John Cage’s 1952 work 4′33″ has proven a touchstone for artists, composers, and thinkers of all kinds, spawning conceptual artworks, experimental gestures, and even an iPhone app. But even as almost everyone agrees on its importance, misunderstandings about the work proliferate.

For one, 4′33″ is sometimes affectionately known as Cage’s “silent piece,” since the work calls for its enactor to stop using their instrument for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Cage himself used that terminology to describe the work, then would go on to contradict it, claiming that 4′33″ was not silent.

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5 February 2024, Saxony-Anhalt, Halberstadt: Visitors and journalists stand at the organ in the St. Burchardi Church before the start of the sound change. After two years, the sound of the slowest piece of music in the world, performed in Halberstadt in the Harz Mountains, has changed for the 16th time. On Monday, the 639-year organ piece ORGAN²/ASLSP ("As SLow aS Possible") by artist John Cage (1912-1992) underwent a change of sound. This means that the six-sound piece that has been played in the St. Burchardi Church since February 2022 has become a seven-sound piece. Photo: Matthias Bein/dpa (Photo Matthias Bein/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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This week’s big art-related discourse—on social media, anyway—centered around a botched interpretation of the work. In a New York Times op-ed, Columbia University professor John McWhorter claimed that he had been trying to teach his music humanities students about the Cage piece when he was interrupted by pro-Palestine protesters shouting “From the river to the sea.”

“I had to tell the students we could not listen to that piece that afternoon because the surrounding noise would have been not birds or people walking by in the hallway but infuriated chanting from protesters outside the building,” McWhorter wrote.

This comment spurred one X user to respond: “‘the protests are robbing my Columbia students of listening to John Cage’s 4’33, the piece of music that is explicitly designed to force you to listen to…what’s around you.’ absolutely perfect.” At the time this article was published, the tweet had 38,000 likes.

So, what is 4′33″, and why does it remain so important? Below is a guide to the famed Cage piece.

Who was John Cage?

Cage is today considered one of the foremost experimental composers, having altered the very definition of what constitutes music. Often, his pieces do not call for musicians to play instruments in the traditional sense, producing sounds that are deliberately inharmonious. And, unlike many musical scores, which are intended to produce easily repeatable melodies, Cage’s are more open-ended, making it so that few performances will ever be the same. In addition to making experimental music during the postwar era, Cage was an amateur mycologist, regularly foraging for mushrooms for his own uses, and making art about them.

What is 4′33″ ?

There are multiple scores for 4′33″, which was first performed by pianist David Tudor in 1952 in Woodstock, New York. The initial score for the piece has been lost, though it’s thought to have relied upon conventional musical notation. Another version, produced by Cage not long afterward, interpreted the work using a succession of vertical lines. “1 page = 7 inches = 56 seconds,” the score, which is now owned by the Museum of Modern Art, notes.

For a total of 273 seconds, the performer of 4′33″ is expected to play nothing at all. The MoMA score for 4′33″ notes that the piece is “for any instrument or combination of instruments.” Anyone can theoretically perform it, since the piece does not inherently require musical knowledge.

How did Cage come up with the idea for 4′33″ ?

Across the years, Cage said over and over that the piece was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings,” a group of works first started in the early 1950s that contained no colors at all. These works appeared to simply be white monochromes, but according to Cage, they were more than that: “The white paintings were airports for the lights, shadows, and particles.” At least one of the “White Paintings” was on view during a 1951 performance of a Cage piece at Black Mountain College, the North Carolina art school that was known for fostering an array of experimental practices, with faculty that included Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Josef and Anni Albers, and students such as Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Ruth Asawa.

Cage also said that he had been inspired by a visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Such rooms are designed to produce total silence, but when Cage visited, he said that he heard a high-pitched sound. He was informed, he said, that the sound was actually being produced by his own nervous system.

How is chance important to 4′33″ ?

By the time Cage devised 4′33″, he had already grown interested in opening up music and art to chance, welcoming unplanned events within the confines of loosely defined parameters. He had, for example, created a grouping of works for prepared pianos, wherein he altered the instruments so that they emitted unusual sounds with some degree of unpredictability.

During the 273 seconds of 4′33″, no one knows what sounds will be heard—which is entirely the point. Working under the sign of Zen Buddhism and Dada artist Marcel Duchamp, Cage grew fascinated by randomness, which worked against the logic that artworks must remain fixed and unchanged. “A performance of a composition which is indeterminate of its performance is necessarily unique,” he said in 1958. “It cannot be repeated. When performed for a second time, the outcome is other than it was.” Although the score for 4′33″ remains the same, it continues to produce endless iterations because of what happens around it. Cage’s composition is thus responsive to the whims of life itself.

Is 4′33″ actually a “silent piece”?

It depends how you think about it. The instrumentalist never produces any sounds during the course of the piece’s run, so it is noiseless in that sense. But that does not mean that everything beyond the site where it is performed remains silent, so by design, there will still be some noise, even if it is not produced on stage.

Cage had this to say: “The piece is not actually silent (there will never be silence until death comes which never comes); it is full of sound, but sounds which I did not think of beforehand, which I hear for the first time the same time others hear.” And later on, he would add: “You see there are always sounds.… Let me put it this way. We might have a piece from which one participant would come, and, upon being questioned, would say that the occasion was marked by certain sounds. Another person might say that he didn’t remember any sound. There was something else. But they would both agree that a performance of music had taken place.”

What was the first performance of 4′33″ like?

In 1952, when Tudor performed the work in Woodstock, he raised his hands to the music rack of a piano and then proceeded to stroke no keys and press no pedals. One local artist is reported to have said, “Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town.”

The piece continued to be “played” in a similar manner in the intervening years, as many looked on with befuddlement and fascination. “LOOK NO HANDS! AND IT’S ‘MUSIC,’” read a New York Times headline about a 1954 performance of the work by Tudor in Manhattan.

How is 4′33″ thought of today?

Kyle Gann, a composer who once wrote a book about the piece, noted that Cage’s own mother once asked, “Don’t you think that John has gone too far this time?” But Gann himself said that the work had a “Promethean” impact in the years afterward. An array of artists, from Brian Eno to Yoko Ono, have made pieces referencing the work, which is still today performed regularly.