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If a Tree Falls in the Woods Can You Call It Music?

Recently I was reading some material on the controversial yet highly influential experimental composer John Cage –most widely known for his ‘piece’ 4’33” which if you are not familiar with, is 4’33” of silence. A bold statement indeed.

Now, don’t get me wrong- I respect John Cage. In fact I respect most anyone who is willing to explore and push the boundaries of any convention- musical, artistic, philosophical or otherwise. I may think they are wrong; I may think they are foolish or perhaps even dangerous, but I still can find something to respect in their willingness to reach for or beyond something where most are not willing to reach. From these pioneers of exploration we can usually find something of value in their endeavors even if the mission turns up nothing or ends in complete failure and disaster. There is usually some insight to be gained from another’s missteps -however well intentioned they may have been.

Woody Allen said that if you are not making mistakes you are not making progress. So let us indeed be willing to make a mistake as we refuse to play it safe while reaching for something we have not yet seen or achieved.

That being said, and after all due respect being given, on the subject of music, sound and purpose, I could not disagree with John Cage more and I think he is very mistaken.

In an essay Cage wrote called ‘Experimental Music’, Cage responds to the question-  “What is the purpose of writing music?” with the answer- “One is not dealing with purposes but with sounds”. Moreover, he presents the ‘paradox’ of a ‘purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play’ as a potential answer in that it does not attempt to bring order out of chaos but simply affirms the life we live.

Anybody who wants to do anything in the world of art or music that affirms life and living is fine by me. Where our paths diverge however, is when that one begins to propagate the idea that the only requirement to fall under the definition of music is for there to be a sound or a collection of sounds.

Definitions are important; without the boundaries necessary for something to be defined, anything could be called anything and nonsense would result. So it is important to require some exclusivity in the definition of music. To be so inclusive as to merely require the presence of sound is to redefine music and consequently collapse it’s meaning.  There is obviously nothing wrong with sound for the sake of sound, but for the love of art –please don’t put it in the same category as Beethoven’s 9th or the Beatles’ Abbey Road.

I believe at the heart of my disagreement with Cage lie some underlying differing philosophical viewpoints. It appears from Cage’s writings and exploration of his ‘chance’ compositions, that he believes the highest form of music composition is to reflect that which exists in nature –namely chance. And to impose form, structure, or purpose is to lessen the beauty of that which exists in its most ‘natural’ form.  He goes so far as to imply that by bringing order out of chaos one is ‘suggesting improvements in creation’.  In this statement he reveals his belief that untouched nature is the highest form of artistic existence and that we, as part of nature, are at our highest level of artistic expression when we reflect that which occurs in nature.

Here is the crux of where I disagree- I believe that although in one sense we are part of nature, we are also in greater sense, outside it, and it is the fact that we bring form, purpose and meaning to that which is devoid of such elements that express a beauty that transcends and indeed elevates that which occurs ‘naturally’.

Cage seems to believe that by reflecting randomness the truest music is created and he includes mankind in his perception of that randomness. Where I think he goes terribly wrong –wrong in the sense that it is not a true reflection of humanity and the lives we live- is in the fact he ignores that which lies at the heart of every human -the quest for and resonance with meaning and purpose.

If some great mystical, authoritative figure of truth -be it God, the force, Daddy or Oprah - were to come and speak a final, conclusive, eternal message to each of us, and that message was –“Your life is without meaning and there is absolutely no purpose to your existence”- we would simply wither into a pile of void that no amount of psychotherapy or Prozac could resurrect. It is the fact that purpose and meaning is that which drives, moves, and inspires us that makes us unique and if you will- ‘spiritual’ beings. And it is the elements of form and purpose in music that resonates with who and what we are because it is THAT which lies at the core of our beings. It is not chance, randomness, and chaos that we instinctively find ‘beautiful’ but it is form that draws us. Even the ‘naturally’ occurring waterfall rings of a form that beckons us to sit, watch and admire its beauty. So it logically follows that form, composition and the elements of musicality that seem to ‘make sense’ to us invoke our appreciation and admiration. It is not merely ‘sounds’ that we are drawn to –it is the arrangement of those sounds we are willing to pay money for (or spend time downloading).

‘Experts’ (whomever they may be) say we are born with two natural fears –the fear of falling and the fear of loud noise, or to put it differently, sound that doesn’t make sense.  Perhaps it is because sound is so central to our existence that the role of sound in its ability to convey narrative meaning is so crucial.

Granted, over the top film scoring that shoves meaning down one’s throat is a bit over done, but the fact remains sound possesses powerful abilities to convey meaning and we instinctively understand it when it does. Even when sound plays what appears to be a supportive role the impact can be just as affecting as the film itself. The soundtrack for ‘Jaws’ is a perfect example –the simple low notes left just as much an impression as the spurting blood visuals.

Going back to my contention about Cage, how effective would a soundtrack be if there were just random noises interspersed throughout a film? It would leave us confused as we again would try and make sense of the sounds and when realized we couldn’t, it would distract and annoy us.

So my argument remains- we are beings that intuitively and instinctively function within the context of meaning and purpose and what we call ‘music’ both expresses and reflects that. Sounds that are random as they reflect nature are simply that- random sounds.

So when Cage once responded to a student asking if what he was espousing could be called music, his reply that, “Nothing is accomplished by writing, playing or listening to music” for me, falls on deaf ears.

We are creatures of purpose, meaning and form, and we are drawn to music that affirms that reality.

Behind The Kit

Reader Comments (24)

Wow! Striking Bonsho? What a big mischievous! Probably, he couldn't anything to hear for while.

I read most of your articles with interest and usually find myself agreeing but I think this was a pointless exercise and gave the subject far more attention than he deserves.

May 13 | Unregistered CommenterPaul S

You're throwing a fairly wide net over Cage there - the "chance" to which you refer is one aspect of his work but not the totality of his work.

Organising sounds so they make sense to the organiser - that's all any of us are doing whether you realise it or not - and whether you like the results or not is neither here nor there.

One question: was 4’33” ever released on a physical format or has it only been performed live? And if it was released physically, has it been digitally remastered yet?

May 13 | Unregistered Commenterfelix

I got the feeling that you are trying to convince yourself that traditionally structured music has more empathy with people. I believe that all noise elicits a conditioned response. It is very easy to dismiss 4'33" of silence if you are used to listening to "pop" music.
In many ways 4'33" is more interesting than 95% of recycled popular music. Whether or not I would pay to listen to it is a different matter.
This is the classic Art v Commercialism debate. There are no correct answers.

May 13 | Unregistered CommenterBM

BM, if I may presume to be my typical cynical self, could it be that 4'33" is interesting only to those who are inclined to find it interesting?

Truth from the mouth of babes: were we to take a small child who nonetheless knows what music is and has some ditties it already likes and expose it to said piece, it would no doubt be surprised at the end, because it was told it would hear music.

Looking at it from the chance/purpose perspective, 4'33" is self-defeating as it forces us to impart purpose on it, where it clearly has none. My personal opinion is that it's and excercise both in intellectual pretense and futility - not unlike the painting in Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. I'm inclined to believe Cage was having a quiet laugh at our expense - that at least would make the composition worthwhile, on the Emperor's New Clothes basis. It would be much more worrying if he took it seriously as art, because it shows a saddening lack of perspective.

In a very real sense, our existence has no purpose and meaning. However, painting stories onto a universe that isn't equipped to tell them is what it means to be human. A professional storyteller - and a composer is such - who declines to tell stories under the pretext of "reality doesn't work that way" is short-changing the listener. When seeing this, we've every right (and I'd go as far as to say: an obligation) to declare that the Emperor is naked.

Thanks for posting this, Keith.

I read Cage's collected works and took a class on him while I was studying musicology at Rutgers.

There are a few fatal assumptions people make when discussing music, especially 20th century art music, and they are as follows:

Music has semantic content.
Western tonality is static.
Western tonality is "right"

On semantic content: The presumption that Music Alone (Music without extra musical context, i.e. input from the listener or considerations in presentation) has any semantic content is a dangerous bid- even for the pros. The idea of "Music Alone" is dealt with in great detail by author and music scholar Peter Kivy. Its easy to assume that music inherently expresses what are called the "Garden Variety Emotions" (happy, sad, tense, loving) because when we listen closely to peices of music without words we still get a sense or tone from them. However, weather those reactions come from the listener's imposition or inherently from the music debatable at best- and certainly not a fact. Even if we accept that the familiar theme from Beethoven's 9th (ode to joy) inherently expresses (what else?) "Joy" to go so far as to call that meaning is incorrect. Joy in this scenario would be a theme and not a meaning- just as John Cage's 4'33'' could be described as having the theme of silence. If you can draw the same semantic meaning from either piece that you'd get from James Joyce please do so and share your McArthur grant with me! In short western tonality does have a grammar (you can tell when something is placed wrong) and a finite lexicon (Only so many notes and scales) it does not have the ability to present concrete ideas (Semantic content).

The melody to "mary had a little lamb" expresses nothing about mary or lambs when you hum it- the connection is made from context by the listener.

Western tonality is not "static". Even so called Traditional Tonality isn't quite... The earliest example of what resembles the tonality our ears recognize today didn't appear until the 16th century. That's only 400 years ago. We have to remember that music probably came before language- and certainly before written language (archeologists have found primitive instruments which predate the earliest known examples of written language) and what we in the Western world understand as music is some of the youngest on the planet. Before we began to have "early" music we had the music of the middle ages- which was based on modal figures and not on anything that would have something we'd understand as a resolution or cadence. No doubt that a monk in the 13th century would call the work of beethoven noise and quite certainly" Demonic". Even since the earliest examples of familiar music the 'language' of music and its grammar have changed from period to period at a steady rate (The "Common Practice Era") until about the 20th century where an explosion of style, theory and creole threw traditional analysis out the window! So we can't assume that there is a 'common ear' pervading through the ages and that the ear is tonal. It is relevant to note that new age music has brought modal / mideival music back into favor and that Pacabell's Canon is still able to get Vitamin C a major hit in today's market. This is more to do with 20th century music being a high-speed-communication-inspired music of creole. I digress...

Western Tonality is "Right"

If we look at music as a language without semantics (which I feel it is ) and call things that diverge from our familiar tongue "irrelevant' or "wrong"then we have to take a step back. Remember there's a whole world out there with entirely different dialects from us- China, Japan, India, Africa- All have radically different scales, forms, tones, and musical languages in their traditional native music. Learning to appreciate traditional japanese music (and I don't mean the koto relaxation Cds in the states- i mean bells, silence and free time) means learning a whole new musical language. You can appreciate tribal drumming in africa with the same nuance as mozart if you learn the musical language and learn HOW to listen. No one on this blog would be so bold as to say that Japanese and African music is irrelevant simply because its not Western Tonality. We all know that there are things to appreciate in it- if not only because its been pervasive in cultures that are as old and rich as our own. I propose that the serial and prepared music of western 20th century practice simply requires learning a new language.

Whats familiar isn't always right- and if it weren't for radio and recorded sound? We may live in a different musical world... very very different.

Funny. I'm an employee at On April 1st, we started a John Cage remix contest for 4'33", half as a joke and really as a prelude to the Snoop Dogg contest that was launching later in the day. However, while we had the intention of taking it down, it spawned quite an interesting dialogue between our users about the merits of music. Then, when our users started submitting mixes and songs, some really hit the nail on the head in terms of Cage's aleatoric philosophy- needless to say, impressed with the turn out, we kept the contest up. I feel like cage will always inspire controversy, but the beauty behind his idea is undeniable, taking a predetermined amount of time to observe the sounds we take for granted.

May 13 | Unregistered CommenterRVLouie

@RV- Did you know that somewhere in Europe right now there's a performance of one of Cage's works going on? The piece is 800 years long. The first note is about 2 years long.

Yeah! As long as possible in Germany, sounds fun and tedious all at the same time. Cage would have loved it, I'm sure. I think they only just recently played the first notes after a few months of rest.

May 13 | Unregistered CommenterRVLouie

Some of you might find this of interest.

Your Hearing, According to MP3: Sounds for Humans, Played for 10^450 Years

I started to listen to it and it was similar to crickets chirping. Quite pleasant.

Isn't what you are saying a bit besides the point? The observation that musical language differs from culture to culture is correct, but it rests on the assumption of the existence of musical language. A fair number, in fact. What's more, these various musical languages are subject to the same dynamics as our spoken language - both historically and geographically. Today we're seeing a convergence of musical language globally, just as our ethnic languages absorb outside influences - it is merely a result of our interconnected world.

Now, granted, there is no one correct language to which all others are subservient. Nevertheless, there's a difference between language and gibberish. It is a difference of a purely conventional nature, but it is there. Saying that music isn't semantic in a conventional sense is the same as saying that language isn't semantic - without convention that guides us to associate groups of phonems with meanings we have but random sounds.

Now, it is possible to create artificial languages - Esperanto being best known - but the very fact that they are artificial renders them an intellectual curiosity at best. The ethnic language will always be a more versitile communication tool, by virtue of the sheer depth of time and numbers of people stretching the paradigm. We're doing it right now.

Ideas like 4'33" or an 800 year-long musical piece may make one go wow, if one's inclined to do so, but are a creative cop-out. Rather than looking to communicate in a language shared with one's listeners, perhaps seeking to expand it in a way that will still be comprehensible (hell, even netspeak has produced some gems), one undertakes pompous, pseudo-intellectual challenges that not only make up their own rules, but deny the option of questioning them from a position outside those rules.

It's not art, it's a blag. A modernistic fallacy that we'd do best to get out of our system as soon as possible. If you are saying nothing, then you aren't saying anything. You're not "saying". As for writing something that lasts 800 years, that's just plain stupid. Why don't I just revise my tempo markings (in an unpublished piece of my choice) to, say, Largo geologissimo, quarter=60 million years and call it the Symphony Of The Living Earth - to be played on a geological time-scale? I can roll 'em out all day with the best of them and provide intellectual justifications simply as strong as any man in Illyria. Does that make me an artist? Hardly.

@Cynical Musician,

Your response certainly has merit. Truthfully there is a lot of post modern art that is nothing- and i mean NOTHING. However there is a lot of material out there that does require learning a new lexicon to enjoy.

They say that the beauty of mozart's music can only be understood if you meet him halfway (well, someone says that at least). I think that's true of a lot of modern art (dada need not apply).

I'm a bit strapped for time so I hope you won't fault me for quoting my own thesis:

Chomsky, in his breakthrough study on syntactical structures defines language as a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements. This definition of language is appropriate for all the spoken language of the world as, while the sets of phonemes (letters in the alphabet) are finite- infinitely many sentences result from the set of phonemes (Chomsky). Further, a sentence is a grammatical (grammatical meaning acceptable to a native speaker) combination of the phonemes of a language set. This definition of sentences suggests that some combinations of phonemes are sentences while others are not, and the distinction between a sentence and non-sentence is adherence to a grammar. Combinations of phonemes need not be meaningful or semantically intelligible to be grammatically acceptable and thus sentences.
Ex 1.
(a)Silent doors speak angrily.
(b)Angrily speak doors silent. "

The rest of the paper goes on to show that music satisfies every facet of language but semantic meaning. It also discusses just in what ways musical language is similar to spoken language- including its variance with different people on the planet.

As far as post-modernism and modernism... I wonder if likening serialism to Esperanto and non-music to gibberish is an accurate analogy. I'd have to think about that. There's a lot of good stuff that came from this period that does require the listener to stretch themselves mentally- just like mozart demands IMHO. There's also a lot of stuff that's, as you said, an intellectual curiosity. You say we would do well to forget about modernist thought- however if the alternative is recursive tonality... well I'm sure you know how I feel.

oh and @Faza, love your blog and added it to my reading list. your blog roll has some sites I hadn't stumbled into yet! Glad you posted.

= )
I'd only point out another perspective on whether our most well thought out piece of art is divergent from the 'natural' purity of a simple tone... I'd suggest that we all are inextricably part of nature and because of that, what we create is also inextricably natural...

when water molecules organize themselves into a snowflake, do we consider their new form unnatural? Termites build constructions, Ravens use tools to crack open nuts...
Birds organize nests- we design skyscrapers- all from the materials in our environment... we're just better at manipulating them.

To think that our efforts are 'unnatural' is either arrogant or unnecessarily self-deprecating, and part of the reason we've laid waste to our world- we perceive ourselves as separate.

though I love the idea of 4'33"... what a nice thing to do- present a moment for his listeners to stop and listen to what's going on in our own realm... mind, living room, body.

May 13 | Unregistered Commentersherry-lee

The sound of a musician panicking as she realises that the sounds he makes are only equal to all the other sounds of the universe. It's a good sound, the sound of that perceived hierarchy falling!

Is there some basic lack of self confidence here? Throw your noises out into the atmosphere and let them struggle with all the other noises. Don't confuse industrialisation of sound with music. Turning it into maths doesn't make it better. Understanding it doesn't improve the experience of hearing it, although it does help if you're trying to sell it.

Perhaps some people are more afraid of loud bangs than others so they need someone else to say, 'it's alright, it's just an avant-garde muso playing around...'

The beauty of music is it needs no explanation. It's just amusing to watch and listen to Cage's journey and you don't need a degree to do that. But I guess for every ten cowboys there will always be an observing city slicker writing it down for the folks back home. Yeeha!

May 14 | Registered CommenterTim London

The beauty of music is it needs no explanation.

I like a fuzzy, unclear definition for music. Music is a subjective thing. A person's definition of music really depends on his or her experiences, knowledge, personal tastes, emotions, and preferences. Some metalheads probably don't consider pop to be "real music." Some Americans probably think African drum music is dumb.

If you enjoy listening to and capturing (recording) the random chance sounds that occur in nature because it evokes certain emotions, I don't think its too unreasonable to classify those collections of sounds as music.

The sounds that we tune out whilst listening to "real music" from our iPods can actually be very interesting. Hell, record the sound of a tree falling and use it on your next album. I'd love to hear it.

I've never understood the concept of different tonalities, though it may simply be because I'm missing the proper definition of tonality. Harmonics are based upon the physical characteristics of waves and wavelengths, which have no cultural bias.

Other than Gamelan music and a few other indigenous examples from southeast asia, I was under the impression that non-western scales were simply based around different tonal scales. Where the major scale sounds like a "normal" "vanilla" scale to us, it sounds exotic to others. But I don't think that the actual tonal relationships between the notes change.

Still, much of experimental music does not seem to explore this idea as much as it does dissonance and atonality. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that extreme dissonance is largely a post-modern, western, function of music. Of couse you have examples of the use of dissonance in music from all over the world, like Sitar ragas, but thats not in the same ballpark as your John Zorn noise blasts.

Experimental music seems quite western in its origins, even if it is inspired by world music, or an attempt to strip music of idiomatic context.

May 14 | Unregistered CommenterJustin

The best definition I've ever heard of music is "organized sound". If the intention is to not organize, well, you still have organization, because you have done things in such a way so as to achieve something.

Anyway, Cage -- a guy I know very little about -- seems to be intent on creating music according to his own subjective point of view, which is what any musician does. The key question: do you like it? If so, listen away, if not, next! Also, Cage seems to be intent on defining music for all the rest of us. All I can say is, "Good luck, pal."

This came out this week.

Harmonious minds: The hunt for universal music - life - 10 May 2010 - New Scientist

The research hasn't pinned a lot down, though.

having read a lot of books about cage/with cage, i can only assume that you probably haven't read enough to fully understand what he was doing/trying to do. you're taking things he said/wrote out of context or neglecting other things he said/done to completely paint the picture...

May 17 | Unregistered Commenterwim

'In this statement he reveals his belief that untouched nature is the highest form of artistic existence and that we, as part of nature, are at our highest level of artistic expression when we reflect that which occurs in nature.'

what this can neglect is that like it or not, we are nature. and to a degree being fairly top of the food chain we can define what nature is. i would suggest that 4.33 is no less a piece of music than anything else. at it's base level it is written as such. the mere fact that it has continued to create discussion on what we class, nevermind 'define', as music is neither here nor there. the only organised sound as such in the piece is the non-performance where you can either listen to the 'nothing' or the detritus of the orchestra 'unplaying' a song s such. 4.33 is the closest point we have to reaching -147degree kelvin (or whatever is the value is) in musical terms. it is at once in it's non-existance and complete existance more extreme than anything else released as such.

then again, if we want to get all academic about it we can just piss into the wind.

May 17 | Unregistered CommenterLord Diesel

Who are you to define what music is or isn't? Who is anybody?

If a tree falls in the woods it most certainly can be music.

"to be a sound or a collection of sounds" is about as close as we can get to defining music.

Music for you is noise for someone else and vice versa. You'll only continue to exhaust yourself if you keep trying to define music as black or white.

May 18 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor

"We are creatures of purpose, meaning and form, and we are drawn to music that affirms that reality."

Stop saying we

May 18 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor

Groundbreaking "art" tends to get us talking. The importance of the first piece is often conceptual. So if it challenges us to think in different ways, it leaves its mark.

Most creative works are made to be accessible, so they aren't necessarily groundbreaking art, but the average person can enjoy them.

If 4’33” falls into the first category but not the second, it has still accomplished its goal.

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