At several cortical synapses glutamate release events can be mediated exclusively by NMDA receptors, with no detectable contribution from AMPA receptors. This observation was originally made by comparing the trial-to-trial variability of the two components of synaptic signals evoked in hippocampal neurons, and was subsequently confirmed by recording apparently pure NMDA receptor-mediated EPSCs with stimulation of small numbers of axons. It has come to be known as the ‘silent synapse’ phenomenon, and is widely assumed to be caused by the absence of functional AMPA receptors, which can, however, be recruited into the postsynaptic density by long-term potentiation (LTP) induction. Thus, it provides an important impetus for relating AMPA receptor trafficking mechanisms to the expression of LTP, a theme that is taken up elsewhere in this issue. This article draws attention to several findings that call for caution in identifying silent synapses exclusively with synapses without AMPA receptors. In addition, it attempts to identify several missing pieces of evidence that are required to show that unsilencing of such synapses is entirely accounted for by insertion of AMPA receptors into the postsynaptic density. Some aspects of the early stages of LTP expression remain open to alternative explanations.