were ready to go to the next place. Reaching beyond music, I thought about favourite moments in theatre, movies, and television and discovered as many times when a director staged a scene that was made all that much more communicative and powerful by providing the me in the audience with a scene without action or dialogue – nothing to distract me from the feeling they had just given to me.

I thought about operating a model railroad. I like those operating sessions that move at a slower pace and provide time to replicate the other roles that would happen on a real railroad such as making sure the imaginary brakeman has enough time to walk to where he needs to be or while we’re pretending to pump up the air in the train’s brakes I thought about how I used this concept of white space in operating the layout. When I’m switching cars, I’m choosing to add in this space. I like pretending those other activities are going on in front of me and enjoy the relaxed feeling I get as a result. What I feel a little more aware of is that during these relaxed moments I’m watching my engine slow to couple to a string of cars and I’m providing myself with time to immerse myself in that moment and to build a relationship with it. I never doubt that I’d really enjoy being a part of an operating session where you had an actual valve handle to turn to replicate setting brakes on a car or completing a bit more paperwork to formalize the placement of a car. My question is: By providing these additional activities the train is moving a more relaxed pace but I’m working at the same one and how does the net effect of this change affect my relationship with the layout? In real life, if I’m walking I have time to think about that walk between railroad cars during each step. When I’m providing this same span of time on my model railway my thoughts aren’t the same as those from real life. On the model railway my thoughts aren’t about the moment but more in line with questions like whether, or not, I’m providing enough time so that it looks like this is happening.

Part of these thoughts on white space during an operating session I’ve thought about already in terms of providing time, directly while running the trains, to appreciate just how great it is to watch this and truly appreciate how good the layout looks when animated and how much I enjoy being the model railfan. Perhaps the place for these thoughts on white space is in the way they take me from appreciating the moment as a model railfan to the miniature crew member by giving me time to appreciate his work. I’m only just mulling this over and absolutely none of this is commentary on anyone’s approach. I certainly don’t want to accidentally trigger any debate over whether or not we should be providing tools to make our operating sessions more realistic or the value of those efforts.

Thanks Mike for sharing that video in the first place. I really enjoyed it for what it was and again, during moments like this one, where I feel like I’m extending it a little further in my own clumsy way.





  1. White space is an important part of Chinese art, especially when influenced by Taoism, which shows that this is a successful concept. I like the way you have taken ths idea into our hobby. Trevor did a nice piece on pumping up the brakes, etc, when switching, about 3 years ago. This is an area where DCC sound can help, as the sound fils out what might otherwise be dead time, for example coasting to a stop, and pausing whilst reversing. It is also yet another argument against filling every square inch with extra track…


    1. Thanks Simon.

      As I worked my way through this post I started to think more and more about the dual roles that sound plays. Respectfully, I wondered if the way it fills that dead space was good?

      I’m a fan of minimalism in design. I applaud those arguments against filling every inch of the layout with more stuff. Do those same arguments apply to the sound profile for the layout? I think they might.

      Is there a balance between how much sound just as there is for how much track?


      1. Ah yes. I thought this might come up. Sound seems to be quite a divisive choice. Personally speaking I think it is down to individual choice, but that also means respecting the views of others who don’t like it. At home this is not a major issue, but at exhibitions if something is audible from more than four feet away, it is probably too loud. I am not sure it works well for N, either, for I view N as the scale to use for setting trains within their environment (even for small layouts, this can be accomplished), as viewed from a distance.
        Like everything, it’s all a question of taste and moderation!


      2. What I’m trying to describe is not so much the volume of sound but the way it affects our relationship with that moment. So many sound schemes I’ve heard are so wonderful for the way they extend the vision of that moment. I wondered though if they excused a bit of imagination too?

        As for volume, I agree. In the tight quarters of the more typical layout the challenge is balancing the number of things that are making sound so you can hear the ones you want to and not everything at the same volume.


  2. I think sparing use can enhance the operator’s experience – and the volume is important if the sound is not to become the centre of attention.

    I am not sure how much it impacts on the observer, or how it impacts the observer, come to that.


    1. Perhaps there’s three perspectives:

      If only one engine in steam, than volumes are arranged around that to showcase it and your experience.

      If more than one engine than volume is adjusted so that you can enjoy your experience without treading on those around you.

      Both of the above feel like settings for when you are in close quarters with your train and working closely with it, such as switching cars in a yard setting, but out on the road your not so much as running the train as watching it move across the layout. In this third role you’re the observer.


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