Source: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (1 ed. 2007; but 2008 Reprint ed. exists). p. 483 Middle.

  Although Cage avoided tonality and repetition in his music from 1950 onward, he hovered over the radical end of American music as a liberating spirit. He had done the preliminary work of dismantling the European "vogue of profundity," as he called it. In 1952, he scan- dalized a crowd at Black Mountain College by saying that Beethoven had misled generations of composers by structuring music in [1.] goal-oriented harmonic narratives [End of 1.] instead of letting it unfold moment by moment. At a New York gathering, he was heard to say, "Beethoven was wrong!" The poet John Ashbery overheard the remark, and for years afterward wondered what Cage had meant. Eventually, Ashbery approached Cage again. "I once heard you say something about Beethoven," the poet began, "and I've always wondered—" Cage's eyes lit up. "Beethoven was wrong!" he exclaimed. "Beethoven was wrong!" And he walked away.

What does 1 mean? The bolded appears too terse and vague to me.

  • did you just post on reddit music theory by any chance?
    – Some_Guy
    Oct 10, 2017 at 11:01
  • 1
    It's just John Cage trying to sound like he knows what he's talking about.
    – Stinkfoot
    Oct 10, 2017 at 18:43

3 Answers 3


Since it's Cage I assume he means it's too structured. Beethoven's pieces have clear narrative structures: beginning, middle and end. And also the smaller sections and harmonies are pretty vectorial, i.e. there's a clear direction where they're going musically, but also evocatively. It's all quite rigidly built. Everything fits together "perfectly" and if you were to leave something out the pieces crumble. It's like a really well crafted house where every nut and bolt has a specific intention and function.

Cage on the other hand was punk avant la lettre: he wanted to break free from the classical constraints on structure, melody and harmony. He believed in chaos and spontaneity. In his view music is something that arises, not necessarily from a strictly directed sequence of sounds. It can also be found in the (pseudo-) randomness of nature or even traffic. In the house analogy he'd go for a tree house, bound together with rope and duct tape.

Since Beethoven is a very influential composer he set the tone for many generations after him: composers trying to do the same as he did, creating rigid and strictly structured music. I think Cage's take was that this was detrimental to musical history, i.e. too many composers walked in line and followed Beethoven's well structured example.

  • It's like a really well crafted house where every nut and bolt has a specific intention and function.... In the house analogy he'd go for a tree house, bound together with rope and duct tape | That explains why Beethoven's music is still going strong, but virtually nobody listens much to John Cage, and 4′33″ remains his most famous work.
    – Stinkfoot
    Oct 10, 2017 at 18:48
  • While most of Cage's music is insufferable to listen to, he's been very influential to musical history. He taught us anything can be music if you provide a context/frame for it. Like Duchamp for modern art. With Cage and his ideological peers there would be no ambient, Velvet Underground or Kraftwerk. He showed that even cold, mechanical, emotionless music can be evocative - rage and frustration are emotions too ;) - and paved the way for electronic music. He's like the leading-tone to an atonal section in musical history :)
    – Creynders
    Oct 12, 2017 at 6:50
  • Hehe, should be "without Cage and his ideological peers [...]"
    – Creynders
    Oct 12, 2017 at 9:13
  • very influential to musical history Way to early to say that. When Beethoven was a young man, a list of 50 important composers was published. Of those about 8 regarded today as important. no ambient, Velvet Underground or Kraftwerk - I don't consider that a loss, or their impact in any way meaningful in the big picture, just because a some 60's or 70's kids liked them and the critics pandered to those audiences. Cage's pioneering is also way overblown. His main forte was marketing and PR. leading-tone to an atonal section - well put: I translate that as Useless.
    – Stinkfoot
    Oct 12, 2017 at 15:14
  • 1
    Not taken personally. I just meant that regardless of taste (I'm not ahuge Kraftwerk fan) they have been extremely influential to modern music. But that's just an opinion too, of course.
    – Creynders
    Oct 12, 2017 at 18:10

I'm not sure, but I think Cage meant that Beethoven set up expectations on what would come later in a composition and then eventually satisfied such expectations. Personally, I think Beethoven (like most great composers and writers) set up possibilities of what would come later; then his actual "completion" of the expectation would sound like it was inevitable. The big names (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Handle, Liszt...) then to compose so that one only perceives the complete structure after the piece is over. I think Cage preferred another esthetic perspective.


As far as I can tell, a goal-oriented harmonic narrative is one that sets up the expectation of a home key, a departure from it, and often (but not always!) a need to go back.

For example, I think the average sonata-allegro is a goal-oriented harmonic narrative:

  • Exposition: Home key-dominant/relative major

  • Development: Do things, eventually end up in the V chord of the home key

  • Recapitulation: Home key-home key/tonic major

Marches have weaker goal-oriented harmonic narratives, but they're still plenty strong enough to reveal themselves, IMO. The "Florentiner March" has a home key-subdominant harmonic narrative and ends in the subdominant key, but one of the lead-ups in the subdominant section revolves around the subdominant's V chord and is incredibly powerful.

You can even argue that Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" has a goal-oriented harmonic narrative--the verses are in E minor, the choruses are in G major (the relative major), and the music eventually truck-driver's-gear-changes to B flat major and fades away from there.

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