The 4’33” Question

That’s not music.

If it is not music, then what is it?

It’s noise!

Music is made with mostly noise. What is it that makes some noises music?

Music is melodic!

So is birdsong. Is that music?

Supertramp uses birdsong on Even in the Quietest Moments.

That is edited birdsong. And if the instruments didn’t join in, would you still call it music? If it was only the birdsong?

But what they’re playing isn’t melodic.

Yes and melodic sound is not necessarily music. So, what is music?

Music is rhythmic.

So is the beating heart. Is that music?

The Dark Side of the Moon.

That was done on a bass drum. Regardless, a beating heart or a metronome are not of themselves music. Just because a sound is rhythmic does not make it music. Even if it is sometimes used in music. Or, like a click-track, often used in music.

Organized sound?

Really? Those two words, which you have punctuated with a questioning tone, are organized sound.

Sound produced for the pleasure of the listener?

Spoken poetry!

Some would call it music.

Okay. How about all the counter-examples? All the music that cannot be said to be produced for the pleasure of the listener.


Muzak; the parts of soundtracks meant for mood, like the shark attacks in Jaws; or avant-garde music like Yoko’s flushing toilet.

Noise intended as music!


I know, it’s circular.

No, well yes it is circular but that was not what my hesitation was about. Silence.

You’re kidding.

John Cage.

Come on. Despite the fact that Four thirty-three is called music, you can’t tell when it has been played. It could be the soundtrack for our conversation and no one would know. It’s meant to ask the same question you’re being a pain about: “What’s music?”

Cage is answering the question in that piece. Each performance is unique because the music are the ambient sounds. Cage believed any sound can be music and Four thirty-three cannot be called a true silent piece. The conversation and all the other noises here are the soundtrack to our conversation. But he did use silence as a structural element in a number of other compositions.

You knew I was going to think of Four thirty-three when you mentioned John Cage.

Yes. I did it partly because I could not remember another example. There are plenty of songs with a moment of silence or false endings. It is like when architects and painters use empty spaces.

I think the biggest reason is that you wanted to have some fun at my expense. An excuse to showoff your cleverness, another weapon in your passive-aggressive lesson-teaching cupboard.


You could have been direct, told me that the next time I hear music I don’t like, don’t say it is not music, don’t call it noise, say “I don’ like it,” instead of teaching me a lesson through sophistry.

Touché! Another beer?

Musical? Guest

CD CollectionThe drummer marks the beat.

I bought their début album on sale. The single was one of my favourite songs of the previous year.

The keyboard player’s foot follows the tempo.

I got their third album when it came out. I thought it was their second. It was … OK.

The singer starts to dance up a storm.

Their next disc was a critical success. I wish I had listened to it first.

Where’s the tune he’s dancing to? It looks like a great one.

I must be an amnesiac. I add one more CD to my collection. “Album of the Year.” Not for me.

The song he is moving to is twice as lively as the one he is singing. The paradox mesmerizes me.

Four albums in my collection. Resentment colours my appreciation of the single I used to like so much. Blaming the group for my taste and choices, I ask the studio audience “Why are you cheering so loudly?”

The Road to 3.5


My music collection was born with a three dollar ninety-nine sale on Steve Miller Band‘s Fly Like An Eagle. I had a few 45s but they didn’t count. This was my first LP.


Seven years later my collection was made up mostly of cassettes. Vinyl was too fragile.

If you didn’t have a good turntable with a needle in good condition, you would end up with plenty of skips. It wouldn’t take long for permanent damage to happen. This was a time when the quality of the vinyl was so bad that it wasn’t only the audiophiles getting Japanese imports for the virgin vinyl.


I was proud that my collection was interesting enough that my brother-in-law wanted to borrow it when I went away for my honeymoon. It was also interesting enough that my brother-in-law had to replace his passenger window after a thief saw it on his front seat.


Version 2.0 of my collection helped me bridge the LP and CD eras. I still listened to cassettes however these were taped from the albums that I bought. Because I had restarted my collection just before moving away, the originals were in three places: my mother’s, my sister-in-law’s and at home. I would even add to my distant collection when visiting.


The line between version 2 and version 3 is not as clear as the difference between version 1 and version 2.

When I saw that my albums were blending into my sister-in-law’s collection, I realized we would never reunite with the stuff in storage. It didn’t matter because I had taped the albums I had there as well as a number of theirs.

And the records I had left at my mother’s, I only saw once afterwards. It was after she had suffered her first stroke and I was looking for my childhood collection of hockey cards. I found some old LPs in mint condition including a Barry Manilow from the times when it was cool to get into clubs as an underage 15-year-old.

I think they went the way of the hockey cards but I have never asked about either. The reason I’m suspicious about their disappearance is because this was a time he needed it and, later, I would help him more overtly in other ways.

Then my first marriage fell apart and I was left with only the originals of the music my ex didn’t like.

Much later, the last of the cassettes went to the garbage after spending five years gathering dust in our building’s storage locker.


Version 3 grew quickly and steadily. When I started it, I was often travelling by train and, in those days, there was a CD shop at the train station. I’d take advantage of sales and was soon up to date on R.E.M., Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots. I also got the classics: all of Lynyrd Skynyrd (pre-crash), The Police, Jefferson Airplane‘s Surrealistic Pillow … .

For the next six years, I would add at least one CD per week with an occasional binge when there was a sale.

I’ve slowed a little since then. Then again, I now also get digital tracks.


I’m just getting used to dematerializing my music collection and now streaming (Youtube, Pandora) is the new format for music. I stream a lot of Youtube videos but I have a hard time with the idea of not owning a copy of the music.

And, I happily use the excuse that I need to keep the CDs as proof that I own the music I listen to. If there is one thing, virtual or physical, that I would have a real hard time getting rid of, it is my music collection.