On Musical Selection in Research: 2. The Control

Did you hear that minimalist joke? It goes, “Two Irishmen walk past a bar.”


In October 1965, an art journalist named Barbara Rose published an article entitled “ABC Art” in the influential Art In America magazine. In February 2019, I won the award for opening sentence with most instances of “art” in it. These two facts are probably unrelated. Probably.

Her title referred to a term, predating minimalism, which described emerging post-WWII American tendencies to go “back to basics” in creative movements. How artistic movements emerge is necessarily vague, but we can trace the roots of this particular tendency as a response to abstract expressionism (Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Kline), as the post-war appropriation of Japanese zen aesthetic, and as an extension of modernist reductivism. It has the distinction of being the first creative movement fueled mostly by Americans, and it influenced not only painting, but film, architecture, poetry, prose, and, of course, music.

More is less, as the saying almost goes, and artists in the fifties and sixties explored what they could remove from their art form and still call it their art form. This wide-scale decision to increase the art world’s negative space makes it a particularly good place to begin, because they were asking exactly the same question I did in part one: What ingredients can we remove from a cake recipe and still end up baking a cake?

As a disclaimer, chronological borders of musical epochs are fuzzy, and exceptions exist in all things. Examples I give in this series, as links or otherwise, are not meant to be comprehensive. They merely provide a starting reference point for those who might want to delve a little deeper on their own time.

We will not be working through movements in chronological order. Instead, we’ll be working from the foundational elements upward. We’ll focus mostly on the last century or so, the first half of which was kind of a genre Wild West which you can read all about on Wikipedia. We’ll start with a revolutionary response to all that 1900s zaniness, the silent elephant in the room, the (arguably) most well-known early experimental musical composition in history: John Cage’s 4’33”.

Silence and Minimalism

Full disclosure. My MFA is from CalArts, a school closely associated with John Cage. Even fuller disclosure, I focused heavily on his works during my first six months of study there, culminating in a performance where I performed some part of all 90 Song Books in a single performance during a celebration of his centenary. To my knowledge, I’m the only person in history to do this, and mention it to display just how interesting I find his body of work.

The Wikipedia article about 4’33” is great. It mentions that, in 1947 when 4’33” was first conceived, the term minimalist composition didn’t exist. Neither did it in 1952, when first performance by David Tudor actually happened. The above-mentioned “ABC Art” term didn’t even happen till 1965. So, some might question the legitimacy of referring to this this piece as minimalist, and that would be a legitimate concern. However, I’d argue that like the poet Ezra Pound, John Cage happened upon the minimalist approach through his independent study of naturalism and zen Buddhism, establishing himself as a bit of a trendsetter. Still, even in 2019, you’ll come across spirited debates in composer’s forums across the globe arguing whether 4’33” rcounts as a musical composition at all, as opposed to a form of experimental theater.

Toward examing that exact assertion, let’s defer to the cake model of the 4+3 musical elements.

  • Rhythm
  • Pitch
  • Harmony
  • Timbre
  • Structure
  • Context
  • Loudness

4’33” has none of these, right? Objectively, that’s incorrect. For starters, many don’t realize the score does indeed have a structure, which looks like this:

John Cage’s 4’33” (In Proportional Notation). Full recreation here.

The lines can be interpreted to mean, “do something here,” and represent a proportion of time within the overall length. Such actions might be something like, flourish a hand, turn a page, open or close the lid, stand up, etc. The total length was inspired by the average length of popular radio songs at the time, a genre which Cage admittedly detested. He came up with the length of each section by using chance procedures, probably something like reading yarrow stalks from the I Ching.

Okay, so, it has a structure. What else? The piece obviously has context – a very deliberate one. It was composed with a direct, emphatic championing of Buddhist ideals, which Cage interpreted as giving more credence to meditative contemplation and stillness than did most music at the time. With a smirk, we might suggest that it does have loudness, namely, none. But in fact, Cage didn’t consider the piece to be about silence at all. Its purpose was to show that true silence is impossible, a concept he found comforting.

In 1951, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. Such a chamber is also externally sound-proofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he wrote later, “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.” Cage had gone to a place where he expected total silence, and yet heard sound. “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” The realization as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4′33″.

John Cage on 4’33”

The piece is a call to perceive the world more closely, a sentiment that many artists found lacking in post-war America. 4’33” became known as a strangely hopeful act of rebellion by the mere audacity of calling itself a musical work. So, to deny its validity as a musical composition is denying the importance of its context on both the immediate and sociocultural level.

The following analysis of David Tudor’s 1952 performance summarizes our conclusion:

“Cage’s piece comprised of four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence by the pianist and his instrument requires engagement of the listener’s perceptual capacities in order to recognize the work as a formal musical composition evolving in real time. Experiencing the piece in silence, the listener’s attention is focused upon the perception of all ambient sounds. This process of attending to the external environmental sonic landscape occurring within a specific time and space yields within the listener a heightened consciousness of perception per se, and in turn, a consciousness of the self as perceiver.”

Biofeedback and the arts: listening as experimental practice, Valdes, Thurtle, 2005

With a notated form and length, and perhaps one of the most influential contextual statements in the last century, we must consider the piece a musical composition – perhaps the bare minimum of what might historically be called a musical work. It is not just the simple score that makes the piece. It is the idea, the man who had it, and the time period in which it was conceived and performed that provides staying power. This is essential to note, because 4’33” was by no means the first or only “silent” musical composition. Thus, in this one particular instance, the power of its context overtakes the lack of other musical elements shared by other silent works. Examples of such contextual importance are actually quite common in the art world in cases like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring the punk movement, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, and Duchaump’s Fountain.

Or Duchamp’s Mona Lisa, while we’re at it.

I went into this in such detail because 4’33” is one of the best known examples of removing almost everything about sound organization, while still resulting in a viable musical composition. While it might seem that ambient-sound-focused meditation imposed by a chance-procedures composer is a terrible place to start for neurological music research, it’s actually perfect for a kind of hilarious equivalent. It’s a great conversation about what “context” really means, and it also, quite literally, points out an issue plaguing music research today.

Silence and the Brain

The scientific control is designed to minimize all other variables in an experiment except for the one under scrutiny. For example, the placebo group for a study on new medication is the control group, and an empty platter is the control state for a study that asks the question, “What happens when I combine certain ratios of ingredients in a certain way at a certain heat for a certain amount of time?” If a cake ends up on the platter, we’ve got a great and hopefully delicious result.

Science cake. Hooray!

The control in a sound-attentive experiment presents difficulties for the same phenomenon upon which Cage’s 4’33” shines a light. It is ridiculously difficult to separate sound experience from any experience at all.

“Human audition involves the perception of hundreds of thousands of bits of information received each second. Since one doesn’t have ear-lids, one continues to hear sound even when asleep.”

Ferrington 1994, Schwartz 1973

Cage noted this lack of ear-lids in the anechoic chamber. Perfect silence is impossible for humans with a working auditory system, and because we are always hearing, we run into the issue of how the human auditory interacts with attention. Take the Chanda/Levitin paper’s refutation of the oft-derided “Mozart effect”:

“We also note that the studies reviewed here nearly always lack a suitable control for the music condition to match levels of arousal, attentional engagement, mood state modification, or emotional qualities. In other words, a parsimonious null hypothesis would be that any observed effects are not unique to music, but would be obtained with any number of stimuli that provide stimulation along these axes. Indeed, this was found to be the case with the so-called Mozart effect, which purported to show that intelligence increases after listening to music. The ‘control’ condition in the original study was for subjects to do absolutely nothing. The Mozart effect disappears, however, when control participants are given something to do, virtually anything at all.

“The Neurochemistry of Music, Chanda, Levitin, 2013, emphasis mine.

Another way of describing this effect: Bored brain bad, stimulated brain good. Boredom here is defined as a state of relatively low arousal and
dissatisfaction, which is attributed to an inadequately stimulating situation [1].

A large number of studies involving music could probably achieve similar results with any number of nonmusical stimuli – reading a magazine, watching a movie scene with only dialogue, talking with friends, or mindful meditation as John Cage demonstrated. The reason for this is that all forms of stimulus/nonstimulus experiences fall within some spectrum of cognitive attention. And that relates to a wide-ranging system in the human brain known as the cycle of anticipation and reward.

The full fancy term for this is the mesolimbic dopamine reward cycle. Dopamine itself isn’t a “pleasure” neurochemical; rather, it regulates the perpetual release and reuptake of natural serotonin and opiods in the body in a process called dopaminergic modulation. Lots of fascinating research exists about this, which I’ll mostly skip due to length constraints. But here’s what it boils down to:


The disgust humans feel in response to boredom is universal, as is our appetite for relief from it.


I don’t use the term “disgust” lightly. Take this quote from Peter Toohey’s book Boredom: A Lively History:

Robert Plutchik, writing before this study, maintained that an emotion such as boredom emerges as a derivative or adaptation of this primary emotion of [disease-related] disgust. It serves, in his view, the same adaptive function, though in a milder or more inward-turning manner, as disgust. If disgust protects humans from infection, boredom may protect them from ‘infectious’ social situations: those that are confined, predictable, too samey for one’s sanity. If all of this is true, then it might follow that boredom, like disgust, is good for you – I mean good for your health. Both emotions are evolved responses that protect from ‘disease or harm’.”

Peter Toohey, Boredom: A Lively History, 2011

“Appetite” is also used purposefully. It refers to the technical term describing one part of the human reward system. The appetitive state is the anticipation of a learned pleasing stimulus, leading to future reinforcement of the pleasure response, leading to increased goal-oriented behavior. This is well-studied, with particular regard to the association between anticipation in our most advanced brain structures, the cortex, and our deepest structure, primal, ancient, goal-oriented regions, as thoughtfully explained by Dr. Robert Zatorre.

Because of this highly integrated neural mechanism, music is excellent at provoking a strong reward response.

Consider that, without proper controls, the concept of stimulus itself is problematic. Imagine a bored test subject who suddenly hears a bit of music. How would the researcher know for certain if a study’s resulting data relates to the type of distraction involved, or simply to the mechanism of distraction itself? And again, if the music is relaxing, would the results relate to the effects of relaxing music… or any type of relaxing activity? The research is often vague on this important distinction.

John Cage’s silent piece calls for the audience to perform an act synonymous with sound-oriented mindful meditation, often used as a method for relaxation. Meditation activates the autonomic nervous system centers for attention and control. It can be used to relieve negative feelings such as stress and anxiety by guided attention, whether that attentiveness is directed at one’s breathing, outside stimuli, or an internally conceptualized abstract concept. In a purely contextual composition, with nothing but a bit of visual theatrics and zero notated pitches, rhythms, or harmonies, Cage’s piece might produce results which are indistinguishable from the therapeutic properties of “relaxing music.”

Your next logical question would be, “How much evidence is there to show that relaxing music, in a controlled environment, has a relaxing effect on the human brain?”

The answer may shock you! Click here to learn more!

Just kidding.

The answer is none. Science has never once produced a reliable study that convincingly proves relaxing music, in and of and by itself, reduces stress.

The Myth of “Relaxing” Music

In all my reading for this series, one musician-turned-researcher named Michael Thaut consistently stands out with well-considered and controlled studies. His study examining stress-levels of students under the following three conditions:

  1. Experimenter-selected music
  2. Subject-selected music
  3. Absence of music

The resulting data showed that test subjects achieved relaxation responses in all three categories, even during the silence control session.

“Results indicated that… significant relaxation responses were achieved by the subjects in all three experimental conditions. Neither the presence/absence of music nor the choice of music appeared to make a difference in the relaxation response. The MAACL revealed that depression scores did not change under any of the three conditions, while all subjects reduced their hostility scores regardless of condition.”

The Influence of Subject-Selected versus Experimenter-Chosen Music on Affect, Anxiety, and Relaxation, Thaut, Davis, 1993

You’ll find a similar result in this 1997 study, and this one from 2000, and so on. This has several implications, including that, if a study only uses silence as its control when discussing music, they might accidentally be studying boredom, attention, and distractability instead of the effects of music itself.

Which puts silent meditation, and thus Cage’s 4’33”, in a bit of a “more music than music” situation. Soft, quiet, low-key music can serve to fill in that last bit of background neural ambience without actually being distracting itself – sort of similar to leaving the fan on to help with falling asleep. We can refer to Barry Blesser’s loudness article from part one for its concept of neural spaces. We can close our eyes to filter visual cues, but we must create some sort of low-level stimulus to filter out aural cues from our environment. Blesser’s concept of attention works whether in the extreme or not; i.e., we don’t have to be at a rock concert to observe that white noise effectively helps tune out distracting noises.

We are quite good at tuning various neural spaces to our tastes. We can purposefully use low-level, unobtrusive sound to act as a sort of neural ear-lid, since we lack the handy flesh-flaps our eyes got. At this low level, music is simply one type of cognitive distraction, which we can use to expertuly tune our attention levels to whatever concentrative act we’re performing. This might include falling asleep, tedious office work, or a yoga session.

While death metal yoga sessions do exist, concept is considered humorous at best, proving the point by deliberate contrast. It does look pretty fun, though.

I am in no way asserting that quiet, minimal, or ambient music is identical to white noise or “lesser” music. Indeed, it takes great skill to organize sound in such a minimalistic way while still achieving its intention. I am, however, saying that the relaxative properties of such music might be thought of as expertly tuned cognitive low-level distraction. An interesting research question might be to look into how much longer a minimalist or ambient composition might function to distract someone vs. a box fan or nature sounds or something, especially when considered in relation to the tastes and experiences of individual test subjects.

Describing An Audio Recording

Contemporary minimal music is still meditative and often theatrical in presentation, like this lovely piece by Michael Pisaro:

Asleep, Desert, Choir, Agnes, 2016, by Michael Pisaro with Dog Star Orchestra

This particular work is highly textural. It depends largely on presenting interesting timbres in a slow, steady progression. It has neither clear melodies nor any discernible pulse. Its visual presentation lends itself to the experience both in the geographic arrangement of the performers and the interesting amplified items – many of which are naturalistic. The paper score is visual, meaning it doesn’t have a staff, key, time signature, and little to no formal musical notation. Rather, the performers use timepieces to cue certain actions, a technique utilized by a vast number of contemporary compositions. This work contains a slow harmonic progression, provided in large part by Pisaro’s electric guitar over the course of 30 minutes.

Taking all this information, we can rearrange it more formally using our previously described musical elements:

Rhythm. Arrhythmic, pulseless, slow.

Melody. Nonmelodic, no individual pitch content.

Harmony. Harmony is present in clean electric guitar sound. Moves very slowly. Other sounds occur without relation to an overall harmonic structure.

Timbre. Richly present. While traditional instruments are used, many employ extended techniques or are not played traditionally. Electronics are used only for amplification. No human voice. No computer-generated sounds.

Dynamic. Extremely quiet.

Structure. Present but vague, slow, indiscernible. The recording is over 30 minutes long.

Context. Live acoustic performance. Naturalistic, contemplative, meditative, esoteric, academic.

Combining the above statements into a simple paragraph and including it in a research paper might be a really, really good way to give the reader a thorough explanation of the stimulus used.

The above exercise is in no way meant to summarize the experience of listening to the work, nor should it become some nightmarish form of the Pritchard Scale. I merely suggest a more discrete music classification method in a research than is currently standard.

In Summary

This won’t be the last time I mention minimalism in this series. The Cage piece is simply used to present a sort of analytical control group, the absolute default, the literal minimum by which we can define the term “music.” I also needed to establish an example of contemporary minimalism with the Pisaro piece, because the next part of this series will introduce rhythm into our musical cake. And that means, among other things, post-minimalism. Hooray!

Minimalist rock. Get it?
Thanks for reading!


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