From John Cage to Korn, musicians have long composed pieces with no sound. Is it a high-brow joke, an exercise in mindfulness – or a severe case of the ‘emperor’s new clothes’?

In March 1941, a New York audience gathered outside a Broadway theatre to experience one of the more unusual concerts the city had ever seen. The 13-piece orchestra was led by Raymond Scott (whose tunes would feature heavily in Warner Bros’ cartoons), and made a great show of playing their instruments. But the only sounds to emerge were the quiet swish-swishing of the trap drummer and the gentle slapping of the double bass.

The aim, argued Scott, was to produce “silent music”, though Time magazine’s reviewer reported that his message had “fallen on deaf ears”. “It was just provocative enough to make listeners wonder whether the silence of other bands might sound better than Scott’s,” the reviewer added.

Perhaps Scott’s great idea had arrived before its time. Eleven years later, avant-garde composer John Cage would present his most famous composition, 4’33” – a piece of three movements written with the sole instruction that the musician must not make any deliberate sound. It was so radical that even his own mother had doubts. “Now, Earle, don’t you think that John has gone too far this time?” she is said to have asked the composer Earle Brown at one of the early performances.

Can silence ever make a valuable artistic statement?

She needn’t have worried. Since then, the silent (or near-silent) music canon has grown to include compositions by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Korn, Sigur Ros and the hip-hop group Slum Village, who sell both “explicit” and “clean” versions of their track on iTunes.

Of all the notions most likely to rile more conservative critics, the idea of composing music with no sound may be the most provocative. But can silence ever make a valuable artistic statement? If not, why are people still willing to pay good money for the chance to rest their ears?

Silent protests

The motivation behind Scott’s 1941 concert is unclear; the audience, apparently, found it amusing and giggled throughout the performance. Perhaps the sight of the musicians puffing and banging away on the instruments was designed purely for comic effect, or as an ironic comment on effort and failure, says Julian Dodd, a philosopher of music at the University of Manchester.

Certainly, many of the silent recordings were created as a gimmick rather than a serious work of art. The Best of Marcel Marceao [sic] offers an audio recording of one of the mime artist’s shows – with no sounds except the audience’s applause punctuating the two 19-minute tracks. It was, apparently, meant purely as a joke. Others have used it to make witty political statement. The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, released by punk label Stiff Records, was a blank vinyl, with grooves but no music on each side – an ironic alternative to more traditional protest songs. It proved to be surprisingly popular, selling more than 30,000 copies.

Many a truth is told in jest, of course. In 2014, the funk band Vulfpeck released 10 tracks of silence on Spotify and encouraged listeners to stream it while they slept. The aim was to use the subsequent royalties to fund a tour. The playful stunt helped highlight the band’s issues with the economics of the streaming service, and the way artists and songwriters are rewarded for short, simple, songs.

Even 4’33” may have partly been a response to the ‘muzak’ piped over telephone lines into elevators, lobbies and train stations. By the late 1940s, the incessant, directionless tunes were proving to be so annoying that a group of commuters petitioned to ban it from public transport – a case that eventually reached the Supreme Court.  Cage’s answer was to offer to write a piece of “uninterrupted silence” for the company behind this auditory cotton wool. “Its title will be Silent Prayer.  It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the colour and shape and fragrance of a flower,” he said during a lecture delivered to Vassar College in 1948.

An interest in Zen Buddhism, Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting, and a trip to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University, led Cage to revisit the idea four years later. As he sat in the sonically sterile room, he could detect two phantom pitches, high and low, which appeared to be emanating from inside his own body. This led him to realise that “silence was not the absence of sound but was the unintended operation of my nervous system and the circulation of my blood”. What if this eternal soundtrack could be the essence of a new composition?

4’33” was the result – “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music”, in the words of the composer Kyle Gann. Despite being, quite literally, ‘ambient music’, it was the polar opposite of muzak: an attempt to heighten the listener’s awareness rather than an aural anaesthesia. “It is getting us to consider the aesthetic features of sounds that we wouldn’t normally think about,” says Dodd.

Since then, many artists have “covered” 4’33”, including Frank Zappa, Mike Batt, and even a circus cat (yes, really) performing the piece for The Stephen Colbert Show.

A moment’s silence

Today, 4’33” resonates with the concept of mindfulness – a popular and scientifically-tested technique to deal with the stress of the modern world. The auditory cortex – which processes sound – is still abuzz during periods of silence, perhaps imagining and replaying sounds and snippets of songs we already know. Besides framing ambient sounds, a silent composition may therefore incite us to pay more attention to our mind’s wanderings – a blank backdrop against which our thoughts and feelings are thrown into greater relief.

This introspection is familiar, of course, whenever we participate in a moment’s silence to remember the dead. It is little wonder that musicians have also chosen to express their grief with a musical void. John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Minute’s Silence, on Unfinished Music Number 2: Life with the Lions, is ostensibly an homage to 4’33”, but some critics have also speculated that it was inspired by Ono’s miscarriage in 1968. Similarly, Korn added 12 five-second silent tracks to the album Follow the Leader, providing a minute’s respect for a terminally ill fan.

A silent composition may incite us to pay more attention to our mind’s wanderings

Finally, a silent composition may add to the punctuation of a performance, the deliberate absence of sound altering our appreciation of the music that follows. Writing in the New Yorker, for instance, the critic Alex Ross recalls a piano recital in which the pianist paused to perform 4’33” before launching into Liszt’s transcription of the Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. “Someone might as well have started up a chain saw,” Ross noted.  This effect can also be seen in the Icelandic band Sigur Ros’s track 18 Seconds Before Sunrise on the album Von, offering a pregnant pause in a cycle of songs inspired by the transition from night to day.

In these ways, a silent (or near-silent) piece may do everything that a traditional score would do: it can be a political statement, cause us to contemplate death and grief, and provoke us to question ourselves and our feelings. But does it really count as music?

The University of Manchester’s Julian Dodd doesn’t think so, however. Distilling the concept to its most basic definition, he believes that music must involve the organisation of sounds according to instruction planned by a composer and then executed by a performer. Since all the sounds – such as a baby crying or someone coughing – that might occur in a piece like 4’33” are incidental and unplanned by the composer, it cannot meet this essential criteria, Dodd says. Instead, he prefers to consider it a piece of conceptual art.

Ultimately, however, he thinks the label is unimportant. “Whether it is music or not is a side issue. The really interesting thing is what it was designed to get us to think about,” he says. “It raises issues concerning the nature of music and how much we value traditional music.”

If nothing else, the noisy debate that has followed these compositions shows that you don’t need to create a racket to be heard; sometimes it’s the quietest statements that cause the greatest commotion.

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