This will be the final post in this series.
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 the emotion that music expresses in the music itself? In the composer? In us, the listeners?
What makes music pleasurable to listen to?
Why do we listen to sad music?
This week I invited Lynette Westendorf, a local pianist and composer, to visit our philosophy sessions to perform John Cage’s 4’33” and to join the conversation with the students and me about the nature of music. We met in the school band room, and we began by asking the students to consider the above questions, which I wrote on the board, as they listened to Cage’s piece. Lynette talked a little about Cage and his work, and then sat at the piano to perform the piece.
It was interesting to watch the students try to figure out what was going on as Lynette raised and lowered the piano lid at various intervals to mark the beginnings and ends of the movements. After 4 minutes and 33 seconds, she stood and bowed. In both classes in which we did this, the twenty plus students had all been incredibly respectful and quiet, and as she bowed they applauded.
First, I asked the students what they were thinking while Lynette was performing the piece. They had various answers — “I thought she was preparing for a really long time to start playing.” “I thought that she was doing some kind of spiritual preparation before starting.” “I thought that maybe she was having an anxiety attack.” — but all said that they had realized eventually that the point was that she would not play anything. I told the students that they were a far better and more accepting audience than the audience that first witnessed the performance of this piece in Woodstock, New York, in 1952, who whispered, walked out, and burst into an infuriated uproar at the end.
I told the students that John Cage considered this piece to be a “listening experience.” What did they hear? They heard, they said, “the shuffling of feet,” “the sound of the piano lid,” “the movement of bodies in chairs,” and “the humming of the room.”
Does the piece count as music?
The students were pretty divided in their views about that. A couple of students argued that it was music because the movements were timed and there was a lot of sound to which to listen.
One student said, “Yes, the piece is music because it is the sound of the world.”
Other students asserted that just because there are sounds doesn’t mean something is music.
One student took a book and dropped it on the floor, and asked, “Is this music?”
“Well,” said another student, “it could be. It depends on whether it is recognized as music.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I think music exists when it is acknowledged as music. Anything can become music if it is understood by someone to be music.”
Other students claimed that to be music, there must be rhythm and it must be intentional. Does music have to be intentional? Lynette noted that Cage’s view was that it was not necessary for music to be intentional. Part of what he was trying to demonstrate with 4’33” is that music is already present in the world in the form of sounds that we often do not hear, like rain falling or a room humming.
We talked about how of all the arts, music was probably the form most central to human experience. One student pointed out that for most people, not a day goes by that we do not hear music in some form. And yet, we agreed, it is completely mysterious. Why do people like some forms of music and not others? Why does it make us feel so strongly? Can any sound be music? What really defines this art form about which many of us feel so passionately?

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Rob, about your questions regarding my classes: this year I will be working with 6th and 8th grade students. The 8th grade classes will begin this winter.

Yes, I have been working with these 6th grade students since kindergarten. Each year I work with all of the students in the grade, so although there is a different combination of students in the various classrooms each year I still get to work with all of the students. It helps that this is a Philosophy in the Schools program in which I come into the classroom to work with the students. What I do doesn’t at all depend on teachers wanting to do philosophy with their classes — my work with the students only requires the teachers to allow for the time for philosophy.

It really has been gratifying to see the growth in philosophical skills over the years with this group. I meet with the students every week, for about 45 minutes in each class, for part of each year (the length varies, but generally for about half the year, sometimes longer). We have created some art as part of the unit we’ve been doing this fall — I just haven’t scanned anything into the blog yet, but it is on my list of things to do!

Thanks, Brian, for your nice words!


Brian Olewnick

Lovely piece, Jana.

From the photo, the children look to be about 10? I hope that experiences like this one mitigate against their aesthetic views ossifying in the next few years, at least in some cases.

Good job!


Hi -sorry it so long to respond- (I tend to move at glacial speed.)-yes, the philosophy club meets all year. Right now my students are working on the philosophy slam competition. I will be restructuring the club second semester- the design is rather fluid.

I have e-mailed other teachers to join in the conversation. Hey, guys please join in!

I have a few questions about your middle school philosophy students:
1. You mentioned you were working with two 6th grade classes; are you working with any other grade levels?
2. I’m under the impression that you have been working with these students for a number of years-at least I think I read somewhere on your blog that you have been working with the same group of students since kindergarten? Is this correct? One of the problems, we’ve encountered is that we will have a teacher who will work with her class on philosophical inquiry one year, however the next year, these students will be shuffled and moved to different classes- only a few from that class will be remain together. (Unfortunately not every staff member has embraced P4C [this is rather an understatement!]) It must be incredible to see the growth of this community of students over a multi-year span. How have you managed to achieve this?
3. How often and long do you meet with the students?

The discussion that you had with your students regarding if plants have feelings -are plants sentient; I find very interesting and can’t imagine how much fun it was to facilitate this discussion with 6th grade students. The response”if people have feelings that are unexpressed, why should the fact that plants don’t express feelings lead us to conclude the plants don’t have them?” a very nice move-have you worked with informal logic with this group?

Are the students creating any visual or musical works stemming from the discussions? If so, could you scan a few into the blog? Do you have any videos of the dialogues that could be streamed into the site? I would love to see them and I’m sure that my students would be interested in seeing works generated from philosophical inquiry.

I found their three sources for expression in art to be very astute:
1. feelings generated by the artist
2. feelings that are part of the painting itself-did they elaborate on paintings embodying emotions independent of the maker or viewer-an interesting concept.
3. feelings in us causing us to respond in a certain way to particular piece art

I see there is a new post on music-can’t wait to read it!