Music of Changes


—John Cage, “Seriously Comma” (1966)

One of the dilemmas of mental life is that people need to know of things that are untrue, and yet need to know that these things are untrue.

—Daniel T. Gilbert, Douglas S. Krull, and Patrick T. Malone,
“Unbelieving the Unbelievable: Some Problems in the
Rejection of False Information,” Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology
, vol. 59, No. 4 (1990)

System 1 and System 2—that’s what Daniel Kahneman calls them, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow: the two tracks on which the brain operates. In simple terms: System 1 is intuitive, biased, judgmental, and nearly always on; System 2 is analytical, rational, reflective—and sluggish. When we make errors of judgment, it tends to be because System 1 has jumped to a conclusion that System 2 can’t be roused enough to correct. It’s why we have such poor intuition about statistics, about aggregate vs. anecdotal evidence, about the amount of randomness and noise in the data the world presents to us.

Randomness and noise: a wholly appropriate thing to talk about on John Cage’s 100th birthday. I’ve been thinking about the musical implications of System 1 and System 2 lately. Implication #1: musical works that are widely considered “great” play to System 1’s particular proclivities, leveraging music’s basic capacity for simple tension and release to create the illusions of causality, connections, and narrative qualities that System 1 is primed to see in whatever stimulus comes its way. Implication #2 is related: music that appeals more to System 2, more intricate and calculated, more geared toward an active investigation of what musical relationships there are in the score, rather than what relationships only seem to be on the surface—well, a lot of people aren’t going to like it. It’s easy to consider serial music in this way: completely shunting aside the mechanisms of System 1 in order to try and shake System 2 awake. In a society like ours—capitalist/post-capitalist, consumption-based, driven by appeals, both earnest and cynical, to System 1’s intuitive reflexes—that can be a hard sell.

For a long time, Cage’s music was an even harder sell than even the most hardcore modernist serialism. And more and more, I think this is because, paradoxically, Cage was a much better composer than he has customarily been given credit for. Cage the thinker is lauded, but Cage the craftsman was just as formidable. He knew how music was put together. He knew the techniques and the forms, the tension and release. He knew, in other words, how to make music appeal to System 1—which is why his music is so shocking. Serialism, at least harmonically, is selectively constructive, bypassing System 1 in order to attempt to power up System 2. But Cage’s music is destructive: it fully engages System 1, only to fully undermine it. It presents, on a carefully-constructed platter, an opportunity to imagine a musical narrative, then drops the platter on the floor, smashing it to bits.

It’s the pattern that Gilbert, Krull and Malone talked about in the paper quoted up at the top there. Through a elegantly tricky experiment—presenting subjects with nonsense sentences, arbitrarily assigning them as true or false, then interrupting the subjects’ comprehension with an unrelated task before testing them on their recall—they demonstrated that, in order to disbelieve something, we actually believe it first: the mind doesn’t immediately decide whether things are true or false, it automatically assumes everything is true at first, and only (very briefly) later sorts out those things that aren’t. As Kahneman sums it up: “System 1 is gullible and biased to believe. System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy.” We believe in order to disbelieve.

It strikes me that Cage’s music is playing with this gullibility more often than not. His use of chance and indeterminacy, for example: parameters of musical events are turned over to chance, by design, with the audience’s full knowledge, and yet we still try and make an illusory musical story out of it. Presented with randomness, we infer causality; presented with the unrepeatable, we infer purpose and statement. Cage doesn’t just leverage System 1’s capacity for musical myth-making, he gets in our face with it, dissects it in front of us. Listening to Cage, we make all the assumptions that we make about music while, at the same time, being forced to confront the fact that they’re just assumptions, and largely unsupported ones at that.

No wonder it makes people uncomfortable. The leading image of Cage during his centennial year has been a combination of inventor and ringmaster, whimsically rewiring music history one roll of the dice at a time. But he was out to shake people up, no matter how much the birthday celebrations domesticate him. He was an anarchist and a radical. From the foreword to A Year from Monday:

My ideas certainly started in the field of music. And that field, so to speak, is child’s play…. Our proper work now if we love mankind and the world we live in is revolution.

“To forget that the moon is made of green cheese is to lose a precious piece of one’s childhood, but to act as though one believes this assertion is to forego the prospect of meaningful adult relationships,” Gilbert et al. note. “A ubiquitous paradox for natural thinking systems is that they must possess, but must not deploy, a wide range of false information.” For Cage, musical information was as false as any, but he figured out how to bring the paradox to the forefront in such a way that, he hoped, listeners would stop being so gullible, about music, about the world. “Once we give our attention to the practice of not-being-governed,” he wrote, “we notice that it is increasing.”

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