4’33 Deconstructing Music through the Life of John Cage

Music has been in our system for quite some time now. It is a wonder that it still plays a huge part in our daily lives. During travels on the road, we would usually turn on the radio and shift from station to station to listen to the kind of music we like, whether it be the catchy contemporary songs or the soothing classics while we’re stuck in traffic.

Music is something that you cannot box into a single definition. Technically, it is an artistic expression in the form of sounds that, when combined, produce rhythm, harmony and melody. More than that, it has the power to captivate the mind, heart and soul of even those who don’t have the gift to make their own music.

The foundation of any good music lies in the creator. There can be no music without the musician. This blog post would like to focus on one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century — John Cage.

If you think music is all about jamming, notes, sounds, harmonies, and melodies, then you may need to get that mindset out of your system. John Cage, also known as John Milton Cage Jr., was an American composer that redefined the beauty and meaning of music. He was especially renowned for his three-movement piece entitled “4’33”.

People usually interpret the performance as 4 minutes and 33 seconds of absolute silence, but it was originally designed for John Cage and his fellow musicians to do nothing throughout the time as specified by the title. There were simply no music, no sounds, no instruments — just their presence.

Of course, everyone was baffled. Why weren’t the musicians playing? Was the music coming any time soon? Given our pre-established notions of music, we may then ask, where was the music in all that silence?

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“They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence,” said John Cage during the premier of the piece back in 1952. “What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
(from Richard Kostelanetz’s Conversing with John Cage (2003), via Wikipedia).

John Cage intentionally arranged the piece with an absence of all music and instruments because his inspiration stems from his personal encounter with East and South Asian cultures. Influential musicians such as Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg played an important part in Cage’s quest for deconstructing music, but it was essentially his studies on Zen Buddhism and Chinese and Indian philosophy that urged him to provide a different perspective in music. This was what led him to the concept of Aleatoric music.

Cage’s “4’33” is an example of aleatory music in which the composer somehow lets the music happen by chance. John CageThe musicians don’t have any impact on the piece because it relishes the unpredictability of music through the process of random selection of elements. Upon studying the Chinese classical texts, chance music became his standard for the rest of his compositions.

A lot of music experts and critics claim that Cage’s “4’33” symbolizes how music can transcend the constructed social norms and realities during his time. The 20th century was an era when the attempt to arrange and structure music was popular among composers. However, John Cage was lauded for his way of breaking away from social standards through the removal and absence of the composer from his music.

Although John Cage may have faded into oblivion among 21st century music enthusiasts, his music has redefined the way we listen to music. We just haven’t realized it yet. Music is not all about the capacity of sounds to touch the hearts of an audience, but it is also about waking our souls to the life around us, which is sometimes achievable by finding the music in our every day silence.

That’s why our blog aims to redefine the meaning of music, as well. Any music lover will enjoy the opportunity to write about their favorite topics and themes in music. Writing about our favorite musicians from various timelines is just one of the many topics we have here.

What Happened to the Symphony?

Could you still remember that time when people would put on extravagant gowns and coattails, wear their immaculate white powdered wigs, walk or ride a carriage to the theater, and listen quietly in their seats to the music of a large, powerful, symphonic orchestra?

Those days have seemingly completely passed us by. Aside from fashion changes (wigs, really?), barely anybody looks forward to hearing a symphony. Nowadays, people want to listen to music, which is more upbeat, something we could dance to and sing along with, something that is more entertaining.

However, the symphony was not willing to die down quietly. You may not realize it, but we can actually hear symphonies – yes, even new ones – today.

What exactly is a “symphony”? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a long piece of music that […] is usually played by an orchestra.” Many people today look at the orchestra with a strange mix of admiration and pity. It is a prestigious group, and beautiful to look at (especially professional orchestras), but many feel like it is a dying industry. In the recent years, more and more orchestras have been shut down by patrons and by government institutions due to lack of funding and support.


Two of the more “news-worthy” groups that have experienced this are The European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO), and practically the entire arts and culture department in Brazil, which was dissolved and placed under a different ministry earlier this 2016. There are many more groups that shut down without reaching the eyes and ears of the international music community, and their loss is probably only minimally mourned, which is a shame. Orchestral music is a part of our culture and history, and we should take care of it.

However, we digress; let us return to the symphony. The symphony as we know it was created some time in the 18th century. It played a lot of roles in the public sphere, such as during church services. However, its strongest role was to play for the aristocracy. Vienna, which was the seat of classical music at that time, had hundreds of noble families. These families made it a point to support musical establishments to show off their wealth and good taste.

Many promising composers, orchestral groups and instrumentalists were funded by such noblemen. The orchestra evolved from a group of random available instrumentalists to a more rigid ensemble with a specific number of specific instruments divided into sections. The symphony also evolved from any long piece of complex music into variations of a four-movement form, consisting of an opening allegro sonata, a slow movement (adagio), a scherzo or minuet, and a final rondo, allegro or sonata.

In the 19th century, Beethoven elevated the symphony from mere everyday music into a supreme form of musical composition, which musicians and composers alike strove towards. It’s no wonder, many of Beethoven’s symphonies, such as the Fifth and the Ninth symphonies, are alive even to this day. The romantics of this century, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Saint-Saens, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky continued the epic music Beethoven made famous. These names became standard among concert repertoire for much of that century.

Sometime in the early 20th century, the TV was invented and changed the world of entertainment. The Walt Disney Company was also founded soon after and provided many populations with beloved tales and music. It was during this time that orchestral geniuses such as Mahler, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Schoenberg began making their names. Unfortunately, symphonic music stared declining in the mid- to latter-part of the 20th century when bands and groups such as the Beatles and ABBA made their names. Unwilling to die so quickly, symphonies started appearing on cartoons, such as Disney’s Silly Symphonies, Disney’s Fantasia, and on a few Bugs Bunny shows.

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Since then, there was not much new that happened in this face of the music industry. People’s tastes changed, people wanted music that was physically (rather than purely mentally) stimulating, and the music grew with the times.

Is the symphony really gone? Have we reached a dead end after the geniuses of the 20th century? Many musicologists and music lovers don’t think so. This is what they propose: symphonic music has changed face, but its main form, function and purpose remains the same. Symphonic music, they say, has evolved into orchestral film soundtracks.

It does not seem too far off, does it? Listen to the works of John Williams (Jurassic Park, Star Wars and Schindler’s List), James Horner (Glory, Avatar), Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean, Mission Impossible and Batman), Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings), Ennio Morricone (The Mission, Cinema Paradiso) and the like. Their music is complex, performed by an orchestra, and tells a story through sound.

People dress up – albeit without the wigs – go to the theater, and watch and listen attentively to the movie. Many such movie themes have become classic favorites of people who may or may not have seen the original movie. Try singing or humming the first part of the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme – it would be a miracle if nobody around you will recognize it and possibly either smile at you or strike a conversation!

Symphonic music is not dead. Lately, it has just changed forms and goes around under a different name without us realizing it. The orchestra is as integral to our lives as it ever has been. The difference is that whereas in times past people had to plan when and where they could listen to music, now, we can just plug in our headphones and whip out our beloved soundtracks.

That is what happened to the symphony.