Sound and Silence

John Cage (1912 - 1992)

“The sound experience I prefer to all others is the experience of silence.”
~ John Cage

“John Cage was an American composer, poet, philosopher and artist. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde.”
(source: Wikipedia)

About a year and a half ago, I listened to an interview with John Cage.  During this interview,  he spoke about the meaning of sound and silence. At one point he said, “When I talk about music… I’m talking about sound that doesn’t mean anything.” Being someone who searches for the meaning behind any experience, I was a little surprised when I first heard this.  I didn’t understand how sound – music – could have no meaning. I didn’t like that idea and even felt a little defensive, but since I have a lot of respect for Cage, I wanted to try to understand what he was saying.

This began a long journey for me during which I explored new kinds of music and sound – things I had never taken the time to listen to before. I crossed the boundary of music as I knew it and entered musical worlds I never knew existed. This wandering opened a door for personal reflection that went deeper than just exploring the philosophy of music. It became a spiritual quest, a way of exploring the nature of relationships, and a way of expanding my world view. All of this began with a simple question proposed by John Cage. What is the meaning of sound? Over time, I’ve come to understand a little of what Cage was saying, but there is still  so much more for me to explore, question and wonder about concerning the nature of music and sound.

I’ll share some of my thoughts so far. Sound is used to communicate whether it’s by talking, laughing, crying or singing. Tone of voice is important and that’s a variety of sound. The sound of a baby’s cry and a mother’s cooing response is the first form of communication we experience. And as they say, silence speaks louder than words. Those are human sounds. There are still other sounds  to consider – the sounds of nature, musical instruments and the sounds that make up everyday life such as the traffic on 6th Avenue.  Sound by itself may not have any meaning. It’s the context in which the sound is heard that’s important. I think the meaning can be found there. And yet… there is something to be said about listening without trying to understand. There is joy in just hearing sound for the sake of hearing sound.

This morning I read an essay by Colin Blundell On The Art of Non-Wording.  ( )  It seemed to be picking up where I left off with exploring sound and silence only this time concerning words, not sound. I think the idea was to eliminate words (temporarily) from our thinking and begin to see things without relying on words to identify them. I think of it as experiencing things in the silence of our minds. And so the adventure continues down yet another path.

But for now, I’ve been struggling with a poem I’ve written. It was the inspiration for this post. I was trying to express the restless and relentless searching I’d been experiencing, but just couldn’t seem to find the right words. There was not enough depth in what I was saying. The words were too simple. The feeling was not there. I’m wondering now if this is something that was never meant to be put into words, but only experienced. It’s something to think about. Or maybe I should just listen…

Sound and Silence

Sound and silence.
With you
a strange mix.
“What is the meaning
of sound?”
From the beginning
it was the question.
Until the end
I’ll want to know.
But more so …
What is the meaning
of silence?

I question…
sifting through the white noise
the red, the blue and the black noise,
trying to solve
the riddle,
the koan,
the conundrum…
composing endless enigma variations
with words, not music…
for the friend pictured within
and that union of sound
and silence…

What is the meaning of sound?
But more so…
What is the meaning
of silence?


John Cage speaking about silence –
Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar

This entry was posted in poetry, self growth and discovery and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Sound and Silence

  1. thank you for sharing this coz I must say I did’t know who he was.. a very interesting and remarkable man.

  2. jeffstroud says:

    I find this to be an interesting process and perspective ! I am learned to “try” to hear the sound of silence, most of all I seek the silence as often as I can.
    I went to read Colin Blundell’s blog, got a part way through, I am not awake enough to take it all in as of yet. I will come back to both your blog and his to get a better grasp.

    • Colin’s blog is great, but it does take some thinking to read it. It’s well worth it though and I recommend looking around and reading some of his other posts as well. And I’m still trying to get a better grasp on all of this! I think it will be a lifetime process.

  3. What a fascinating idea to explore – personally I think music and sounds are full of meaning, right from birth, as you point out the first cries of a baby and its mother’s cooing response. There is a song about sounds and therapy by Dar Williams that kept coming to me as I read your words. Forgive me for posting some of the lyrics here, but I feel compelled to add her thoughts to yours…

    “And we fathom all the mysteries, explicit and inherent
    When I hit a rut, she says to try the other parent
    And she’s so kind, I think she wants to tell me something
    But she knows that it’s much better if I get it for myself and she says

    Ooh, aah, what do you hear in these sounds?

    I say, “I hear a doubt, with the voice of true believing
    And the promises to stay, and the footsteps that are leaving”

    And I wake up and I ask myself what state I’m in
    And I say well I’m lucky, ’cause I am like East Berlin
    I had this wall and what I knew of the free world
    Was that I could see their fireworks and I could hear their radio

    And I thought that if we met, I would only start confessing
    And they’d know that I was scared, they would know that I was guessing
    But the wall came down and there they stood before me
    With their stumbling and their mumbling and their calling out just like me

    And ooh, aah, the stories that nobody hears
    And I collect these sounds in my ears

    That’s what I hear in these sounds”
    (What Do You Hear In These Sounds)

    • It’s wonderful that you posted the lyrics! I appreciate that and enjoyed reading them. I think there is very little in life that has no meaning, but maybe there are different levels of importance that we assign to them. Maybe sometimes we assign too much and it’s best just to enjoy without thought. I don’t claim to have an answer and I don’t think there is any one correct answer. I’ll be exploring this for a long time.

  4. dpbowman says:

    I myself am an apprentice in the path of SIlence.
    It is as powerful as words.
    I believe people today fear it and attempt to drown it out more often than not.
    In silence you have to hear the unspoken speak what you truly are.
    It can be frightening, but it should be enlightening.

  5. ‘We talk too much… Clever talk is of no value whatsoever. One merely gets further and further away from oneself and that is a crime. One should be able to crawl right into oneself like a tortoise…’

    Hermann Hesse: Demian

    I like the idea of crawling right into oneself like a tortoise… to find out what’s going on there and I think that’s what you’ve done in exploring Cage!

  6. These are very worthy considerations — afterall what WOULD the complete absence of sound signify? And for “how long”?

  7. Such interesting questions you ask yourself. This is a real quest to understand noise and silence. I’m going to give this more thought.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s