As musicians, our most valuable sense is hearing, and while almost every human listens to the world in many ways, musicians understand sound better than anyone. This does not only affect how good musicians are at listening to music, it helps learning new languages and distinguishing certain sounds from one another, as an expert chef does with food.

Being so important in life, we should try to have a better understanding of what is sound and how is it possible. A world without sound would be very empty and it certainly gives a hard time to people who lose their hearing, but the interesting part is that sound is not just something you hear, it’s something you feel.

Science Says

Sound is produced by vibrations.

Sound is produced when something vibrates. The vibrating body causes the medium (water, air, etc.) around it to vibrate. Vibrations in air are called traveling longitudinal waves, which we can hear. Sound waves consist of areas of high and low pressure called compressions and rarefactions, respectively

What is Sound Really?

One must ask the question “what is sound?” not just to understand how it comes to be and how we are able to perceive it, but to arrive at a conclusion where we might find a clearer understanding of the connection between a person and sound.

What are we listening to? after seeing the cientific explanation one might drop any cartoonish ideas of sound and say “I’m listening to soundwaves” and in a way it is true, but believing that you are listening to something and believing you are listening to something make a sound are two different things when it comes to how you as a human being perceive the world, and it has a bigger impact on musicians, whose talent is to manipulate sound.

Philosophy and science have always had a close relationship, and it is even with Aristotle that sound was being analized to see how it worked.

When speaking about voice in his treatise De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle wrote that sound is a “certain movement of air” (De Anima II.8 420b12) but, even though he claimed that sound and motion are tightly connected, he did not seem to identify them (Pasnau 2000: 32). The natural scientists of the seventeenth century refined the intuition that sound is a movement of air into the wave theory of sounds, which appeared to be an obvious competitor for the quality or sensation (proximal) view. Galileo registered that.

Greeks philosophers were also scientists and Aristotle’s work had lots of explanations about how the world worked, including sound. However it wasn’t until modernity that sound was really discovered as waves that traveled through space.

Galileo wrote:

sounds are made and heard by us when…the air…is ruffled…and moves certain cartilages of a tympanum in our ear.…high tones are produced by frequent waves and low tones by sparse ones.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Phylosophy


Descartes joined in and in his Passions of the Soul considered that what we actually hear are not the objects themselves, but some “movements coming from them” (1649: XXIII). Indeed, around 1636, Mersenne measured the speed of propagation of sound waves.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It’s a beautiful thing to think of musicians as the ones who study sound and learn how to mold it into melodies and rythms, it makes it sound as if it were magic, and in a sense, for many people it is like magic. It’s also important to remember that as people who can control sound, as years go by, we learn to use new instruments and tools to go even beyond, with computers, apps, new softwares and synths, we discover new possibilities with sound, not only through music, but sound in movies, animations and video games. As a musician, what is sound to you?

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There is much that can be said about a person that is so passionate about playing as he is about talking about music, John Cage manages to bring so much to the table from experimental music, great prowess as a pianist and a unique knowledge that practicaly makes him one of the most interesting philosphers of our time.

In this article we will be focusing on some of Cage’s most important topics so that by the end we have a better understanding of his point of view and music in general.

John Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912, he studied at Pamona College, and later at UCLA with famous composer Arthur Schoenberg. After his time as a student he came to the conclusin that the music he wanted to make was very different from the music of his time, or any music by that matter, he said “I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg responded with ‘You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.’ only to make Cage determined to say, ‘I’ll beat my head against that wall.’”

Experimental Music

Cage said:

One does not make just any experiment but does what must be done. By this I mean one does not seek by his actions to arrive at money but does what must be done; by this I mean one does not seek by his actions to arrive at fame (success) but does what must be done; one does not seek by his actions to provide pleasure to the senses (beauty) but does what must be done; one does not seek by his actions to arrive at the establishing of a school (truth) but does what must be done

John Cage, “Writing’s through John Cage’s Music, Poetry + Art”.

In a way, a musician arrives to a complete musical work because it is some sort of second nature, or as if it’s every musician’s personal duty. This is an important thing to have in mind when thinking about experimental music and how the approach can be a success or utter failure.

In the 1930s Cage began experimenting with new ways to play and compose.

Whereas, in the past, the point of disagreement has been between dissonance
and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future, between noise
and so-called musical sounds. The present methods of writing music,
principally those which employ harmony and its reference to particular
steps in the field of sound, will be inadequate for the composer, who will
be faced with the entire field of sound. New methods will be discovered,
bearing a definite relation to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system and present
methods of writing percussion music and any other methods which
are free from the concept of a fundamental tone.

John Cage, “Writing’s through John Cage’s Music, Poetry + Art”

Cage’s view on the world had a part in the making of post modern music, while understanding that post modernism is a continuation of sorts of the modern era, thus, we are looking at music that follows some patterns of modern music with some other elements. Cage understood this, and many of his works in the 1950s were already considered post modern by critics.

Philosophy of John Cage


During the late 1940s, Cage began studying asian culture and ideas through zen and indian philosophy in his words:

It was also at the Cornish School that I became aware of Zen Buddhism, which later, as part of oriental philosophy, took the place for me of psychoanalysis. I was disturbed both in my private life and in my public life as a composer. I could not accept the academic idea that the purpose of music was communication, because I noticed that when I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and critics were often apt to laugh. I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication. I found this answer from Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer and tabla player: The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.

This last phrase says a lot about Cage’s state of mind during his compositions. With these influences and the avant garde context that he was in, including his admiration for Marcel Duchamp and other dadaist propositions, it became clear that his mind as a musician was going towards a new idea of music, one that relied on something more simple, just sounds and silence, while understanding that silence doesn’t exist and that sounds are more present than we think, it doesn’t have to be a perfect melody in order to feel the peace of meditation through the sounds of silence.

Some consider that he is one of the greatest musicians in the world, others believe he wasn’t really a genius but the truth is that his ideas rang a bell inside many people’s heads and to this day, his compositions receive high praise around the world

My favorite music is the music I haven’t yet heard.  I don’t hear the music I write.  I write in order to hear the music I haven’t yet heard.

John Cage

John Cage’s famous 4’33
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