John Cage – Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos: No. 1

It strikes me that this is a great set work for the exam. It doesn’t take long to cover, it is interesting and it is packed full of loads of stuff! Students should find this a fairly engaging piece and something that they can really enjoy studying and writing about. The music student should find that they engage with this piece really well.

But what most people would say is:

“That doesn’t really sound like music”


“That sounds random and weird”


But as I said to my class today, we are music students, not most people, and we need to look at things differently.

And yet those comments do lead us nicely into this piece and help us with that much needed Line of Argument for our essays. So let’s take the “most people” arguments and consider that what they mean when they suggest it “isn’t music”. What I think they are saying is that it doesn’t sound much like the music they listen to; well that is a good place to start. This piece has no melody, no real harmony and a very unusual structure. It is Avant-Garde, it is taking a very new direction and the sounds it generates are very different from the “norm”. It is good for students to consider these points and think about the other extremes in the Edexcel Anthology – Bach for example. It is good for students to see that music is about so much more than “The Classical Sound” and it can be so much more than Sonata or Verse & Chorus Form. Music is about Rhythm, Structure, Dynamics, Texture and all the things that Cage suitably works with in this wonderful piece.

So start with that discussion. What is it that people mean when they suggest something isn’t music? Because the other thing they often do is describe music as weird, random or strange. Now you only have to look at the two pages of preparations to know that this piece is anything but random and requires a huge amount of detail and control. The structure then goes on to prove that Cage must have spent a great deal of time planning this piece. The structure in many ways is way more exciting than Sonata Form, but maybe lets not worry about arguing that point!

I found today that what brought this piece to life with my Year 13 was the fact that we got to think about stuff other than melody, harmony, cadences and tonality. We got to consider texture and the true power of how texture can be varied across two instruments. We considered dynamics and how variety can bring change – the same true with accents and articulation. We looked at timbre and the true nature of sound and how it can be used in such a fascinating way. I love the fact that Cage goes into so much detail with his preparations.

It really is a great piece when you think about it, and I think it would be a great piece for students to tackle should they get a chance in Q6 to write an essay on it. The lines of argument are clear – It is an Avant-Garde piece that seeks to take music to a new place where Rhythm & Timbre are king!

Wider listening is also great because we can think about to how Debussy was influenced by Gamelan and look at the stark contrasts in structure between this and Mozart. We can link to the way in which the Beatles went on to discover new ground with technology and we can also link to how Hermann composed such an Avant Garde film score. The piece is packed full of rhythm and this too was important with Debussy and countless other composers throughout the anthology. And of course Cage also composed some other wonderful music and the other movements of this piece show how even a change in tempo can give a piece a different feel. I will be linking it to The Rite of Spring because Cage did eventually have choreography created to fit with these dances.

And the all important question today really was – What is Music? Was 4.33 really music?

I guess maybe we should start with Cage because what we start to see is that music is so much more than just melody and harmony. It is about design, form, creativity and ultimately timbre. The sound is always going to make or break a composition. Cage gives us such an exciting set of timbres, well planned and meticulously prepared. Hopefully I will have some essays from my students that I can share with you as I asked them to all go home and write one – I am hoping that this piece comes up in the essay part of the exam.

All I have to do now is stop them from wrecking the piano in the main hall with bolts and nails!


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