Musical Silence

303 okuma

Have you ever thought that the noise is an indicator of order? How can a noise create a pattern? We even call the birth of the universe “the big bang”. Noise does not only create itself by suppressing other sounds, even in mythology it was considered as a source of life and order. 

The theory called “order through the noise” designed by the Shannon and von Neumann is based on identifying the conditions under which noise will also become a message. As in ancient civilizations, this theory states that it is insufficient for noise to only block other sounds to create a message. More is required. For this, it is necessary to create a new one instead of a collapsed order. Thus, a new meaning is formed, and a new message can be conveyed. Therefore, the new order is born out of the noise. Throughout history, noise is the voice of both the strong and the weak. Besides, it is the desire to change and recreate the order. It is a search for an order. Over time, music served as a silencer for censoring noise.

While in ancient societies music was a form of power, it was used to convince or silence those who opposed the order: the rebels were silent, the music was strong. The voices were silent when there was music, or the messages intended to be given sounded more convincing. What if music consists of silence?

The answer is hiding here. John Cage, the American composer of the contemporary period in music did this: he created musical silence. Unlike the strengths and weaknesses abovementioned, the idea that Cage thought was that music and silence were two elements that complement each other.

Based on this, he composed a piece called 4’33. As the name suggests, the work lasted four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It consists of three movements and was composed “for any instruments or combination of instruments” as it is written in the note sheet. There is a reason that why this piece is suitable for every instrument. The fact, in this work of Cage, the performer sits quietly for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

John Cage, 4’33 (In Proportional Notation)1952/1953

Cage’s thinking gave rise to new perspectives. One of the most important points underlying this musical silence was to make both the listener and the performer think. The composer reflected on the concepts of perceiving the gaps between beings, relativity, and experience, and then he was quite intrigued. Furthermore, he conducted an experiment in an anechoic chamber where all sounds were absorbed, and the result he encountered was that he heard two sounds of different loudness. The first one was his blood circulation sound and the higher one was that came from his nervous system in operation.

When he realized this idea in 1952, some of the audiences were strange and could not grasp this phenomenon. What he wanted to tell in his 4’33 piece was that musical silence was not pure silence in the full sense. Performing and listening to a piece of work brings a new dimension both to the listener and to the performer. The physical effects of the real world that we are in will inevitably reflect on himself and the audience, even though the performer moves to another world spiritually while playing the piece and tries to bring the audience into that imaginary world as well. At the same time, Cage has moved to the most basic idea here, showing that humans and nature combine to form sound, music, and listener. Another purpose of this work was that it emphasized duration rather than harmony. As it can be noticed, this piece had a multi-layered meaning.

John Cage’s 4’33 received some complaints that it could be a musical notation but not music. However, it was a stream of thoughts that he wanted to create here. John Cage said that “Every something is an echo of nothing.”


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Chilingirian, S., Hall, G., Hayes, M., Lankester, M., Lutchmayer, K., Mcgowan, K., Ogano, K., Rashbrook, S., Reitz, C., L., Rutherford-Johnson, T., Shirley, H., 2019. Klasik Müzik Kitabı. ALFA Publishing, pp 304-305.

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Campbell, M., 1992. John Cage’s 4’33”: Using Aesthetic Theory to Understand a Musical Notion. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 26(1), 90. doi:10.2307/3332730


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