John Cage on Silence

John_Milton_Cage_JrJohn Cage [1912 – 1992] was an American composer, music theorist, writer, philosopher and provocative artist.

He published  Silence in 1961, which included lectures and writings from the period 1939-1958.  These are extracts from the 50th Anniversary Edition of Silence.


There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.

Cage then talks about his experience in the anechoic chamber, which I include in my description of my time in the anechoic chamber.  Just before this, he had written of the concept of sounds that are notated, and sounds that are not, and makes reference to other 20th century modernists.

For in this new music nothing takes place but sounds: those that are notated and those that are not. Those that are not notated appear in the written music as silences, opening the doors of the music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment. This openness exists in the fields of modern sculpture and architecture. The glass houses of Mies van der Rohe reflect their environment, presenting to the eye images of clouds, trees, or grass, according to the situation.

And here, Cage proposes that sound is the opposite of silence, but that the only reference point available is duration.  This could have been an interesting discussion to have with Cage, for ‘duration’ is linked to another construct – ‘time’.

For, when, after convincing oneself ignorantly that sound has, as its clearly defined opposite, silence, that since duration is the only characteristic of sound that is measurable in terms of silence, therefore any valid structure involving sounds and silences should be based, not as occidentally traditional, on frequency, but rightly on duration …

Again, following his experience in the anechoic chamber, he reflects on that ‘situation’ …

… the situation one is clearly in is not objective (sound-silence), but rather subjective (sounds only), those intended and those others (so-called silence) not intended. If, at this point, one says, “Yes! I do not discriminate between intention and non-intention,” the splits, subject-object, art-life, etc., disappear, an identification has been made with the material, and actions are then those relevant to its nature, i.e.

A sound does not view itself as thought, as ought, as needing another sound for its elucidation, as etc.; it has no time for any consideration— it is occupied with the performance of its characteristics: before it has died away it must have made perfectly exact its frequency, its loudness, its length, its overtone structure, the precise morphology of these and of itself.

Cage gives sound an almost anthropomorphic quality, a life of its own.  He constructs a deliberately composed prose, with “silences” reprsented as gaps in the page, where words are absent … in the same way as he perceives silence simply as sound being absent …

What happens, for instance, to silence? That is, how does the mind’s perception of it change? Formerly, silence was the time lapse between sounds, useful towards a variety of ends, among them that of tasteful arrangement, where by separating two sounds or two groups of sounds their differences or relationships might re-ceive emphasis; or that of expressivity, where silences in a musical discourse might provide pause or punctuation; or again, that of architecture, where the introduction or interruption of silence might give definition either to a predetermined structure or to an organically developing one.

And in summary perhaps …

These sounds (which are called silence only because they do not form part of a musical intention) may be depended upon to exist. The world teems with them, and is, in fact, at no point free of them.

In reference to a compositional piece Sixteen Dances and Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, Cage draws reference to the Chinese oracle the I Ching (Book of Changes) which consists of 64 ‘hexagrams’ or arrangements for the purpose of divination, essentially a binary system.

Charts were also used for the Music of Changes, but in contrast to the method which involved chance operations, these charts were subjected to a rational control: of the sixty-four elements in a square chart eight times eight (made in this way in order to interpret as sounds in the oracle of the Chinese Book of Changes) thirty-two were sounds, thirty-two silences. The thirty-two sounds were arranged in two squares one above the other, each four by four.

One of Cage’s pieces is a list of 32 questions … and near the end … the topic of silence is proposed.

Is there such a thing as silence? Even if I get away from people, do I still have to listen to something? Say I’m off in the woods, do I have to listen to a stream babbling? Is there always something to hear, never any peace and quiet? If my head is full of harmony, melody, and rhythm, what happens to me when the telephone rings, to my piece and quiet, I mean? And if it was European harmony, melody, and rhythm in my head, what has happened to the history of, say, Javanese music, with respect, that is to say, to my head? Are we getting anywhere asking questions? Where are we going? Is this the twenty-eighth question? Are there any important questions?

When in Belgium he was asked a question about the avante-garde music of the time.  His answer included a mention of silence in composition [capitalisation by Cage].


In 1949, Cage published an exposition of his views on music.

The purpose of music

Music is edifying, for from time to time it sets the soul in operation. The soul is the gatherer-together of the disparate elements (Meister Eckhart), and its work fills one with peace and love.


Structure in music is its divisibility into successive parts from phrases to long sections. Form is content, the continuity. Method is the means of controlling the continuity from note to note. The material of music is sound and silence. Integrating these is composing.

Further along in this exposition is a reference to teaching and learning music, with praise for Satie and Webern, and a series of footnotes, including this one:

Sound has four characteristics: pitch, timbre, loudness, and duration. The opposite and necessary coexistent of sound is silence. Of the four characteristics of sound, only duration involves both sound and silence. Therefore, a structure based on durations (rhythmic: phrase, time lengths) is correct (corresponds with the nature of the material), whereas harmonic structure is incorrect (derived from pitch, which has no being in silence).

I think this example provides the key to understanding some of Cage’s views on silence, though it does not mention silence.

For it is the space and emptiness that is finally urgently necessary at this point in history (not the sounds that happen in it— or their relationships) (not the stones— thinking of a Japanese stone garden— or their relationships but the emptiness of the sand which needs the stones anywhere in the space in order to be empty).

We need silence so that sound can exist? No. We need sound so that silence can exist and be appreciated.  And again, he differentiates sound from silence …

To repeat: a sound has four characteristics: frequency, amplitude, timbre and duration. Silence (ambient noise) has only duration.

And silence for Cage is “ambient noise”.  Perhaps this is most clearly expressed in his provocative 4’33”.  This is a piece for solo piano, lasting 4 minutes 33 seconds.  The pianist approaches the piano, lifts the lid, places the score on the piano and there is one notation – tacet … silent.  Then, 4 minutes 33 seconds later, the piano is closed and the pianist leaves the stage.  All that is present in that time is the ambient sound of the audience.

Cage in essence says there is not such thing as silence.  In 4’33” the audience is left to revel in its own subtle sounds and to realise, perhaps, that silence doesn’t actually exist.

And in one more layer of Cage’s thinking on silence, in a few of his compositions is the compelling instruction to the musician:

Play until you feel the presence of silence.

His Lecture on Nothing appears in the book in this form:

lecture on nothing

Perhaps the most powerful section for me is simply:

cage silence poem


Alex Ross Searching for Silence The New Yorker October 4, 2010

Image of John Cage from WikiCommons