Music or Philosophy?


Music is the art of combining tones to form expressive compositions, any rhythmic sequence of pleasing sounds (Webster’s Dictionary 1990). Philosopophy is the study of the principles underlying conduct, thought and the nature of the universe, the general principles or laws of a field of knowledge, or a particular system of ethics (Webster’s Dictionary 1990). John Cage, a 20th century American Composer, has been most widely known for his experimental compositions and philosophies on music in general. His most notorious work is 4’33”, otherwise known as his “silent piece”, in which the performer of the work remains still for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and does not produce a single note. Through this “silence”, Cage intends for the audience to take in the surrounding natural noises and treat them as music. Is he, then, simply stretching compositional techniques as did his groundbreaking predecessors, or is this piece a demonstration of philosophy rather than a musical composition?

Music is a form of self-expression, according to Langer. This connotation is the most widespread to this day. But John Cage had his own purpose for writing music. He adopted the Indian idea that, “the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences”. He also agreed with Coomaraswamy that it was “the responsibility of the artist to imitate nature in her manner of operation” (as cited by Revill). With his new insight into Eastern tradition, Cage’s purpose to quiet the mind was anything but achieved through initial performances of 4’33”.

The first performance of John Cage’s 4’33” created a scandal. At the premiere some listeners were unaware that they heard anything at all. People began whispering to one another, and some people began to walk out. They didn’t laugh-they were just irritated when they realized nothing was going to happen, and they haven’t forgotten it 30 years later: they’re still angry (according to Solomon).


Cage knew before the piece premiered that it would probably be taken as a joke, but he knew that it was pertinent for him to do so because he felt it was the highest form of work. He stated that he did not write shocking pieces in order to receive that reaction. But despite the audience reaction, Cage remained hopeful that 4’33” would eventually have the impact he intended. He had come to realize through his Zen studies that one hardly ever learned or understood anything right away, but that understanding would come later, or perhaps not at all.

The underlying conflict with 4’33” is that for one to accept the piece as music, one must fully accept Cage’s philosophy of music. In order to accept this philosophy, one must abandon the traditional definition of music. For as Cage saw it, there was no such thing as silence. He came to this conclusion when he subjected himself to an abechoic chamber at Harvard University. He actually had expected to hear nothing, but instead he heard two sounds. When he asked the engineer about these sounds, he was told that the higher pitched sound was his nervous system and the lower pitched sound was his blood circulating. In an attempt to redefine silence as the absence of intended sounds, rather than the absence of all sound, he wrote 4’33” in order to heighten the awareness of the audience to surrounding noises. Cage was concerned with humanity accepting all noises of nature as music. But in order to do so, Cage had to change the world’s views, since this was not an accepted practice up until this time. Cage felt that music was a means of changing the mind, and thus his goal of composing was to change minds from the traditional usage of music as a form of expression to one of being aware.

Cage’s music must be subservient to his views and philosophies since his music dissipates all former views of music and is reliant on the acceptance of his philosophies. “Cage does not argue with the premises if traditional music. He rejects them wholesale for reasons which can only be inferred from his own position.” Cage believed that “everything is permitted if zero is taken as the basis. If you’re non-intentional, then everything is permitted.” Yet he knew the audience was “intending” to hear music in the traditional sense when he premiered 4’33”. In order to accept 4’33” in the way he ‘intended’ it to be taken, one must first change one’s method of thinking, which was the purpose of the piece. But if the purpose was to change the audience’s mind, then was it music when it was first experienced, or, was it an example of a philosophical groundbreaking work in action?


Cage described his own position as a composer to be one where he changed his responsibility from making choices to asking questions. The answers are found in the content of the music (as noted by Kostelanetz). Cage was interested in what he did not know, and that is why his music is intended to ask questions. Cage insisted that music is not meant to be understood hut ht is about being aware and freeing oneself from likes and dislikes. However, in order to accept outside noises as music in the sense Cage is seeking, one must understand his logic and his philosophies before one can be aware of those things that he wished the world would see.

Cage believed that “if the composer has any function at all, it should be teaching people to keep attuned to all the implicit music that their environment offers.” Cage became more of a teacher figure with the performance of 4’33” than he was a composer. He set the framework and taught his unsuspecting audience a lesson in awareness.


“Instead of a music of definable identity, we have conceptions whose essence is a lack of identity” (according to Pritchett). Cage stated that his favorite piece is one that is heard anytime, all the time, if we simply open our awareness and listen. But this requires no composing since it simply exists in nature. Although Cage did teach people to be aware of this ongoing ‘silent’ music, he, by no means, composed those sounds heard in nature. He gave up all control, with the exception of how long the audience was subjected to this ”silence”, and this denounced his position as a composer of a musical work with the composition of 4’33”. When Kostelanetz interviewed Cahe and asked him whether he still viewed his compositions as his own in the sense that he created them, Cage responded that he did. He explained that instead of exercising his control to compose, he asked questions that were answered by the process and within the process. But this is precisely the type of work done by philosophers, not musical composers. To compose, as defined by the Webster’s New World Dictionary, means to put into proper form or to create, this to exercise control over the content of the work at hand. Control, however, is precisely what Came gave up with the inception of 4’33”, because the sounds within the four minutes and thirty-three seconds we’re not under his control.


Because Cage left 4’33” to nature to truly compose the content within those four minutes and thirty-three seconds, he has essentially given up his position as a composer. Because the “philosophical underpinnings are clearly more significant than any more sound”, the ideas become the content of the piece, which are thusly not musical. Though Cage had a strong musical training, his music became more conceptual than an auditory experience, which is the essence of music. “Conceptual music is either musicless music or it requires the reinvention of music” (according to Kostelanetz). Obviously, this was precisely Cage’s purpose, to reinvent music. However, if his purpose was to reinvent music through 4’33”, then this piece could not be considered music upon first experience because people’s minds would have to have already been open to 4’33” being music. Music had always been an immediate experience, not something that had to be contemplated after the fact. Though the audience may have accepted Cage’s point that all sounds are music, they could not have done so until the premiere of 4’33”, and thus, at that point in time, it could not be considered music. After the first Performance, the effect of the piece disappeared because the word spread about the piece and people were given the chance to ponder the issue without hearing the piece. This, the lesson could be taught without the performance of 4’33”.


After the premiere of 4’33”, people were able to perform the work at any time in their lives. Yet, people were able to do so before 4’33”, if one was learned in the Eastern tradition of meditation. Cage felt that 4’33” was a “musical work that went on constantly, an invitation of the ultimate unity of music and life”. Cage was simply demonstrating to his audience, and the world (particularly Western cultures), what he had learned by way of his Zeb studies. He formulated what he discovered and put together an active demonstration which forced people to experience what he had learned, rather than by telling them in a traditional manner. Though he did use a musical setting (the use of a performer, a musical instrument, a concert audience, and a notated score), he was merely demonstrating the lesson he had learned. Although he used the subject matter of music (as he defines it), it was essentially an uncomposed work.


Suzanne Langet, a leading philosopher contemporary with Cage, described the usage of natural sounds as musical material or models which composers may reconstruct into symbols to be used in a composition. But those unintentional sounds, utilized in an unconscious manner, are not art in and of themselves. She also believes the composer is the original subject of the symbols depicted in a composition. Yet Cage was not the original subject because the “music” to be heard in 4’33” was composed by nature, this making nature the subject. Even though Cage vehemently opposed the use of symbols in his compositions, he used them in 4’33”. The performer of the work served as a symbol, as did the composition itself, because no piece ought to be composed or performed for something that is naturally occurring in nature since the sounds are of nature, Cage had no hand in composing those sounds. He was only responsible for people’s awareness of those sounds, which was the concept of the piece, not the content.


Kostelanetz describes Cage as a polyartist or one who “finds new media for his signature.” He describes how Cage used several medium (including visual art, theatrical productions and writing) to express his underlying thoughts rather than using just one medium. With this statement, Kostelanetz is classifying Cage as a jack of all trades, master of none. It is true that one must study music in order to compose, and Cage had composed several standard works aside from 4’33”. However, someone with no musical training could have composed a piece exactly like 4’33”. A Zen philosopher could have used music as his medium in order to awaken an audiences awareness to natural sounds just as Cage did, but he would not, therefore, be considered a musician. Buddhists, in fact, perform 4’33” daily, with the exception of the time frame of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, but they call it meditation.


Even though Cage did compose pieces that utilized his musical training, this should not automatically categorize everything he composes as music. Cage also wrote poetry that is not counted among his music compositions. Yet, according to his philosophy that all sound is music, would not the speaking voice this be considered music when his poetic words are spoken? But still his poetry is not categorized as music. In a conversation with Cage, Kostelanetz referred to Cage’s work “Empty Words” as a literary work as it is deemed by all resources, but Cage labeled it as a “transition from literature to music.” Yet “Empty Words” is not listed as a musical work by Cage.

George Kubler observed that “the work of many artists often comes closer to philosophical speculation than most aesthetic writings.” Cage even admitted that he “intellectually programmed himself out of a musical career.” Yet he continued to compose because of the promise he made to his instructor Schoenberg to dedicate his life to music. Donald Henaham thinks that Cage perhaps redefined his position as a philosopher of modern music after he decided he would not be one of the worlds greatest composers.


Philosophy is the general principle or laws of a field of knowledge. The philosophy of music is that which John Cage sought to change. He attempted to do so through his work 4’33”. Though that piece contained music as it’s content, it was through that work that Cage defined music as all sounds. If an audience listening to 4’33” is not aware they are listening to music, it cannot be music until the point when they accept that they are listening to music. Since the piece itself was the vehicle for this changing of the mind, it cannot be music until the change of mind has occurred. Rather, it is a work of philosophy in which the ideas are demonstrated instead of written. The setting of a musical composition is the medium used in 4’33” to open people’s awareness to Cage’s new principles of music. But the work is significant because of it’s underlying concepts, not because of it’s content. The content of the piece is uncontrolled by Cage and can be experienced in every day life. Thus, Cage transforms his philosophical ideas into the medium of his self-prescribed definition of music, making the work one of philosophy rather than of a musical experience.


(Take notice of this last meme and that Cage is listed in the 4th level)- I wrote this paper when I was in college in 1999. Considering memes are a new commodity, it looks as though in the 21st century, since laying out my ideas in this research and opinion paper that was current and progressive during that time frame, that Cage has come to be accepted as one of the more socially accepted composers, or at least not one of the least disattached from social dogma. There are others who are more wholly disenchanted with the social norms than John Cage was. Society has evolved, and it has been due to pioneers like that of John Cage!!!!


Author: Alice Funk Farie

Ecclectic Eccentric, Adoptee, Mom of a child with Aspergers Autism, Complex-PTSD from childhood trauma, Daughter of parents with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Dependant Personality Disorder, Anxiety and Depression Warrior, Empath, Indigo Child, Musician, Educator, Wife of a Sociopathic Addict, Stepmom, Martial Artist, Artist, Philosophizer, Quote Collector, Survivor

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