Role of sound and silence in the ideas and compositions of John Cage

Role of sound and silence in the ideas and compositions of John Cage



Sound and silence in Cage’s works. 2

Emotional arousal 3

Spiritual awakening. 4

Conclusion. 6

References. 7



The essay discusses the role of sound and silence in the ideas and composition of John Cage. Sound is discussed as being equal, if not more powerful in communicating deeper messages to the listener. The silence was used to magnify sounds in other cases. Sound and silence were also used creatively to pattern music and give it its rhythm.  In other cases, it achieved emotional feelings and spiritual messages that are discussed below.

Sound and silence in Cage’s works

The silence was used widely in Jon Cage’s performances to achieve specified objectives and only those that could be performed by an artist. Silence is used to get attention of the audience, capture it and direct their mind to the performance that is about to take place. Silence allows the audience to think and relate the performance with some kind of importance that is supposed to be exuded from the performance. Silence is not common in western culture and whenever it is used by people that are not accustomed to it, it tends to create tension and alertness, especially in formal places such as halls where serious business is expected. In 4,33’’, one of Cage’s most famous performances, silence is used widely. Tudor, the pianist opened the keyboard cover severally and closes it without playing a key before finally walking away. John Cage’s work was popular in the postwar era where. This avant-gardism attracted discussion from various analysts at that time to the present day. in one way, Cage achieved the intended goal.

According to Weagel (2010), silence is a powerful tool used in music and whenever it was used, it was not really silent as might be assumed by those not aware of the technique. Pauses and rests were as important as words and notes in music, they were used purposely to achieve the desired purpose. Silence and music were tools used in music that was used to achieve a certain perception rather than conception by the audience. Silence did not mean silence to Cage, it has a message although this message needed to be understood by all audiences for it to have significance. In some cases, it was noted that silence had a deeper and heavier message compared to sound. However, it seemed that silence on its own could not achieve the intended message. Silence needed to be perceived as part of the sound for it to be productive. This is true in cases where sound and silence were patterned in such a manner that the beauty of the message was achieved. Thus. silence and sounds have been used to achieve the structure and composition of music Cage’s works.

Sound, like in all music where it is used, achieved the goal of emotional arousal as well as other effects of music. Pritchett (1993) observed that the use of silence interjected by lapses of sound was used in a manner that made music flexible and possible to achieve a number of effects such as concerto as was seen in Concerto for Prepared Piano. There was no continuity in some of the sounds that were produced and being individual and independent, they did not bring out the usual pattern that is expected. There was an individual message that was intended. Silence, he noted were sounds that were not intended.

Nicholls (2012) further explained that silence is part of the sound and this was from the four main characteristics of sound: pitch, timbre, loudness, and duration. The last part, duration has the component of sound and silence where phrase and time lengths are used to get rhythms of music. This is a structure that is unique to every piece of music.

Emotional arousal

Wallace (2011) noted that there are different types of silence used by different artists. For Quaker, it was used to express a feeling of intense spirituality but for John Cage, this was used mainly to express mood and feelings of distress for lovers in the context of 4’33”. However, these differences are hard to notice and distinguish for listeners that were not introduced to the background and context of the music. The use of silence in the case of Cage was noted to be awkward and this was because it was used differently from others. This reference might not be true for the case of listeners that understood its purpose. Silence after a lovers’ quarrel might be due to the need to reflect on the enormity of the situation and the emotions that are aroused as a result.

Both sound and silence were sued in equal measure to express feelings that were echoed through passive listening. The music itself had the quality of being peaceful, democratic, and sometimes spiritual. These were values that were brought out in John Cage’s music. As was said above, sound and silence were used together. There is no culture, both Eastern and Western that used silence as part of music production but in this case, where these themes were expressed in sound, silence amplified them, making them more significant and dominant. Losseff and Doctor (2007) observed that Cage used silence for ambient music to enter into consciousness of listeners and this meant that the two were used together to complement each other. Wissmann (2014) noted that in symphonies, Cage used silence to “help strengthen impact of sound”. It implies there was a message that was passed across but for some reason, the artist was prompted to emphasize the message by using silence. In cases where listeners might pass the message like any that was used before, the silence was used to draw attention to this specific message, for them to reflect on what was said at that time. This way, silence is said to be part of the sound, used equally to convey and emphasize the message to the audience.

John Cage seemed to use silence differently from other users, as was suggested by Losseff and Doctor (2007. The two suggested that users such as Charles Ives used silence audibly. Listeners were aware of obvious silence in music, especially in cases where performers wanted to counteract the effects of noise from listeners. For John Cage, the silence was composed or “featured absence”.  It was used repeatedly and it made meaning so obvious to users.

Spiritual awakening

Care (2000) mentioned that silence was used alongside sounds to achieve the same goal. They were used creatively in a manner that enabled listeners to conceptualise and realise their selves. Self-realisation was achieved by Cage making people move from being the passive form of music to an active part where their experience of inner power within each individual. It was possible to do this by encouraging the audience to listen to the ambient sound rather than the sound of music (Reiss & McPherson, 2015). Listening to the environment rather than the instruments from which sound was generated might have intentions of people focusing on themselves or topical issues in that context.  Perloff and Junkerman (1664) noted that  Cage used silence to make the listeners more involved in understanding the music, much more active than listening to sound where the artist used sound to convey the music.

Silence, like sound, was used to express feelings, without which there would no way of doing so. Not many listeners, however, agree that the famous, 4’33” achieved the purpose of conveying feelings, provoking them to all that understood the work of art. According to Hermitary (2010), the feelings were conveyed but it not known with certainty whether Cage intended for them or not. Besides, not many agree that there were feelings that were conveyed and a failure to do so, then these performances failed in what art is supposed to achieve. This is not necessarily true. Art is subjective, it is a representation of cultural aspects which are interpreted differently by different people. For example, the understanding and interpretation of music by Thoreau, as explained by Bock (2008), is to gain transcendence. It is the conduit to Truth, which is the step explained below of self-realisation.  Perloff and Junkerman (1994) also noted that silence was an instrument cage used to connect with his predecessors. This is achieved by either silence or sound where music is used for spiritual awakening in a person. Thoreau was interpreting Cage’s works and other people had different interpretations of the same. John Cage used silence and sound severally and listeners aimed to understand the effect they had on them. However, when Cage noted that when he was in silence, it was the sound of the nervous system while the sound was from the bloodstream  (Reiss & McPherson, 2015, p. 258), it was in a way related to Thoreau’s assessment that nature’s soundness was means of connecting with inner self and illumination of the soul.

The connection of music to spirituality where sound and music featured prominently was perhaps mentioned by Cage himself in Variations VIII where he referred himself to an instrument or tool for realisation of ‘inner world’ (Fetterman, 2012). The unforeseen mystery created a great deal of concern and mystery to him, perhaps inspiring him to creatively use silence and sound in equal measure to guide his audience to the same realisation. Kaduri (Kaduri, 2016) explained that silence is not audible to human ears and people listening to John Cage’s music were forced to listen not to other external voices but to themselves.

Words used by John Cage were not unusual from the rest where the message was topical, sometimes including political climates where they were determined by words and ideas in music. The message as perceived by humans was more clear and more direct where words were interpreted by all listeners. Attinello, Halfyard and Knights. (2010) observed that silence was much more different. They gave a case where people have a moment of silence at funerals to honour the deceased. There are other cultures that still use stillness and quiet in both formal and informal rituals for the same reason that John Cage used it. They mainly use this approach to “reflect on truth, self-awareness, peace, human frailty and mortality” (pg. 92). According to Attinello et al. (2010) silence can also be used to indicate refusal to speak or protest as opposed to peace and muteness. It is a practice deep-rooted in some cultures where they prefer to keep some things hidden rather than communicating them verbally. Cage’s work was poetic and silence and sounds were all used for different purposes. The silence was famously used when the performer did not want to make intentional sounds. They are sometimes used to represent nothingness, loss of consciousness, and loss of subjectivity. Some of these were achieved by Cage in different contexts. 


John Cage, one of the art maestros in music used sound and silence in his works to achieve several purposes that were described. Sound, as in any piece of music has words and ideas that are spoken and communicated to the audience. Silence is much more complex. Silence did not mean the absence of sound but rather it was used as part of gaining musical rhythm. Deeper, it had other purposes such as arousing listeners to certain inner messages, referring them to their inner selves, and contemplating topical issues. In other cases, it was used to amplify sound.


Attinello, P. G., Halfyard, J. K., & Knights, V. (Eds.). (2010). Music, Sound and Silence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

Bock, J. (2008). Concord in Massachusetts, Discord in the World: The Writings of Henry . New York: Peter Lang.

Care, N. S. (2000). Decent People. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Fetterman, W. (2012). John Cage's Theatre Pieces. New York: Routledge.

Hermitary. (2010, January 31). John Cage: Music, Sound, and Silence.

Kaduri, Y. (2016). Sound and Image in Western Art. Oxford: OUP.

Losseff, N., & Doctor, J. R. (Eds.). (2007). Silence, Music, Silent Music. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Nicholls, D. (Ed.). (2012). The Cambridge Companion to John Cage. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Perloff, M., & Junkerman, C. (Eds.). (1664). John Cage: Composed in America. London: University of Chicago Press.

Pritchett, J. (1993). The Music of John Cage. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Reiss, J. D., & McPherson, A. (2015). Audio Effects: Theory, Implementation and Application. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Wallace, S. (2011). Contradictions of Archaeological Theory: Engaging Critical Realism and. New York: Routledge.

Weagel, D. F. (2010). Words and Music: Camus, Beckett, Cage, Gould. New York: Peter Lang.

Wissmann, T. (2014). Geographies of Urban Sound. New York: Routledge.



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