In Defense of John Cage: Why 4’33” is Music (Musical Musings #5)

The picture that you’re looking at for this post is actually an entire piece of music. You can see that the piece has three movements, but only music buffs will know what the word “tacet” means. Essentially, it means “don’t play your instrument”. That piece of music was only written for one instrument, the piano, and it’s not part of some larger-scale orchestral piece that doesn’t need the piano for the first three movements. That one page is the entirety of the piece. That means that the entire piece of music revolves around the pianist not playing anything at all. How is this music, you might ask? Many have said that it isn’t, and the evidence is valid. But I would propose that it is, so without further ado, let’s look at this strange piece, known only as 4’33”.

John Cage was a twentieth-century musician, and he was mostly known for his strange concept works. Just like I mentioned in my post on “The Typewriter”, Cage was a novelty musician, but his pieces often just translate as an odd collection of noises rather than actual musical works of art. He’s one of those composers who, it seems to me, was trying to communicate ideas, but the audience wasn’t grasping those ideas. I readily admit that I don’t concerning most of his pieces. But this one I think I can understand. It’s also his most famous piece, for good reason: no one’s quite sure if it’s music or not.

4’33” is read as “Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds”, because that’s how long the piece lasts. Written in 1952, the purpose of the piece is to take in the sounds of the surrounding environment: the sounds of the people next to the audience member, or an item being moved quietly, or a baby crying (I’m talking about in the context of live performance)– all of these sounds are the music. But is that music at all? Is every sound you hear music? Cage said yes. Cage was also heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, apparently. So turning from a spiritual definition to a more technical one, is 4’33” actually music?

Mirriam-Webster defines music in this way: “the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity”.

Let’s eliminate the easier stuff first, starting with the end of that definition. As life and the world we live in keeps on going, and as sounds are just a result of this fact, the “composition having unity and continuity” can be justified. And to be really technical, all of life’s sounds do happen “in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships”. Those three things may be haphazard and random most of the time, but nevertheless, all sounds do fit those three categories.

The tough part is the beginning: “ordering tones or sounds”. 4’33” isn’t ordering sounds to come from the piano; it’s relying on the random sounds of the atmosphere instead. The pianist exhibits no control over the sounds that occur during the performance save for his own, and even then, not always. But take a close look at that definition. What is the point of ordering the sounds? “To produce a composition having unity and continuity”, which we already established could fit with any of life’s sounds. And while it may be proposed that 4’33” doesn’t order the sounds of life (that would be a ridiculous claim), it is true that in the environment in which the piece is performed, those sounds are indeed ordered. It’s only because of the performance that the specific people in the audience came at that specific time, sat in the specific seat, and brought the specific items that they did. The reason why any audience member is breathing, coughing, shifting around, or anything else in that specific atmosphere is because they wanted to watch the performance, which only happened because the piece exists; therefore, even though 4’33” isn’t deciding what sounds are coming from the environment, it is ordering them by the absence of any music notes being played, forcing those sounds to become the music themselves.

So, in summation: because 4’33” causes specific people to premeditate and execute the act of living and functioning in a specific place at a specific time, 4’33” orders the sounds in that environment merely by existing, and thus is, by definition, music. I know it sounds like a stretch, and it probably is, but I can see how it works, at any rate. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? Does it matter to you at all? Let me know in the comments below. And go on YouTube and watch a performance– it’s quite entertaining.

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