Existentialist Alert: What is music? What is silence?

As a music student, people are always curious to ask me what kind of music I listen to, and the question always stumps me. For one thing, there’s a lot of different genres that I listen to. I have quite the long list of Spotify playlists. But for another thing, I’ve often found myself neglecting my playlists in favor of listening to a sort of music that most people don’t consider music at all. I’ve been listening to silence.

“Oh, I see where you’re going with this. You’re a John Cage fan.”

The man called John Cage is best known for his controversial composition titled 4’33”. Before this piece, it was unheard of that a musician might go on stage and sit with their instrument… only to not play it and simply leave after a predetermined time. Cage later explained that the content of the piece was actually every sound that the audience heard during the course of four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Every cough, whisper, and crinkle of candy wrappers was a part of the piece. People complained and argued, and some people believe that 4’33” is not music. However, there are many that do.

NPR: 33 Musicians on What John Cage Communicates

For me, I believe that John Cage’s compositions, particularly 4’33”, highlight the vast potential in auditory art by opening our ears to the basic building blocks of music. Music is everything, and everything is music. So while there’s a lot to be appreciated on Spotify, sometimes I’ll just listen to the music around me. As Cage says, there’s no such thing as silence.

Breaking habits, transcending theory, I’m not a part of the system, dude!

As a society, we have certain “musical habits” (to speak in Cageian terms) that prescribe how we view music, and sound in general. Musical habits are things like scales, harmony, and notation. These are some of the concepts and systems that we use to evaluate music. John Cage recommends that we attempt to discard these habits in order to open our minds to the wider possibilities of sound. In other words, we should stop thinking about music in terms of perfect fifths and cadences, of four-four time, quarter notes and eighth notes. When we free our minds from the musical habits of our culture, we free ourselves to discover new kinds of music all around us.

It’s like if you were in the habit of taking the exact same route to work each morning. It’s a beautiful route, and every day it’s slightly different. One day it’s raining, and the next day it’s sunny, and the next day it’s bustling with tourists for a holiday. There are so many possible ways that your route might manifest itself, but it’s still the same route. There are infinite other routes to work that you could take instead, if you broke your habit, and all of those other routes have so many possibilities as well. While you may be content with your habitual route, you ultimately limit yourself. What would it be like if you leapt from rooftop to rooftop as your morning commute?

It’s just the same with music. Over millennia, we have constructed this intricate system of music theory which has given us a way to create beautiful music. But it’s only one way. It’s all well and good to learn the tried and true methods, but it’s worth considering what might happen if we start from the very very basics. Take a moment to listen to the rustling of the bushes as a squirrel runs by, or the footsteps of passersby in an echoing hallway, or the creaking and soft whoosh as your mother opens the window to let the fresh air inside.

Try listening to these soundscapes:

Breezy Field: The wind sings a deep melody, harmonized by the rustle of grass.
Kitchen: The blinds rattle against the windowpane, but what is that other sound?
Dog Walk: My dog performs a brief, mournful solo in this piece, lamenting that I won’t let her chase that crow.

What, you don’t think air raid sirens are music?

I enjoy listening to orchestrated ambiences online. There are some people who imagine a location, real or fictional, and create audio to simulate what it might sound like to be in that place. It’s an emulation of the natural ambiences that we encounter wherever we are. I enjoy it because I’m tapping into the things that I hear in a different way than before. I’m appreciating the sounds of an environment, and considering the specific sounds in a specific spot at a specific time to be music of its own, unique to a moment.

Each and every moment can never be replicated. We can try to construct a similar experience, but it will never be the same the second time, or the third time. We will be in a different place, with new memories and new possibilities. For this reason, every sound that occurs in every moment is special by virtue of its individuality. That sound, even if it’s replicated or recorded and played back, will never be the same again.

It might follow, in that case, that orchestrated soundscapes are of less value simply because they are orchestrated, but they are just of different value. I see them as love letters to natural soundscapes, nicely cleaned up and predictable for our ears. They represent something that’s rare, if not impossible to find in nature. That’s what’s so wonderful about art. We can make it as realistic or idealized, as abstract or literal as we want. It can be anything.

Maybe I’m just a hippie Cageian elitist, but…

I still see the value in the different genres of music. So many individual lives have been touched and affected by the great creation that is music, as it is perceived by the public. I am not discounting the sense of validation and discovery to be found in rhyming, rhythmic lyricism, or the raw experience that transcends words which can be induced by the expressive dynamics and harmonies of our lovingly crafted instruments. But even with all of that beauty, there is still more to be found. There is limitless potential in this world, potential for negativity, but also, and this is key, potential for beauty. It only requires us to flip a switch in our heads.


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