John Cage, the Pythagorean

copyright © 2003 by Larry J Solomon

From 1951 until he died in 1992, John Cage composed music by means of mathematical chance operations. His reliance upon numbers to create music bears an uncanny resemblance to the philosophical ideas of the ancient Greeks, especially Pythagoras and his followers, i.e., the Pythagoreans. To Pythagoreans, the real world consists not of what we see, hear, or otherwise sense, but of numbers. The world of sense is simply a fleeting reflection or imitation of the immutable, real world of numbers. Cage said:

Not having, as most musicians do, an ear for music, I don't hear music when I write it. I hear it only when it is played. If I heard it when I was writing it, I would write what I've already heard; whereas since I can't hear it while I'm writing it, I'm able to write something that I've never heard before.[1] . . . . And if I did hear something before it was audible, I would have had to take solfege, which would have trained me to accept certain pitches and not others. I would then have found the environmental sounds off tune, lacking tonality. Therefore, I pay no attention to solfege.[2]

The significance of this statement is not normally understood. It represents a truly radical break with all traditional ways of making music. Normally, a composer imagines or "hears" something mentally and then writes it, commonly known as aural imagery; or he at least starts with the sound of some basic ideas, developing them into a composition. Solfege and ear training in general are considered requirements for a training musician in music curricula around the world. Cage said here that it is not just unnecessary, but undesirable. Further, he confessed that he could not hear what he was writing. This would normally be considered a handicap to a composer, to say the least. He did not hear music before, during, or even after he wrote it. If he was not representing (notating) the sounds of music, what then was he writing?

Cage composed numbers which represented various parameters of what was to be performed. He did this in order to be able to hear how the numbers became manifested as music. He was unable to imagine the sounds of the music until they were performed. Thus, Cage was not working compositionally with the sounds of music, but with mathematics, numbers and ratios, that would (secondarily) symbolize and animate the sounds; i.e., he was working out intellectual conceptions of a music he couldn't imagine. The sensory, then, was a byproduct of this intellection.

Cage worked with the I Ching and random number generators to compile a series of numbers, which then became symbols for various parameters of sound. The sensations of sound, or music, however, were not heard or even conceived by him until the numbers were "performed". The music thus created came to him as a complete surprise.


1. Cage conversation with David Cope (1980), in Kostelanetz 1988, 85
2 . Cage conversation with Don Finegan (1969), in Kostelanetz 1988, 227


Kostelanetz, Richard, 1988, ed., Conversing with Cage, New York: Limelight.