What is music? Silence and Sound
Organize a live performance of composer John Cage’s piece 4’33” in the school music room (or watch with your students one of the many online videos of it). Cage’s work, which was composed for any instrument and consists of the musician playing nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds, has three movements – the first is thirty seconds, the second two minutes and twenty-three seconds, and the third is one minute and forty seconds. The performer uses a stopwatch to time the movements.
Ask the students to be perfectly silent during the performance and to reflect about what’s going on. Pretty quickly, the students realize that the point is that the musician doesn’t play anything. Once the performance ends, broach some of the following questions:
- What is music?
- Is there some quality that anything considered music must have?
- Can any sound count as music?
- Does all music express emotion?
- Is whatever music expresses in the music itself? In the composer? In us, the listeners?
- What makes music pleasurable?
- Why do we listen to sad music?
You can tell the students that the audience that witnessed the first performance of this piece in Woodstock, New York, in 1952, whispered, walked out, and burst into an infuriated uproar at the end.
After that premiere, John Cage said,
“They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. 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.”
John Cage considered this piece to be a “listening experience.” Ask the students what they heard during the performance. Usually students point out all kinds of sounds that they heard in the room, to which they would not otherwise have paid attention.
Does the piece count as music? Students tend to be pretty divided in their views about that question.
This lesson plan, created by Jana Mohr Lone, is part of a series of lesson plans in Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in Schools, by Jana Mohr Lone and Michael D. Burroughs (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).