Source: John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings, p. 261 Bottom Left:

Five years later, when Schoenberg asked me whether I would devote my life to music, I said, "Of course." After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, "In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony." I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. [Bold mine] He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall."

I'm not sure which meaning of 'harmony' John Cage intended, and Cage's novel approach to harmony suggests his not intending to mean Western tonal music's harmony:

Western music is based on major and minor triads. The reason why these chords are so central is that they are consonant in terms of both fusion and lack of roughness. They fuse because they include the perfect fourth/fifth interval. They lack roughness because they lack major and minor second intervals. No other combination of three tones in the chromatic scale satisfies these criteria.

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    Even the likes of Schoenberg sometimes spout nonsense. Show me what Steve Reich's "clapping music" has to do with harmony, and I might change my mind about using the word "nonsense". There are musical traditions that have been around for millennia with no use of harmony (in the western sense of the word) whatever - e.g. classical Indian music.
    – user19146
    Aug 24, 2017 at 2:52
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    I think you're a bit confused. When John Cage said he had no feeling for harmony, I believe he did mean he had no feeling for typical Western tonal harmony. In my opinion it was this disregard for it which led him to develop his own unique way of looking at harmony. Aug 29, 2017 at 3:11

1 Answer 1


First let's consider that it is Schoenberg who asks the question and uses the word "harmony". In is book THEORY OF HARMONY he defines (pag.13) harmony as

"...the study of simultaneous sounds (chords) and of how they may be joined with respect to their architectonic, melodic, and rhythmic values and their significance, their weight relative to one another."

It's a pretty broad definition, but the insertion of the word "chord" seems to indicate that tonal harmony is what's on his mind (and it is, indeed, mostly what the book is about).

Now this is a relatively early work from Shoenberg (written in 1910, before he developed dodecaphony and all that), so he could have broadened the definition later on to include alternative non tonal systems. However, from what little I know about the theory of dodecaphony, the word "harmony" is not used to describe that system. Words like "system", or the preferred word by Shoenberg, "method" are used. Shoenberg defined dodecaphony as a

"Method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another" [Schoenberg, Arnold. 1975. As quoted in Wikipedia].

The word "harmony" does not enter the definition, which seems to indicate that he still associated the word "harmony" with classical tonal harmony.

It's also important to remember that for Shoenberg atonalism and dodecaphony were an evolution from tonal harmony, which remained an important theoretical basis to support the composer's efforts:

"Schoenberg viewed his development as a natural progression, and he did not deprecate his earlier works when he ventured into serialism." [Wikipedia]

Taking all this into consideration it seems to me that when asking the question in 1934 or 35, Shoenberg considered the meaning of "harmony" to be traditional tonal harmony. It seems reasonable that after two years studying with the master, there would be some common understanding of language and such critical concepts, so we can admit (even if it is Cage who is quoting Shoenberg some 20 odd years later) that in his answer Cage uses the word in the same sense.

To reinforce this view there's a very interesting paper by James Tenney, "John Cage and the Theory of Harmony" (1983). Tenney was a music theorist with a particular interest in the work of John Cage, so his saying is probably relevant in the interpretation of Cage's meaning.

In Tenney's view,

"...the very meaning of the word “harmony” has come to be so narrowly defined that it can only be thought of as applying to the materials and procedures of the diatonic/triadic tonal system of the last two or three centuries".

And according to him, Cage thought of harmony as being a constraint or barrier (the "wall" he himself talks about in the OP's original quote) that he should escape from:

"There were many such walls, but “harmony” — in its narrowest sense (the materials and procedures of traditional, tonal, textbook harmony) — was for Cage a particularly obstructive one:

[now quoting from Cage himself]

"Harmony, so-called, is a forced abstract vertical relation which blots out the spontaneous transmitting nature of each of the sounds forced into it. It is artificial and unrealistic. (1954)"

It seems that Tenney's view was also that when Caged used the word "harmony" he meant mainly "traditional, tonal, textbook harmony".

It seems that by (purposely?) not using the word "harmony" to describe different systems of composition, both Shoenberg and Cage want to make explicit the freedom from the rules of "traditional" harmony. However, whereas Shoenberg still considers "harmony" as a building block for learning and to evolve to other systems, Cage (as already commented by Craig Curtis) wants to discard it altogether.

BTW, Tenney's paper is rather interesting in his attempt to broaden the concept of harmony to cover different systems to organize pitch in music.

"The word ["harmony"] has a very long and interesting history, however, which suggests that it need not be so narrowly defined, and that the “continued evolution of the theory of harmony” might depend on — among other things — a broadening of our definition of “harmony."

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