Exploring Music's Complexities

Introducing John Milton Cage, Jr.

John Milton Cage

The early road to contemporary music is paved with the works of John M. Cage, an American avanat-garde composer whose works display inventiveness and unorthodox ideas. A college dropout, Cage traveled to Europe where he fell in love with abstract art and music.  His career in music began by teaching ladies about Arnold Schoenberg and writing percussion music for dance companies (1).

Introduction to Contemporary Music

In the years that followed he abandoned the 12-tone method (A system of musical composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg between 1911 and 1922. ) and began writing compositions for unorthodox instruments such as the “prepared piano”.  He also experimented with tape recorders, record players, and radios, all of which allowed him to step outside conventional Western music. By 1936, he was on his way to becoming a leader of the American musical avant-garde. The percussion ensemble concert he held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1943 was the beginning of his emergence as a leader of the American musical avant-garde.

Effect of Eastern Philosophies

In the next years Cage studied Zen Buddhism along with other Eastern philosophies.  He concluded that music should be seen as a part of a single natural process.  This translated into the belief that all kinds of sounds are potentially musical. For Cage, the world was full of sounds never used before in music.  Given this conclusion, he developed the principle of indeterminism. “He used a number of devices to ensure randomness and thus eliminate any element of personal taste on the part of the performer: unspecified instruments and numbers of performers, freedom of duration of sounds and entire pieces, inexact notation, and sequences of events determined by random means (2).”

Best Known Works

Cage’s best-known composition is probably 4’33”. 4”33” (a three-movement composition) consists of a performer or performers remaining perfectly silent on stage for4 minutes and 33 seconds. While some thought it was a joke it ended up redefining music.

His Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), for 12 randomly tuned radios, 24 performers, and conductor; (Imaginary Landscape No. 4   https://youtu.be/oPfwrFl1FHM  (4) )(the Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48) for prepared piano; Fontana Mix (1958), a piece based on a series of programmed transparent cards that, when superimposed, give a graph for the random selection of electronic sounds; Cheap Imitation (1969), an “impression” of the music of Erik Satie; and Roaratorio (1979), an electronic composition utilizing thousands of words found in James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake. (2).

Levitin notes it is unfortunate that these works  are somewhat inaccessible as they are difficult for listeners  due to the boundaries of tonality or lack of (5).


  1.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4%E2%80%B233%E2%80%B3

2.  https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Cage

3.  http://facweb.cs.depaul.edu/sgrais/prepared_piano.htm

4.  Imaginary Landscape No. 4 https://youtu.be/oPfwrFl1FH

5.  Levitin, Daniel J.  The Music Instinct, This is Your Brain on Music, p. 263, Plume, 2007, London England






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