John Cage: Music, Sound, and Silence

The theories of avant-garde American composer John Cage (1912-1992) on music, sound, and silence are of more interest than his musical compositions. To Cage, there is no such thing as silence. Music is a succession of sounds and the composer the "organizer of sounds." Historically, music has been a communication of feelings, but Cage argues that all sounds have this potential for conveying feeling in the mechanical and electronic sense. As Cage puts it in the essay "History of Experimental Music in the United States": "Debussy said quite some time ago, 'Any sounds in any combination and in any succession are henceforth free to be used in a musical continuity.'"

Silence was perhaps the pivotal aspect of Cage's theories. If silence could be shown not to exist, then feelings, too, could be pushed into the category of nonexistence.


While interested in breaking down traditional definitions and concepts, Cage did not elaborate on the premises of de-constructionism or modern aesthetics, merely presenting them. He held neither a college degree nor studied in a music academy, learning music personally from Arnold Schoenberg, the arch-modern composer of twelve-tone music. Cage's popularization of random sounds as music do not bear regular listening -- he anticipated the "happenings" of performance art or spontaneous art in the 1960's, and indirectly foresaw the success of electronic music created exclusively with synthesizers and other electronic devices. Cage had hit upon a formula for creativity, calling his musical creations "purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play." Paraphrasing the French philosopher Henri Bergson, Cage maintained that disharmony is a harmony "to which many are unaccustomed."

At times, as in the essay "Experimental Music," Cage appears to want to draw inspiration from nature and human emotion.

Hearing sounds which are just sound immediately sets the theorizing mind to theorizing, and the emotions of human beings are continually aroused by encounters with nature. Does not a mountain unintentionally evoke in us a sense of wonder? otters along a stream a sense of mirth? night in the woods a sense of fear? Do not rain falling and mists rising up suggest the love binding heaven and earth? Is not decaying flesh loathsome? Does not the death of someone we love bring sorrow? And is there a greater hero than the least plant that grows? These responses to nature are mine and will not necessarily correspond with another's. Emotion takes place in the person who has it. And sounds, when allowed to be themselves, do not require that those who hear them do so unfeelingly. The opposite is what is meant by response ability.

Thus music is not merely the sound of musical instrument but that of other human-made objects and, ultimately, the sounds of nature. While this may be a novel definition of music, Cage does not acknowledge that while program music attempts to evoke images and feelings, abstract music need not, even while adhering to compositional standards. Cage's project is not so much to expand but to overthrow the definition of music. His compositions, Cage admits, are called Dadaist, but he argues in the essay "Indeterminacy" that in Dadaism actions occur but space or emptiness is not taken into account, as in his music.

For Cage, silence is that space, although absolute silence does not exist. Cage's affinity with contemporary architecture, specifically glass-walled buildings as in Mies van der Rohe and with modern art, as in the deconstructed images of Marcel Duchamp, emphasize the analogy between looking through rather than looking at. Cage's music intended to look through sounds and not at them, the latter being traditional music.

Cage's famous composition 4'33", consisting of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, was intended to point to the ambient sounds around the listener of the work, which then become the work of music. The work revolutionized modern music, but the work only illustrates a theory or argument -- few listeners will return to "listen" to such a novelty again. Some critics even argue that 4'33" is not nor cannot be intended as music at all, for it lacks the communication of feeling and felt time identified as musical aesthetics. They argue that Cage says his music does not convey feeling (or leaves itself open or transparent to feeling) but that this is not true. Cage's performances convey feelings, indeed provoke them --and this was Cage's unconscious or denied intention.

Thus Cage argued that the purpose of music (and art) must change:

Art may be practiced in one way or another, so that it reinforces the ego in its likes and dislikes, or so that it opens that mind to the world outside, and outside inside. Since the forties and through the study with D. T. Suzuki of the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, I've thought of music as a means of changing the mind. I saw art not as something that consisted of a communication from the artist to an audience but rather as an activity of sounds in which the artist found a way to let the sounds be themselves. And, in being themselves, to open the minds of people who made them or listened to them to other possibilities than they had previously considered (Quoted in Richard Kostelanetz)

Cage insisted that his music differed from any previous music because it carried the insights of Eastern philosophy and opened the mind in a way that no historical music did. In this Cage anticipates the claims of modern electronic music, of minimalist, ambient and New Age music. But these styles of music are still radically opposed to his contrived and random sounds, being deliberate in evoking a specific feeling that "opens the mind" and represents music that lets the "sounds be themselves."

More theory

In composition, silence is well known as a musical element, rendering a pause, a particular frequency of sound (its absence), an accompanying duration of sound -- or of silence. For Cage, "Not one sound fears the silence that extinguishes it. But if you avoid it [sound], that's a pity, because it [sound] resembles life very closely & life and it are essentially a  cause of joy." Here Cage is referring to "the first sound that comes along."

This randomness of sound is equated to music, in contrast to music as understood hitherto.

Cage's writings quote influences like Ananda Coomaraswamy, T. D. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell, Buckminster Fuller, and readings (or excerpts) from Meister Eckhart and Sri Ramakrishna; observers have detected the larger influence of Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy. But these popularizers and influences clearly had no sanction for the type of music Cage composed.

Likewise Cage's Westernized and 1950's notion of Zen as an influence:

What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen (attendance at lectures by Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki, reading of the literature) I doubt whether I would have done what I have done. I am told that Alan Watts has questioned the relation between my work and Zen. I mention this in order to free Zen of any responsibility for my actions. I shall continue making them ("Foreword" to Silence, 1961).

Watts did not like Cage's music, but after reading Silence did appear at some Cage concerts, though Cage, in 1970's, dismissed Watts as

a man who had no understanding of the arts. He had a good understanding of the language, and books, and you could tell that by visiting him in his home and by the pictures he had on the wall, which were 1890ish ("John Cage interview," 1974 May 2, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).

In the 1950's, Cage hit upon a method of composition that would be the counterpart of the frequency, amplitude, timbre, duration, etc. that constitute the mechanisms of tradition composition. The avant-garde method was randomness. Cage discovered the I Ching. By tossing the coins he came to hexagrams that offered ideas, and from the ideas he developed parameters for "chance-controlled music." He does not elaborate on the nature of this inspiration except to say:

I derived the method I use for writing music by tossing coins from the method used in the Book of Changes. It may be objected that from this point of view anything goes. Actually , anything does go but only when nothing is taken as the basis. In an utter emptiness anything can take place. And, needless to say, each sound is unique ... and is not informed about European history and theory: Keeping one's mind on the emptiness, on the space, and can see anything can be in it, is, as a matter of fact, in it. ("45' For A Speaker").

In later years, Cage referred to his 1940's approach to music and composition as "disinterestedness," reflecting the perennial thinking that surrounded the topic of East and West. But after his pivotal 1952 composition of 4'33" Cage used more technical terms such as chance and indeterminacy.

In his "Lecture on Something," Cage argues that his work takes into account the shift of cultural influences quintessentially American: the "movement of the wind of the Orient and the movements against the wind of the Occident meet in America and produce a movement upwards into the air -- the space, the silence, the nothing that supports us." It is this upward space or silence that Cage claims to bring to music.

But though he sensed that music was a social and cultural product, Cage still did not elaborate on how his music fit into this perspective. He criticized the Dadaism of the 1920's (his nearest predecessor) as reduced by time to mere art. He used radios and phonographs as sources of sounds for his 1940's compositions but criticized the dominance of radio, television, and the recording industry during the next decade and thereafter.

Then, too, Cage's 4'33" had its predecessors in Erik Satie's musique d'ameublement or "furniture" (that is, unobtrusive background) music and the rising 1940's company Muzak -- to which, Cage said in jest, he ought to sell 4'33"). An element of showmanship pervades Cage's work, and the implied silence of 4'33" can equally represent transparency as it can a silencing of both stage performers and theater-goers at odds with the "anything goes" theory of music.

With the passing years, Cage become increasingly interested in audio technology, amplifying sounds with machines and microphony, even using Geiger counters in one composition -- all ironic tendences toward the silencing of silence. Cage was determined to show that silence did not exist. But in that premise he had separated himself from the perennial philosophy he had professed in the 1940's and gradually abandoned after his 1952 composition of 4'33".

The idea of breaking institutional structures in music and art is analogous to breaking down structures in society, as Theodor Adorno, the Marxist critic of Cage, has noted. The indirect purpose of Cage's music is to break down repetition and structure. Wrote Cage:

In contemporary civilization where everything is standardized and where everything is repeated, the whole point is to forget in the space between an object and its duplication. If we didn't have this power of forgetfulness, if art today didn't help us to forget, we would be submerged, drowned under those avalanches of rigorously identical objects (For The Birds).

Other critics have seen Cage's assumptions of expanding music to include all sounds and using technology to identify and amplify sound is simply an extrapolation of Western cultural ideas of domination and do not take into account Eastern ideas after all. Critic Donald Kahn concludes:

Cage's dominion of all sound and of the corresponding capacity for panaurality is reminiscent of the totalizing reach of the Romantic utterance resonating in voice or music throughout eternity and entirety, or of the nineteenth-century synaesthetes who also used their utterances to insinuate themselves throughout the cosmos. It is true that Cage explicitly sought to subvert tactics based in human centeredness, yet all he did was shift the center from one of utterance to one of audition. He simply became quiet in order to attract everything toward a pair of musical ears. He achieved through centripetal means the same centrality utterance achieved through centrifugal means.

 Indeed, Cage's musical renovation was built on a larger cultural association in which listening was thought to be intrinsically more passive, peaceful, respectful, democratic, and spiritual than speaking, as it intersected with Western art music which, on the one hand, had produced itself through the sonicity of utterance and, on the other, promoted a proscription against speaking, signification, and mimesis. Cage's shift, in other words, entailed a production of music through the sonicity of audition while retaining all other features of Western art music.

Shifting sound from speech to music, and using silence to, in effect, silence articulation or feeling, makes Cage's theories on silence an ominous departure from both Eastern and Western traditions. Silence in modern art differs from the uses of silence in traditional and historical settings. Modern art fades in significance and cowers in its reaction to larger political, social, and technological structures into a hushed and compelled silencing. Metzer sees the use of silence in other modernist composers (Webern, None, Sciarrino) as a confrontation with and scrutiny of expression. But in music this scrutiny remains unresolved. To resolve it, Cage's project used silence to to make sound (i.e., music) louder, randomized, dominant, ultimately extirpated.

As early as 1954, Cage was no longer defending his compositions as works of art but as counter-works, anti-works:

Very frequently no one knows that contemporary music is or could be art. He simply thinks it was irritating. Irritating one way or another, that is to say, keeping us from ossifying. It may be objected that from this point of view anything goes. Actually anything does go, -- but only when nothing is taken as the basis. In an utter emptiness anything can take place [emphasis Cage] ("45' For a Speaker")


The nature of silence is a key concept of both Eastern and Western thought. Cage understood from his popular readings that they could converge. He applied the concept of silence to music and tried to liberate silence from feelings or context, from an social and historical context. But Cage's compositions, while making statements opposed to historical aesthetics, did not discover therein a psychology or philosophy of silence, less an aesthetics. Silence became a utilitarian tool for compositional use, not unlike those historical composers he criticized. Though he argued for the equal status of all sounds, sounds, music, had no meaning, though they did not need were not useless but meaningless. Cage meant that Beethoven, Mozart, and sounds of traffic in a big city were all equivalent -- except that he didn't need any of them. In the 1992 documentary film Listen by director Miroslav Sebestik, Cage remarked:

The sound experience which I preferred to all others is the experience of silence.


Sources for John Cage's writings include: Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, John Cage, Writer: Selected Texts, edited by Richard Kostelanetz. Lanham, MD: Cooper Square Press, 2000, and For The Birds, John Cage in Conversation With Daniel Charles. Boston, Boyars, 1981. Useful secondary sources are: David Metzer: "Modern Silence" in The Journal of Musicology, v. 23, no. 3, Summer 2006), pp. 331-374; Douglas Kahn: "John Cage: Silence and Silencing" in The Musical Quarterly, v. 81, no. 4 (Winter 1997), p. 556-598; Joseph W. Branden: "John Cage and the Architecture of Silence" in October, v. 81 (Summer, 1997), pp. 80-104; Mark Robin Campbell: "John Cage's 4'33": Using Aesthetic Theory to Understand a Musical Notion" in Journal of Aesthetic Education, v. 26, no. 1 (Spring, 1992), p. 83-91;  James Pritchett: "What Silence Taught John Cage" in the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona exhibition catalog "John Cage and Experiment Art: The Anarchy of Silence" (2009)