We all know music when we hear it — or at least we think we do — but how, exactly, do we define it? “Imagine you’re in a jazz club, listening to the rhythmic honking of horns,” says the narrator of the animated TED-Ed video above. “Most people would agree that this is music. But if you were on the highway, hearing the same thing, many would call it noise.” Yet the closer we get to the boundary between music and noise, the less clear it gets. The composer John Cage, to whose work this video provides an introduction, spent his long career in those very borderlands: he “gleefully dared listeners to question the boundaries between music and noise, as well as sound and silence.”
The best-known example of this larger endeavor is “4’33”,” Cage’s 1952 “solo piano piece consisting of nothing but musical rests for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.” Though known as a “silent” composition, it actually makes its listeners focus on all the incidental sounds around them: “Could the opening and closing of a piano lid be music? What about the click of a stopwatch? The rustling, and perhaps even the complaining, of a crowd?”
A few years later, he implicitly asked similar questions about what does and does not count as music to television viewers across America by performing “Water Walk” — whose instruments included “a bathtub, ice cubes, a toy fish, a pressure cooker, a rubber duck, and several radios” — on CBS’ I’ve Got a Secret.
Many who watched that broadcast in 1960 would have asked the same question: “Is this even music?” This may have well have been the outcome for which Cage himself hoped. “Like the white canvases of his painting peers” in that same era, his work “asked the audience to question their expectations about what music was.” As he explored more and more deeply into the territory of unconventional methods of instrumentation, notation, and performance, he drifted farther and farther from the composer’s traditional task: “to organize sound in time for a specific intentional purpose.” Seven decades after “4’33”,” some still insist that John Cage’s work isn’t music — but then, some say the same about Kenny G.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.