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John Cage and percussion instruments – Part 1: Noise

John Cage

Without John Cage the current music for percussion ensemble would be completely different. Actually, the concept of “percussion instruments” itself and of “percussionist” would be different.

John Cage was a genius. And as all genius, the feelings you have when you listen or play his pieces, not only those for percussion ensemble, are most likely two. You love him and you hate him at the same time. Sometimes you are even disappointed when you listen or you play these pieces, because you feel somehow fooled. The concept of “nice music” itself doesn’t exist with Cage.

Certain pieces may even sound like different from what we usually consider music. First of all because Cage includes a great variety of approaches and methods to the music creation. After all, this is typical of many of the ‘900 composers, who are used to composition techniques that are extremely flexible. Second, because Cage’s works often use traditional musical instruments in non-conventional ways as well as non-traditional instruments, such as home-decoration elements, ethnic instruments belonging to other musical cultures and common objects.

Nevertheless, the composition ideas which some of the first pieces that Cage writes for percussion ensemble are built on, originate from a careful choice of rhytms, sounds, dynamic varieties, motivic repetitions and other special techniques. All these elements, despite that may not be apparently detectable at a first glance, are keys to study and play those pieces.



First of all it’s necessary to understand why John Cage, among very few composers of his time, writes so much music for percussion instruments. For this purpose we need to bare in mind that before Cage other composers challenged themselves with pieces for this kind of instruments. Example: Edgar Varèse, who opened in 1933 the contemporary music to the percussion ensemble with his masterpiece “Ionisation”.

Second element: Schoenberg. Schoenberg, who was Cage’s mentor between 1934 and 1937 in Los Angeles, addressed his own research work towards two central dimensions:

  • the harmony
  • the non-hierarchical relationships between the pitches.

Now, starting from what he learnt from Schoenberg, Cage felt as he needed to invent something different, compared to his mentor’s work.

When Cage decided to write music for percussion, he understood that he could include new sounds in his music, by introducing exotic instruments and even inventing new musical sources, such as the “water gong” (where the gong’s pitch during the vibration is modified by sinking the instrument in water), or using industrial tools like disk brakes and metallic springs.

Finally, and this is maybe the most important aspect among all the elements above, what made the percussion instruments very important elements in the first works of Cage was his own interest for noise.



Understanding what noise is for Cage is important, as this is also one of the reasons why he developed new models of musical creation and composition principles.

To understand his interest towards noise, we should cite a document that is key under many points of view; it’s almost a manifesto of his own vision. I am talking about “The future music – Credo”, pronounced the first time during a class in 1937 in Seattle:

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at 50 m.p.h. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them, not as sound effects, but as musical instruments.

He carries on in the same document by saying:

Percussion music is a contemporary transition from keyboard influenced music to the all-sound music of the future. Any sound is acceptable to the composer of percussion music.

Therefore, he considers the music for percussion instruments like a way to divert the noise from the subordination of the so-called musical sounds. He will even say that, opposite to Beethoven’s music that temporarily “protects” us from the daily life noise, music for percussion makes people winning the noise itself, thus becoming sensitive to its own beauty.

Noise is clearly a constant and central element of our society, in front of which many people react by escaping or by ignoring it. Instead, Cage decided to use the noise as a central part of his music, and the use he made of it was linked to a work that we could refer to as “recycling”.

Indeed, he used to recycle even the most unusual noises in his compositions, and in this way he wanted to lead the listener to a new sensitivity towards all the noises surrounding him/her in everyday life.

Therefore, opening up to the possibility of using this “non-musical” field refused by academia, the concept of sound itself must be redefined and new composition methods have to be designed. Pitch and harmony become secondary resources for the composer, who mainly takes care of the rhythm, which is the parameter that should define and measure all the other parameters, given that the composition itself becomes nothing more that the organization of the sounds according to time. So we end up having a new concept of music, which becomes simply “time that passes” and also a new concept of composer, who becomes “the sound organizer”. A sound is not intrinsically better or worse than another one.

Sound is time that is made audible.




John Cage was a central composer for the initial growth of the percussion ensemble activity between the years 30s and 40s of the XX century. He contributed to this growth not only with some of his compositions, but also by encouraging other composers to write pieces for percussion. The performance of his pieces contributed to bring this new music to the attention of the public and to open the way up to further development of this repertoire. He also influenced the music of future composers, such as Xenakis, to cite one of the most important.

Immediately after this first works, Cage focused on writing compositions for prepared piano and later for music based on chance operation and electronic. His first pieces for percussion, despite apparently different from the direction his music took subsequently, contained the basis of the development of many of his controversial composition processes.

Cage used the prepared piano as a synthesis of his percussion orchestra. The instrument itself doesn’t only reproduce the sound of a percussion ensemble, but certain compositions for prepared piano contain the same type of rhythmic structures you can find in its pieces for percussion.

His relationship with other composers and teachers, such as Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg brought him to imagine a new range of possible sounds and to invent composition techniques which would allow the use of these sounds. It’s also thanks to John Cage that ethnic instruments and certain “recycled” instruments became part of the timbre resources for percussion compositions.

His pieces don’t use much specific percussion techniques, such as drum rolls or rudiments; thinking that the players of his ensemble were often and mainly non professional percussionists is sufficient. He used to describe the technical skills of his percussion ensemble at the time of the Third Construction and the Living Room Music (B.M. Williams 1988) like this:

Playing drumrolls is the most difficult thing… [because the drum roll technique] requires practice.

Despite all these aspects, his work gave a great contribution to the expansion of percussion music, not even for the technical aspect linked to the performance itself, but also for the enlargement of possible sounds, both for percussionists and for music in general. Moreover, until the 50s, which means until the percussion ensembles started to exist in colleges and american universities, the composition for this group kept being played mainly by non professional percussionists.



The initial idea that brought Cage to write for percussion instruments was then, quite simply, to give music every sound that can be heard, beside his “musical” nature. In the process of this musical evolution, Cage influenced the world of percussion, music and art in general forever. He basically revolutionized the aesthetics of the XX century, opening to the artistic idea which followed. To Cage, the revolution started by accepting noise as material for music, as declared in his “Credo”:

I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard. Photoelectric, film, and mechanical mediums for the synthetic production of music will be explored. Whereas, in the past, the point of disagreement has been between dissonance and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future, between noise and the 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. The principle form will be our constant connection with the past. Although the great form of the future will not be as it was in the past, at one time the fugue and at another ti-ie the sonata, it will be related to the ti-iese as they are to each other. Through the principle of organization or man’s common ability to think.

If we read this speech now, it makes you smile. If you consider that it was pronounced for the first time in 1937, it makes you think. John Cage was a genius.

See you in the next episode, where I’ll explain the “square root formula” concept, a rhythmic-structural principle that many of the first percussion works of John Cage are based on. Among these are Living Room Music, First Construction and Third Construction.

Bye bye and… Silence!


Question: which pieces of John Cage have you played so far? In how many of these the “noise” as a musical element was so important? Leave a comment.

Part 2: Square Root Formula