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John Cage’s Third Construction – Part 1: Instrumentation

Tin Cans for John Cage's Third Contruction

Third Construction is one of the most complex pieces written by John Cage for percussion ensembles. This piece was actually composed in 1941 and was dedicated, as you can read on the last page of the score, to Xenia Kashevaroff, Cage’s wife at the time as well as percussionist in his orchestra.

Third Construction is the third of a series of pieces, called in fact First, Second, and Third Construction (1939-1940), all written for percussion ensembles.

Today, in the first of two posts about this musical composition, I’ll discuss the choice of instruments, which is probably the most complex aspect for percussionists.



Third Construction is written for four players who play a total of 55 percussion instruments and one wind instrument (the conch shell played by the third player). A list of instruments follows below:

  • Player I: Northwest Indian wooden rattle, 5 graduated tin cans, 3 graduated drums (tom toms), claves, large Chinese cymbal (suspended), maracas, teponaztli;
  • Player II: 3 graduated drums (tom toms), 5 graduated tin cans, claves, 2 cowbells, Indo-Chinese wooden rattle with many separate chambers, lion’s roar;
  • Player III: 3 graduated drums (tom toms), tambourine, 5 graduated tin cans, quijadas, claves, split bamboo cricket callers, conch shell;
  • Player IV: tin can with tacks (rattle), 5 graduated tin cans, claves, maracas, 3 graduated drums (tom toms), wooden ratchet, bass drum roar.

As you can see, for Third Construction, Cage uses a series of traditional orchestra instruments, ethnic instruments, and other everyday objects that are used as percussion instruments.



Let’s analyze the features of at least some of these instruments, which I frankly never heard of until I actually came across this piece. I’m still unsure of what one of them really is…

Northwest Indian wooden rattle: I was never able to figure out what particular type of rattle John Cage was actually referring to, even after seeing this video by So Percussion. Help me!

Graduated tin cans: they are tin cans graduated by height from the lowest to the highest. Five cans per player are required. Given the fragility of the tin, these instruments often change height during rehearsals and concerts, making it necessary to check the sound before each performance. They produce the best sound if suspended from a pole and if they are struck with small timbale sticks or the body of marimba mallets.

Tom toms: these are the classic tom toms used in orchestras and drum set up. Three per player are required. They also are graduated from lowest to highest. They are played with normal or rubber drumsticks, depending on the type of sound needed or on how much time you have to switch them out. In some parts, you are actually supposed to play tom toms…with your fingers.

Claves: they are wooden dowels used in Latin-American or orchestral music. Although they sound best when one clave is held in one hand as a sound box while the other hits it, given certain parts that are rhythmically very intense, it might be better to lay one of the claves on a flat surface that doesn’t completely block the sound, and then play it with two wooden or hard plastic drumsticks. Two per player are required.

Large Chinese suspended cymbal: it’s the classic Chinese cymbal that, unlike the more common Turkish cymbal, has an upturned outer rim. It’s suspended and played with conventional beaters. In this particular piece, besides producing single sounds, the Chinese cymbal is also used to create a roll crescendo or diminuendo.

Maracas: they are the common idiophone instruments used in South American music and in orchestras. They are meant to be played by both the first and the fourth players. In a few parts, they are actually used as beaters for the tom toms, while in other parts, they are “submerged” or muted: this can be achieved by holding the maracas in the palm of the hand or in a cloth, therefore lowering the volume.


Foto by Travis / CC BY-NC 2.0

Teponaxtle: the teponaxtle (also known as “teponaztli”) is a type of slit drum used in Mexico by the Aztecs, which is made of a hollow hardwood log with two slits on the topside, cut in the shape of an “H”. Since the resulting wooden tongues are of different lengths, the teponaxtle produces two different pitches, one higher and one lower. The two tongues are usually struck by hard rubber beaters. In Third Construction, John Cage recommends using a drumstick with a soft rubber tip for the right hand and a finger for the left hand. If a real teponaxtle is not available, it could be substituted by, example, two pieces of wood of different lengths laying on two supports that allow them to adequately vibrate. The modern name of this instrument is “log drum”, meaning a drum made out of a log.

Cowbells: they are the classic instruments used in African and Latin-American music. Cage recommends two of different heights for the second player. It might become necessary to lower their pitch by inserting soft material inside or wrapping them with soft fabric.


Angklung (Indo-Chinese wooden rattle)

Indo-Chinese wooden rattle: also known as angklung, it’s a bamboo instrument originally from Indonesia. It can be found in Java, Sumatra, Madura, Bali, Kalimantan. Made entirely from bamboo sticks, its construction is rather complex since it comprises two, three, or four reeds carved lengthwise in the shape of little tongues. In the bottom part, next to knot, there is a small track. A hole in the upper part of each reed, about ¼ from the tip, allows to insert a crossbar connected to a vertical frame made of rods of different thickness, which is secured to a support. On this support, along the length of the reed, small slits are carved that allow the reeds to slide on the tracks. By shaking the instrument, the reeds move and produce a movement of air in the tube. The sound consists of a sweet, wooden tremolo, with the reeds tuned one octave from each other. These rattles are able to produce the degrees of the pentatonic scale on different octaves.

Lion’s roar: it is a drum whose membrane is perforated in the center to insert a cord or horsehair, which is resined and rubbed with coarse fabric or other material and therefore makes a noise effect similar to a lion’s roar. Cage uses two: one for the second player and a bigger one made from a bass drum for the fourth player. Watch this video about how to build a lion’s roar.

Tambourine: in this case, Cage recommends actually using the Basque tambourine used in orchestras, a rather small frame drum with jingles. This instrument is used by the third player, who mostly plays it with accentuated trills at the beginning of each measure.


Foto by Warren B. / CC BY-SA 2.0

Quijadas: it literally is a donkey’s jaw. Originally from Peru, this idiophone instrument is played by striking part of the jaw to make it vibrate up and down or by rubbing the teeth with some sort of stick while holding it with one hand. The modern version of the quijada is the vibraslap.

Cricket callers: from the fact that in certain parts they are used as beaters for the toms and that Cage specifies that they are split bamboo pieces, we can definitely come to the conclusion that cricket callers must have similar features to whips or rods, which are wooden beaters cut in several strips held together by support rings. Their sound can vaguely resemble the chirping of crickets.

Musical Conch Shell

Foto by Ashley Van Haeften / CC BY 2.0

Conch Shell: it is the only non percussion instrument in Third Construction and it is actually an empty shell, whose edges and corners have been broken and smoothed to make holding it easier. When compared to a trumpet, the spire replaces the tube and the natural opening replaces the bell. The shell used as a wind instrument has always been present in all the maritime cultures of the world and it represents one of the most archaic methods of producing sounds.

Tin can with tacks (rattle): it is actually a regular can (a tuna can, for example), with several tacks or similar objects inserted inside to turn it into a rattle.

Wooden ratchet: it’s a wooden scraper producing clicking and rattling noises, by rotating flexible flanges that are rasped by a gear wheel mounted on a handle. The mounted ratchets allow for greater control of the tremolo’s duration and timing.

A list describing the different combinations of the classical-orchestral, ethnical, and “recycled” instruments, that are used in Third Construction, follows next. Some of these instruments can obviously can be grouped in more than one category.

    • Tom toms (12)
    • Chinese cymbal
    • Lion’s Roar (2)
    • Tambourine
    • Wooden Ratchet
    • Claves (4 pairs)
    • Cowbells (2)
    • Maracas (2 pairs)
    • Northwest Indian wooden rattle
    • Teponaxtle
    • Indo-Chinese wooden rattle
    • Quijadas
    • Conch Shell
    • Tin Cans (20)
    • Cricket Callers
    • Tin Can with Tacks


In my next post, I will connect the instrument choices made in Third Construction with a structural analysis of the music, specifically highlighting a possible use of the “square root formula” technique.


Question: Do you have any doubts about my description of some of these instruments? I would be happy to know what you think about it. For example, I’m asking for the help of those who know what Cage meant with the term “Northwest Indian wooden rattle”. Leave a comment.