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Why You’ll Pay for Silence: John Cage’s 4:33

I was on iTunes yesterday checking out Kanye and Jay-Z’s latest when I came across something that caught my eye. It was the famous – or perhaps infamous – John Cage piece Four Minutes and Thirty Three Seconds, one of the must unique and provocative pieces in the history of contemporary music.

4:33 was debuted on August 29th, 1952, by David Tudor at Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York. Tudor was an established pianist well versed in the experimental music scene. That night however, he was faced with one of the most unmatched pieces of his career. He slowly walked on stage, took his place at the piano, and opened the score. But then he did something he had never done before – nothing.

For the next four minutes and thirty-three seconds Tudor sat there, in silence, and nearly motionless. Then, without striking a single piano key, he got up and walked off stage.

No, he didn’t freeze or choke. He actually performed the piece flawlessly. You see, Cage’s 4:33, a three-piece movement, is a composition completely void of notes. It is nothing. It sounds like a half-baked idea, and maybe it is, but Cage believed that 4:33 was music just as any traditional composition was. For him, 4:33 qualified as music because it wasn’t actually silent; its music was in the environment – it was the traffic noise in the background, the sneezes, the coughs, the shuffling of papers, and the thoughts that went through people’s heads as they sat there watching Tudor do nothing.

Cage replaced the expected with the unexpected; instead of piano sounds, he gave the audience different sounds – but he still gave them music.

I first heard about 4:33 from my college music professor, who actually paid money for the sheet music and had us perform it in his intro to music theory class. I remember it well, the entire class sat there in silence for 4:33 and “played” Cage’s piece. I was dumbfounded. What the fuck, I thought; why the hell did my professor pay money for the sheet music that didn’t have any notes.

I had forgotten about 4:33 until I saw it on iTunes yesterday. What caught my eye was that it was being sold. That’s right, for 99 cents, you can have four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Sounds ridiculous, but people are actually buying it!

Obviously, this makes absolutely no sense from an economic stand point. First off all, these people are paying for nothing. Literally. Second of all, they already own it, that is, they can perform the piece by just shutting up for 4:33. They can even go be silent in front of a piano if it makes them feel better. In fact, if they are paying for 4:33 they might as well go outside, take out a one dollar bill, light it on fire, and stand in silence and watch it quietly burn.

Why would they pay for this? What is it that they are getting?

After thinking about it for a while, it dawned on me that they aren’t buying silence, they are buying an idea. They are buying the point that Cage has made about silence and music; they are buying a chance to ponder what it means for something to be considered music; they are buying a few moments to think about what makes good art; they are buying the ability to tell people that they bought it; and they are buying the pleasure they get from 4:33 – whatever that pleasure may be.

Maybe. But you can’t just redirect the value of something to some intangible to maintain that the buyer was rational, it’s like assigning a value to snobbery or laziness to explain why a season pass holder skipped the opera. I wasn’t satisfied and found myself still trying to find an answer.

Luckily, I got an idea after watching a TedTalk by Paul Bloom. Bloom is a Yale psychology professor who specializes in the “science of why we like what we like,” as the subtitle to his latest book so eloquently says. Specifically, he is interested in pleasure; the pleasure we get from sports, other people, and art. He tells an intriguing and humorous story at the beginning of his talk (also in the first chapter of his book) about a Nazi named Hermann Goering who was an obsessive art collector. One of Hermann’s prized possessions was Johannes Vermeer’s Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, which he traded for with 137 paintings worth about $10 million in today’s money. Unknown to Hermann was the fact that his Vermeer was actually a forgery done by Dutch painter Han van Meegeren.

Hermann heard the news at the Nuremberg trails while he was waiting to be executed for the crimes he committed throughout World War Two. According to his biographer, upon hearing that his Vermeer was a fake, Hermann looked “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.” No, it wasn’t the six-some million deaths that he was partially responsible for, it was that his Vermeer, which turned out to be a van Meegeren, was a fake.

Bloom’s point, which is obvious only upon retrospect, is that we place a high value on essences. In other words, it wasn’t just the painting Hermann liked, it was its history. Consider the examples that Bloom provides to illustrate this:

The point is, we don’t value things in a vacuum; their histories, their essences, are just as important.

With this in mind, let’s return to 4:33. Why do people pay for it on iTunes? Why did my professor buy the sheet music? They were buying the history, the essence, and the authenticity. Sitting in a corner for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, without having bought the mp3 or sheet music, would be a fake in the same way that van Meegeren’s painting was a fake. Sure, replicas look and feel identical, but they aren’t, they don’t have the same history as the originals.

When I think about all of the memorabilia that I have saved over the years I begin to understand why people spend money on 4:33. It seems to me that just like I wouldn’t trade my first pair of shoes, my favorite stuffed animal that I slept with as a kid, and my 3rd grade art project for replicas, Cage followers wouldn’t go stand in a corner for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. I suppose that I can’t criticize them too much given that we both value the histories more than the things themselves.

But part of me still wonders… would you really pay 99 cents for “nothing?”
Bloom, P., & Gelman, S. (2008). Psychological essentialism in selecting the 14th Dalai Lama Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12 (7) DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.04.004

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Daniel #

    I’ve paid a lot more than $0.99 to live in a communal practice place for a few months where the primary theme of which was the practice of sitting facing a wall being still and silent for several hours a day. I did that for 20 minutes just before reading this.

    August 1, 2011
    • Kelly Wang #

      Kind of interesting, but it would be even more interesting of you were **practicing** this piece.
      This is the easiest piece ever!!

      July 20, 2012
  2. Nice article, very insightful. I heard about this song for the first time in music class today and I wonder what the people who attended the concert thought and did during and after Tudor’s performance.

    November 15, 2011
  3. Kelly Wang #

    A Joke:
    (Girl just sitting there in front of piano)
    Mother: Why aren’t you practicing?
    Girl: I AM practicing!
    Mother: But you’re playing nothing!
    Girl: I am playing **nothing**!

    My music teacher said that the point of 4:33 is to make you pay attention to the music around you. But still… I can’t help thinking that this is the most absurd piece ever

    July 20, 2012
  4. No quoiestn this is the place to get this info, thanks y’all.

    April 2, 2014
  5. Advocate #

    I get your overall point and premise, but part of me disagrees with some of your perspective (not that yours is invalid or that I’m right). There are several things that are humorous here: Cage was full of humor, your take on it is humorous in a way, and the people buying the mp3 are also humorous in their own way. The funny thing is, purchasing music is somewhat of a fundamental contradiction of what Cage claimed to value. He said “Let no one imagine that in owning a recording he has the music. The very practice of music is a celebration that we own nothing.” And your comments about people buying it for the authenticity/experience are humorous to me…even further about how not buying it and performing the piece makes it “fake” somehow. Cage’s beliefs fell more along the lines that there is truly never a moment of silence…and that every “piece” of music is unique…even when playing an exact recording, it is unique in time, space, and even from individual to individual (physically, emotionally, etc). The notion that “everything we do is music and everywhere is the best seat” is true. Are you paying 99 cents for nothing? No, because in that nothingness is something. The beautiful thing is John Cage used this piece as a lesson, an example…this same example can apply to the world, everyday, everywhere… I’ve never seen it on iTunes…I expect people buy it for varying reasons: novelty, preserving/memorializing an idea(l), respecting art, etc, etc… I don’t think people are necessarily plugging their headphones in and listening to 4’33 (but I hope they are)….and if they are, I hope they are not just taking it as a joke and they actually listen and realize what Cage was getting at here. I myself, wouldn’t mind having the score…it’s a great conversation….it’s a reminder….it’s an homage and display of respect and gratitude for helping others to open their mind, listen and experience the world. With all of that being said…is it silly to buy the .mp3 or sheet music? Maybe…maybe not…guess it depends on your perspective and reasoning….which is arguably always right for each person…. If you think you are paying .99 cents for nothing, then yes, it is very silly…if you are paying 99 cents so that you can show and tell others about Cage, his philosophies, and perhaps open their mind a bit….that’s definitely a very cheap price for all it can do…..

    April 5, 2017
  6. Hi!
    I don’t know when you wrote this but I came across 4’33” yesterday. I happened to be the sound tech at a chamber music festival where they perfomed 4’33”. As a technician it really annoyed me. Did I really have to sit there amplifying nothing? Also as a musician I can’t think of this as anything else than an elitist ploy.

    However, your point is valid. But this means you’d have to somehow be aware of the ”original”. Just like Goering was perfectly insanely happy with his fake until he was aware that it was a fake.
    Also, the painting was a discoverable fake. The 4’33” I ”heard” yesterday was performed by a string quartet, not a piano player as ”the original”. Why wasn’t this a fake then?

    These points are on a completely philosophical level. Personally I am actually still quite pissed off my time was missused this way.

    October 29, 2017
  7. Aaron #

    I am way too late to this conversation but I’d like to suggest that there is a large piece missing in your analysis of why we “want the original”. I think that more than wanting the history, essence and authenticity, we want the original so that we can say “I have the original and you don’t”. Human pride is a serious player here.

    And that I think human pride is underlying Cage’s composition of 4′ 33″. He was attempting to tear down foundational truth with regards to what defines a musical composition. But let’s be honest and sincere for a moment…a musical piece without musicians or musical instruments is not a musical piece. Even if you call it a musical piece and sell it on iTunes.

    November 27, 2018
  8. Jay D #

    Ahh, the complete absurd, collective idiocy that the left gives us…….musical truth is subjective, not objective. Silence is music……sure…..

    October 23, 2020

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