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UnCaging the sounds in music with kids

Deconstructing music to find out what sound sounds like.

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Published: 22 Oct 2019


Time taken : ~10mins

Do you sometimes find your little one banging on tables and chairs? Might they sometimes ask you about a sound they hear in the environment, be it the sound of rain or cars honking?

Our little ones naturally embody concepts that would have resonated with John Cage (1912–1992), an American composer who influenced new ways of thinking in music. He pioneered some of the most experimental, minimalist and electronic approaches to music-making and appreciation. He was also a notable writer and artist.

John Cage was greatly influenced by eastern philosophies. He believed that Life and Art are not separate. Just like how Man and Nature are in this world together, one affects the other, and would not exist without each other. Most of the time, they would simply be with each other.

Here are seven "new" music ideas inspired by John Cage:

1. The opposite of sound is silence

One may assume that in order to hear a sound, there needs to be silence. Cage drew attention to the spaces in between musical notes, just like how the space between a word and the next (like in song lyrics) is silent. This is a defining feature of music in terms of how we perceive beats and rhythms!

Watch

4’33”, possibly the most famous John Cage piece of all where the pianist performs 4 minutes and 33 seconds of “silence”; or rather, allowing sounds in the environment to permeate the concert hall.


2. Yet silence doesn’t really exist

Even when you are in the quietest place imaginable, you will still be able to hear your body working. According to Cage, he went to the quietest place on Earth and said he could still hear his heartbeat and nervous system! (Though scientists and critics would later say this was unlikely to be his nervous system but tinnitus, often described as a ringing in a person’s ears when no actual sound is present.)

Watch

Cage talking about his experience in the anechoic chamber, a room free of reverberation.


3. Sound is sound

Sound does not have to mean anything. It does not have to represent a picture, an idea or a feeling. Music is made up of sounds, but these sounds don’t always have to make up a song or melody to be beautiful. We can appreciate the beauty of sounds just by listening to their qualities, whether high or low, sharp or dull, loud or soft.


4. Hit the strings instead of the keys

Sounds can be discovered through many different ways. We may all know how to produce a sound on the piano by playing on the keys, but we can play on its strings too! 

Audience interaction during the performance of Dear John by Taiwan’s M.O.V.E. Theatre

5. Be creative with tools

Just like how we can play on piano strings instead of its keys to produce sound, be inventive and use different tools to create sounds on any one object. Cage’s prepared piano (a piano that has had its sound altered, most often by placing objects on or between the strings) used nuts and bolts placed between the strings to discover sounds. Some sounds were higher, others were lower. Some were bright while others were dull.

Watch

A musician demonstrates the unexpected sounds that a piano can make.


6. It's about taking chances

Sometimes we just have to take a chance and try, without knowing the outcome. It’s about randomness, about indeterminacy – being with the process rather than fixing up a product. Cage composed pieces based on chance, such as the Music of Changes!


7. One thing affects another

When you use your fingers to strike a string, it causes the string to vibrate. The string then affects the air around it, causing vibrations, and that’s why we hear sounds. Like in Nature, the water cycle, or the food chain – one thing affects another. In chance compositions, the random movement of one sound generates another, and another, and another…



Fun at Home

John Cage taught us to be more aware of sounds. Here is how you can try it at home with everyone, young or old.

Music-making with household objects

Pick up a household object. It could be a pot, a bottle of water, a chair. Hit it. What sound does it make? Now, hit another part of the same object. Does it make the same sound? Take turns hitting on different objects one after another? Explore hitting it fast and slow, loud and soft!

Listen to our environment

Sit in silence for one minute. What do you hear? Can you create the sound that you heard with a household object? Perform it to your family and friends. Ask them to guess what sound you were trying to imitate (maybe it’s the leaves rustling from the wind, or the sound of a car honking)!

Contributed by:

Natalie Alexandra Tse

Natalie Alexandra Tse is a PhD scholar at the National Institute of Education Singapore. She hopes to research further into the creative processes of improvisation and play in early childhood music education while promoting her spirit of experimentation through the Arts. She believes that the Arts has the ability to develop children';s awareness of the diverse cultures in the world, thereby cultivating understanding, respect and empathy for others. Believing strongly that the very young are beings with their own identities, rather than becomings waiting to be sculpted, Natalie hopes to share her experiences as an artist and mother with other parents and their little ones.


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