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That Sound of What is Silence

kelliott's picture

I found Tian's presentation on information and musical notation to be incredibly intriguing. I have to admit, beginning the class with John Cage's 4'33" was a little awkward. I thought this "performance" would involve "performing"--I didn't think he would simply stand in front of the class. However, I came to realize I was naively approaching and defining what it is to "perform" and what it means to "listen." After a few minutes of silence, Tian asked the class, "What did you hear?" What did I hear?? Was this a trick question? I heard the cars passing by, I heard the hum of the projector... To my surprise, it turns out Cage's Four Minutes Thirty-Three is one of his most famous musical compositions--the catch, it involves no music. According to Cage, there is "no such thing as silence." Tian elaborated that "even if you cut off your ears your brain will probably reconstruct that sound of what is silence."

This statement fascinated me. I imagined a person standing there with no ears--the brain firing neurons, automatically working on overdrive to rewire itself. So, naturally, I did my own research. There is even evidence in the realm of the neurosciences that shows the brain truly can "hear" the sound of silence. In a recent study from the University of Oregon, researchers have found that some areas of the brain respond solely to sound termination. Though we define silence as the absence of sound, it is apparent that the brain actually hears this absence as loud and clear as any other noise. Different neurons respond to sound onsets and offsets, which help us to process speech. 


But how do we interpret sound? The conversation continued on to discuss the development of musical notation. I had no idea that those lines and note-thingies (I obviously can't read music) of the Christmas Carols I attempt to decipher every year, for example, have such a rich history. There is a language to musical notation, originating from the first interpretations of sound.

My mind is still a little boggled from all this information. Thinking back to 4'33" I'd like to reconsider what I think I am hearing when I think of silence. When one listens to 4'33" he or she will hear something independent of another, and nothing of what one hears is anything the composer wrote. How, then, can one decode what is silence? There is still information in silence and thus it does not exist. 




cara's picture

I wonder if John Cage's

I wonder if John Cage's piece, 4'33", isn't more a performance rather than music. I say this because I've been thinking about it, and I don't understand how music can exist without silence. If music is in everything, including silence, how can we understand what music is. I think that a lot of the time we define something against what it isn't. What I'm trying to say is more eloquently captured in this quote by John Steinbeck "For how can one know color in perpetual green, and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?"

While there were sounds present during Professor Tian's performance, and therefore not strictly silence, I challenge the idea that silence doesn't exist at all. I think it's really interesting that the brain will supply a sound of its own in the presence of true silence, but I don't think this means that silence doesn't exist. Or, perhaps what I'm saying only proves the point that there is no such thing as silence. We only construct the idea of silence in order to comprehend what noise is.

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