In the anechoic chamber

One element of studying Music from the Present to the Past is to periodically reassess one’s own definition of what music is. Perhaps the biggest challenge to any definition comes with the task of putting on your own performance of John Cage’s indeterminacy piece 4’33”. This philosophical composition was created by Cage to demonstrate that any sounds can be seen as constituting music. Each performance is unique, and consists entirely of the incidental sounds heard during its four minutes and 33 seconds.

My own, done in the library of the teacher’s college I was working at in Tanzania, the librarian as my audience, consisted not of silence, but of the wind in the trees, a door slamming, voices ebbing and flowing in the college, birds chirping and one flying past the window, a text notification, a motorbike starting, chairs scraping on the floor, me scratching my own head, the librarian’s hanky flapping, her voice demanding “sing a song!”, then the noise of her leaving the room.

The perfect place to delve into the idea of silence is in an anechoic chamber. Cage got the inspiration for 4’33” from a visit he made in 1951 to the chamber at Harvard University. Such a chamber is designed to have surfaces absorbent of sound waves, meaning that each sound one makes is heard almost entirely from oneself, not from the reflections and echoes on surrounding objects that each sound usually carries with it to your ears. Reverberation is made up of early reflections (the first distinct echoes), and dense reverberation, consisting of many thousands of diffused echoes.¹


These reflections and echoes, as well as giving us aural information, enable our brains to locate ourselves in our environment (auralisation is the term for reproducing these acoustic sceneries using electroacoustics. For more information see the Icons of Sound website, here.

Wedge designs in the chamber walls trap sound waves, which become standing waves and do not escape as reflections. Sounds can therefore appear as if they are in a small area around you, and sounds made further from this area sound deadened and detached.

During my visit to the anechoic chamber at UCL, I felt as if I were in a space smaller than the chamber itself. Even when there are no other sounds, we can hear ourselves: Cage’s idea for 4’33” came from his realisation in the chamber that there is no such thing as silence. He could hear his body’s internal processes. Electronic producer A Sagittariun became acutely aware of his tinnitus during our chamber visit!


Anechoic chambers are not usually used for acoustic purposes, apart from experiments and testing speakers and other equipment. The chamber at UCL is used for the study of speech. For sound recording, musicians tend to use semi-anechoic chambers, aimed more at blocking out external noise than elimination of reflections.

I am going to write another blog about reverberant chambers and spaces, before looking at delay and reverb technology and sharing some sound clips.

View Charlotte’s blog here.


¹Richard Dobson & CDP


  1. Andy Glover-Whitley 21 November 2016 at 9:27 am

    Great blog about one of the great musical philosophers and about the chamber which is fascinating.

    I had the great pleasure of meeting Cage back in 1990 at the Musica Nova Festival in Glasgow and was able to have a short chat with him. I didn’t mention 4.33 and at the end of a very rewarding converstion with him he asked me “Don’t you want to know about THAT piece?” I answered “Why? You have already said it in the piece haven’t you?” He laughed at that and said “At last someone who knows my other thoughts on music, thank you.” He thanked me! Wow it should be us thanking him.

    He was a true Gentleman in the correct sense of the word, who was interested in everyone elses work rather than his own. Sorely missed in todays musical world when we could do with a figurehead just such as he.

    I look forward to you next blog.

  2. John Read 21 November 2016 at 9:53 am

    Charlotte, like you I have encountered Cage in the course of Music Present to Past which has been illuminating and caused me to listen to composers I would previously avoided. Howver much I try I fail to understand the fascination the academic world has for John Cage. But whatever I may say he was a great persuader and I found his interviews much more engaging than his music.

    Any of us who have used formal meditation have experienced 4’33” many times as have any Quakers amongst us. In this context it is notable that The Friends have in the past viewed music with suspicion and their services usually have up to an hour of silence which I have found engaging and a welcome change from being a church organist. But for my money this isnt music, which I am prepared to extend in definition to ” organised sound”. I do like my music to have beautiful sounds and a heartbeat. I suppose 4’33” at least has the latter.

    As a matter of slight interest I saw a copy of the score of 4’33” at an exhibition. I think it was a Barenreiter edition.

    All my non music studying friends whom I tell about Cage think we are quite mad and I am tempted to agree with them.

    That should blow my chances of a decent mark.(Andy I intend resuming study soon but I shall continue my sabbatical to do a little composition.)


  3. Fionagh Bennet 21 November 2016 at 1:20 pm

    Fascinating article, Charlotte. I have learnt a thing or two by reading it, thank you! It also ties up with what I’ve been reading in “The Brain” by David Eagleman, based on TV series of the same name. He explains out how our brains translate vibrations into sound, and how perceptions vary.

    However, I agree more with John, as 4’33 minutes of silent meditation is anything but silent,
    and being also familiar with Quaker meetings, plus being an organist into the bargain, feel that music should have organised sound and some sort of pulse.

  4. Charlotte Adams 23 November 2016 at 9:26 am

    Thank you Fiona, I’ve found some David Eagleman podcasts. The increasing links between neuroscience and philosophy today are fascinating. He brings up some topics I hadn’t considered before.

    I like this concept of being a ‘possibilian’.

    Thanks again!


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