What is music? Does music have to be mathematical and notated? Does it have to contain "melody" and "harmony"? Can the most abstract noise coming from any given source be considered "music"? Is music really art, in the accepted sense, when most music is made by accident? -David

As in many fields of western art, in the twentieth century there was a great deal of experimentation at the boundaries of what we call "music". The early twentieth century saw a kind of revolution against established conceptions of tonality, the most famous figure here being Arnold Schoenberg. Some years later, people began to experiment in a serious way with elements of chance in music, the most famous figure here being John Cage. Two examples of Cage's approach are "Fontana Mix", whose score for each performance is created by superimposing transparencies, and the truly brilliant 4'33", in which (as I hear the piece) the "music" is actually the response of the audience, which typically involves a good deal of laughter. It's an interesting piece, in that one can only really hear it the second time. The first time, one is almost by necessity a performer. As it says in the Wikipedia article, 4'33" challenges our very understanding of what music is. And that, too, is a recurring theme in the art of that period: Marcel Duchamp's famous exhibit of a urinal in 1917 has a similar effect on one's conception of sculpture.

The cultural historical moment described by Richard Heck aside, it remains that there was something that Cage was turning on its head when he offered - composed would be the wrong word - the event that is 4'33: the experience of listening to music itself. There would be no history of music if all composers had been like Cage. But there would have been no Cage without music, no content to 4'33 if people didn't know what music normally was. That it is possible to exhibit a urinal in a museum or not play anything in a concert hall and be taken entirely seriously as an artist must be considered a cultural phenomenon, worthy of interest, but not a phenomenon internal to the technical forms that developed over the centuries and that gave us symphonies, songs, paintings and sculptures.

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