Sounds Heard

Sounds Heard

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about John Cage’s final definition of music, which is an extremely compact two-word koan: sounds heard.

I’ve played around with how this definition could be applied to the other art forms:

visual art = images seen
literature = words read
dance = movements experienced

But somehow none of those really work. Yet the words “sounds heard” seem so basic, almost obvious, even though their implications run so deep for music makers and music listeners alike.

In a world where people accept the definition of music as “sounds heard,” composers would always be mindful of an audience and audiences would always be attuned to what those composers were trying to convey. Perhaps there’d be more of a blur between the categories and more members of the audience would be composers and those composers would actually listen to one another most, if not all, of the time (since some of the time they’d have to be making their own music).

No music would be marginalized, but also perhaps no music would be in the mainstream. All listening would be “deep listening” and a term like “listener friendly” would be meaningless. Imagine, in such a world, no clever editor could ever have renamed Milton Babbitt’s essay about the pitfalls facing the modern day progressive composer “Who Cares If You Listen?”.

But John Cage was not coming up with some utopian definition of what music might be in the future; he was actually describing music as it exists in our own world. I’ve taken his definition as a call to arms to listen to all kinds of music regardless of what my own or anyone else’s preconceived notions about its worth might be. But of course, having no opinion is also an opinion. To be really opinion free requires tolerating and trying to understand the opinions of others, which ironically also means paying attention and making room for those who might have very strongly pronounced opinions, sometimes some that are diametrically opposed.

Perhaps this is a dream for a utopia after all, but more than anything else music is what might make such fantasies possible.

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5 thoughts on “Sounds Heard

  1. ottodafaye

    sounds heard
    “sounds imagined” would seem slightly more generous. It would make the experience available to a greater number, and would include music not yet created, but which might be. When does sound become music? Is hearing necessary?

  2. Alex Shapiro

    For the composer, it is indeed Sounds Imagined, and remains that way until those sonic thoughts are thrust into the air for other to experience as Sounds Heard. Not unlike the ol’ “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it does it make a sound?” question, there are several legitimate realities simultaneously at play here.

    Sounds Imagined is “Music Minus Everyone Else,” and sometimes sounds a helluva lot better than Sounds Heard! I’m sure there are people who don’t label themselves as composers, whose brains are also filled with their own music. For many, that may be enough. And for those of us who persist in attempting to fill the air with sound that can be heard, well… there’s a lot of extra work! :-)

  3. rama gottfried

    hearing sounds
    it’s interesting that cage actually constructed “militant” pieces in order to push this point. the idea of a battle for a heightened awareness is of course utopian, but there’s nothing wrong with that that i can see. wouldn’t it be great if we had missionaries converting people to become more aware of what they were hearing? maybe then we could get rid of muzak! and construct even more beautiful sounding service machines.


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