4’33”

A performance of 4’33”. If you haven’t heard it, give it a listen!:

4’33” by John Cage always brings up the question, “Is this music?” By definition, music means sound, right? How could four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence possibly count as music?

Let’s back up for a second. Before John Cage (1912-1992) was Charles Ives (1874-1954), an experimental musician who was one of the first American composers to achieve serious international renown—for a long time, American composers were not thought of as real musicians at all. Ives wrote pieces that pushed the boundaries of music, such as “The Concord Sonata” that requires tapping keys with a 14 ¾ inch block of wood to create tone clusters, and “The Unanswered Question” which features extremely long single notes. His pieces often sound like a bit of an unorganized mess, but as time went on he came to be recognized as a legitimate musician perhaps a bit ahead of his time.

If Charles Ives pushed the boundaries of music, John Cage smashed them with an iron rod, recorded said smashing, and sold it as a record. He composed by using charts, tossing coins, and using random geometric patterns. He would litter the strings of a piano with objects to change the sound. He would swish water around in a seashell. He wrote pieces called “A Collection of Rocks,” “Paragraphs of Fresh Air,” and “Water Music,” which was performed with a radio, bird whistles, and a deck of cards which the player would shuffle and then deal over the piano strings. His most famous piece, of course, is 4’33”, which is performed by a person sitting at a piano and making as little sound as possible for exactly 4’33”.

I’ve heard multiple interpretations of 4’33”. Some say that the music is the accidental sounds a room full of people make, such as coughing or dropping keys. Some say that it’s arguing that silence is music, just like scheduled rests and pregnant pauses in (to avoid the phrase “normal music”) musical pieces including sound. Some say John Cage was plain crazy, like all the other Andy Warhol’s and Yoko Ono’s that dare defy convention.

Is John Cage the “Emperor’s New Clothes” of music–something people pour meaning and relevance into when really there’s nothing there? Or is it taking the easy way out to wave experimental art off with a dismissive hand and call it pretentious?

My favorite theory—plausible, since John Cage was interested in Buddhism—is that 4’33” was a sort of surprise meditation. In concert, the audience is captivated by the performer. In an anticipation-riddled song like 4’33”, they are focused intently, waiting for something to “happen.” This singular focus, all in silence, makes the audience unknowingly meditate, in a way. Their mind is clear, they are focused, and they are silent. Perhaps John Cage felt we all needed a meditation break now and then, and what better way to ensure people were getting one than putting one right in the middle of his concert? Then again, this doesn’t explain his other experimental music, so who knows?

Of course, we’ll never know, and that’s a good thing. What’s the point of art if there’s nothing to interpret? Then again, with 4’33”, there is literally nothing to interpret except the concept itself: silence as music. Perhaps the question isn’t whether or not it “counts” as music, but the message of the song. The method in the madness. The sound of silence.

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7 thoughts on “4’33”

  1. I’ve never seen this particular score for the piece. The version that just says TACET for each movement seems pretty straightforward. Adding a time signature and a metronome setting to this one seems a little odd.

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  2. It’s so good to find people who are prepared to ‘listen’ to Cage’s silence. It is, quite literally, the music of the universe!

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  3. I remember my 6th grade music teacher playing this for us. No explanation. He just sat the piano for 4 minutes 33 seconds. We all just sat there awkwardly, not understanding. So our fidgeting, rustling, and whispering became the melody. And that melody could never be replicated again. It seemed weird at the time, but now it just seems awesome.
    Great post, very creative and insightful!

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  4. I do like the idea that he was forcing meditation on the audience. That’s a great observation.

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  5. Music, art, writing, or any creativity for that matter, is most often a statement. When I think of 4’33”, I think of the concert put on by Rage Against the Machine, where they came out on stage and just stood there. They wouldn’t perform because they were making a statement. The crowd went crazy. They all wanted their money back. They were all disappointed. But the fact is, the band was creating art before their eyes. They were making a statement by doing nothing. Standing in front of a group of hostile people who demand something for their money.

    For some, music is the sound. They wouldn’t buy a CD of silence. They can find silence on their own. They are buying the CD for sound that appeals to their sensual feelings that brings then the sensation they are looking for. Again, music is subjective. In the modern era, people demand some sort of statisfaction and gratification in what they experience.

    It’s like, most people what to travel to exotic places, and sensually experience different things. Yet, this is not life. One can experience life while staring at a wall. It all depends on the sensual gratification one is seeking. Today, flashing colors, the need for attention, and the desire for gratification, especially instant gratification, supersedes the expression of artistic creation and the statements artists may be trying to express.

    A hunger strike can be an artistic expression. Will it go noticed in our modern society. Probably not. They need extreme expression to get their attention. It is much like how peaceful demonstrations, as much as the society says it is the most appropriate way to bring about change, really doesn’t change anything. It is easy to ignore a peaceful demonstration. But, if you bring 200,000 people in a gathering and they disrupt the society, this will bring attention. Do you realize how many peaceful demonstrations go on in this country each day but get no media attention at all? It is not until they become disruptive that they get any attention.

    Our lives are expressions of art. It is what we seek to express, and the statement we wish to make that matters. If sitting at a piano doing nothing is the statement the artist wishes to make, then more power to him. If his statement was to make change. Most likely it will go unnoticed. As you stated, the artist, who made nothing but noise with a block of wood received more attention than the one whose statement was silence.

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  6. I enjoyed reading this and “listening” to the performance. It made me stop and think…

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