Cage Query

[UPDATED] In February of 1948, John Cage gave a lecture at Vassar, heralding his intention to write a silent piece:

I have, for instance, several new desires (two may seem absurd, but I am serious about them): first to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be [3 or] 4 1/2 minutes long – these being the standard lengths of “canned” music, and its title will be “Silent Prayer.”

(The second desire was to write a piece for radios, which resulted in Imaginary Landscape No. 4.) The words in brackets are often omitted when quoting this passage: often it’s simply four and a half minutes, sometimes three or four and a half. I’ve done a lot of reading about Muzak, including the lengthy account in Joseph Lanza’s delightful book Elevator Music, but I can’t find anything confirming that Muzak was indeed measured out in these standard lengths. Can anyone point me to evidence that this was (or wasn’t) in fact the case? (You might get yourself thanked in the acknowledgements to my book.)
(I hope no one minds that PostClassic has officially become a John Cage-centered blog for the summer. Back to my usual ill-considered rants in September.)
UPDATE: Commenter syro0 suggests, echoed by Steve Layton and John Shaw:

Probably this is too simple, and admittedly I don’t know about the exact technology used by Muzak, but I don’t think it’s quite coincidental that 3 and 4 1/2 minutes are about the limitations of the 10-inch and 12-inch 78 rpm records of the day.

Actually, I’m beginning to think this is it. I had assumed that there was something about the segments being exactly 3 or 4 1/2 minutes in order to fit into some kind of programming scheme, because I know Muzak programmed different moods and tempos for each hour of the day. From its inception in 1934, Muzak operated by running wires from phonographs. Since electromagnetic tape technology was a product of World War II espionage, I thought maybe by 1948 they’d be using tape instead of records, but perhaps not. One article I read suggested that 4’33” was deliberately three seconds too long to fit into a Muzak slot, but now this doesn’t make any sense, since a 12-inch 78 could hold between four and five minutes. Maybe it is this simple. Cage’s reference to “canned” music, if all he meant was 78 rpm records, had misled me.
Three cheers! We did it! You’re all in the book! 


  1. says

    I couldn’t tell you specifics about Muzak, but since we’re in the 40’s and still pre-tape (1948 was the year 33 1/3 LP disks and commercial magnetic tape were introduced, so they were barely available), it probably has to do with the standard lengths of 78rpm records. The normal 10″ record held around 3:00-3:30 on a side; there was also a 12″ version that held around 4:30-5:00.
    Muzak then was “streamed” by wire direct to subscribers, and likely used larger or slower broadcast disks (up to about 16″) for this; but the initial recordings were probably still made to the standard 78 rpm-side lengths.

  2. says

    Before the LP was introduced later in 1948 (I just looked it up), 78 RPM records held 3 to 3.5 minutes of music, max. As you know, “canned music” meant records, not just Muzak.

  3. Sara Heimbecker says

    I certainly don’t mind that Cage has hijacked your blog. I’ve been enjoying the discussion quite a bit.
    I have no strong evidence of this, but my first impression is that Cage wasn’t very savvy about distinguishing between different kinds of popular musics. He may have heard that tin pan alley or crooner songs were typically between 3-4 1/2 minutes and he may have extended that to “Muzak.”
    This off-hand comment certainly doesn’t warrant a “thank you,” but it may spark some more ideas.

  4. Herb Levy says

    I don’t have a source for it, though there are at least a couple of books on muzak as a company that I remember seeing over the years, but since the company was programming versions of pop songs it only makes sense that they’d be dealing with the standard length of those which were, for the most part, less than three and a half, four minutes at the time of Cage’s talk.
    I also recall that in the original theory behind muzak as a program to inspire workers, posited alternating periods (I think 15-20 minutes long) of music with similar periods of no music.

  5. syro0 says

    Probably this is too simple, and admittedly I don’t know about the exact technology used by Muzak, but I don’t think it’s quite coincidental that 3 and 4 1/2 minutes are about the limitations of the 10-inch and 12-inch 78 rpm records of the day.
    KG replies: I think you got it. See update.

  6. says

    According to Muzak’s website, in 1933 they “began transmitting music over phone lines. Central studios played records – the first 33 1/3 rpm records and the first ever done on vinylite rather than shellac.” So it sounds like they were probably using RCA Victor’s long playing “Program Transcription” discs. According to this website: “whereas in the 1930s Muzak was essentially the same as popular music and radio, by the 1940s it had gone its own way, creating a different level of attention and its own medium. Muzak had pioneered the use of long playing 33 1/3 rpm records in order to create more seamless soundscapes for its functional music.” So if the length of the 78 was a factor, it would have been an indirect one. I would be inclined to think that the length of the 78 effected the length of pop songs in general, and Muzak was essentially conforming to that standard.
    If you want to make the case for 3 and 4.5 minute lengths as specifications for Muzak rather than as approximations based on the reigning standards of pop music, though, the math works out nicely for the 15 minute blocks of time in the “stimulus progression” format. 5 three-minute songs is 15 minutes, or 2 three-minute songs and two 4:30 songs are also 15 minutes. But I’m inclined to agree with commenter John that Cage may simply have been using the term “canned” to refer to recorded commercial pop music generally.
    To me the really interesting question is why he spoke of selling the piece to Muzak specifically. Was it because he knew about “Stimulus Progression” and about the intended functionality of Muzak music, and he was interested in exploiting that non-art context? Did he know about the 15 minutes of silence after each 15 minutes of music, and was he playing with that relationship? Is the point that the silence of his proposed piece is not merely the absense of traditional music but the absense of a specific kind of functional music? The silence 4’33” doesn’t replace anything, but the Silence of “Silent Prayer” does. Is it about music you don’t listen to surrounding silence you do listen to?
    Or was he thinking of Muzak as the most extremely commercial entity in the commercial popular music world of the time? In that case, inserting his piece into the commercial context is part of the concept. In that case, the relationship to Jonathon Keats’s “MyCage” ringtone is especially interesting:
    How might he have intended the ultra-commercial context to effect the concept?
    Lots more questions than answers, but it’s an interesting topic and a fascinating quote.

  7. says

    In the 1930s (and, presumably, ’40s), “canned music” meant recorded music of all kinds, pop and classical and anything else. Constant Lambert’s book “Music Ho!” of 1934 has a chapter on “canned music” which is mostly about classical canned music.
    KG replies: Geez, I should break down and read that someday. Thanks.

  8. says

    I checked the book, and my memory was exaggerating. Lambert does have a chapter on “mechanical music” — records, radio, and movie soundtracks — and he does use the phrase “canned music” in that chapter, referring to classical recordings and broadcasts, but I was thinking he used “canned music” in the chapter title.
    His book is witty and ardent, though marred by racist attitudes.

  9. Kriemhild says

    I thought the timing was chance-determined. Also, the title page says that the work may last any length of time.
    KG replies: Well theoretically it was, but in 1948 Cage had already specified 4 and a half minutes, long before he got into chance processes. And he told William Fetterman that while he was adding up the chance durations, he used a Tarot card spread to tell him how to proceed. No one seems to really know quite how 4’33” was arrived at.