Music for Piano (Cage)

Music for Piano (Cage)

Music for Piano is a series of 85 indeterminate musical compositions for piano by American avant-garde composer John Cage. All of these works were composed by making paper imperfections into sounds using various kinds of chance operations.


General information

The use of paper imperfections was suggested by fast techniques in painting. Cage recounts that using the I Ching was always a very slow process. In 1952 a dancer (probably Jo Anne Melcher, the dedicatee of Music for Piano 1) made a request for a piece of music which was needed urgently, and Cage had to find a way to speed up the process:

Certainly I intended to continue working [...] by consulting the I Ching as usual. But I also wanted to have a very rapid manner of writing a piece of music. Painters, for example, work slowly with oil and rapidly with water colors [...] I looked at my paper, and I found my "water colors": suddenly I saw that the music, all the music, was already there.[1]

The Music for Piano series comprises the following works:

  • Music for Piano 1 (1952)
Dedicated to dancer Jo Anne Melcher, who commissioned the work for her choreography "Paths and Events".[2] The score (six pages) only specifies pitches (using whole notes), leaving the durations to the performer. Cage composed the piece one staff at a time. First, he set up a time interval within which to work. Then he would mark as many paper imperfections as he could find during that time.[3]
  • Music for Piano 2 (1953)
Composed for dancer Louise Lippold, as were In a Landscape (1948) and A Flower (1950). The pitches are again derived from paper imperfections, but this time a predefined rhythmic controls the density of notes.[3] Chance operations (with the I Ching) are used to determine methods of sound production. Tempo and dynamics are left to the performer. The score is four pages long.
  • Music for Piano 3 (1953)
Dedicated to Morton Feldman. Starting with this piece, all subsequent entries in the series are exactly one page long, and the number of notes and/or sounds is determined by the I Ching chance operations.
  • Music for Piano 4–19 (for any number of pianos) (1953)
Composed for Merce Cunningham's choreography titled Solo Suite in Space and Time. Starting with these sixteen pieces, all subsequent entries in the series may be performed together, either in sequence or simultaneously, by any number of pianists. Overlapping of and silences between pieces are allowed.
  • Music for Piano 20, for piano (1953)
Composed for the same Cunningham choreography as in Music for Piano 4-19.
  • Music for Piano 21–36, Music for Piano 37-52 (for piano solo or in an ensemble) (1955)
Composed for the same Cunningham choreography as in Music for Piano 4-19 and Music for Piano 20. This time methods of sound production include noises produced by hitting the piano in various places. The two groups of sixteen pieces are different in that the limits for chance operations using the I Ching are 1–127 for the first group and 1-32 for the second group, numbers corresponding to relative difficulty of performance. Cage described the compositional process in full in a 1957 article, which was later reprinted in his first book, Silence.
  • Music for Piano 53–68 (for piano solo or in an ensemble) (1956)
  • Music for Piano 69–84 (for piano solo or in an ensemble) (1956)
Both collections were composed for the same Cunningham choreography, Solo Suite in Space and Time. Music for Piano 53–68 is dedicated to, and was first performed by, Grete Sultan.[4]
  • Music for Piano 85 (for piano and electronics) (1962)
Dedicated to Moriyasu Harumi and composed in Osaka.[5] This last piece in the series is different from the others: it is to be performed on its own, and live electronics are to be used. Glissandi are used and feedback instructions are given in the score.


  • Edition Peters 6729-36. (c) 1960 by Henmar Press. (not including Music for Piano 85)



  1. ^ Cage quoted in Steven Johnson. The New York Schools of Music and Visual Arts, p. 45. Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0815333641
  2. ^ Steven Johnson. The New York Schools of Music and Visual Arts, p. 45. Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0815333641
  3. ^ a b Pritchett, 94.
  4. ^ Revill, 185.
  5. ^ See [1], information taken from the score in New York Public Library.

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