John Cage’s Early Electronic and Tape Music

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Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


This blog post discusses John Cage’s early electronic and tape music. It covers some of his most famous works, including his ” Prelude for Tape Recorder” and ” Williams Mix.”


John Cage (1912-1992) was an American composer, known for his innovative and avant-garde work. He is considered one of the most important figures in 20th century music, and his influence can be heard in many different styles and genres.

Cage started out as a percussionist, but soon began experimenting with other sounds, including using recordings of environmental noise and voices. He was also one of the first composers to use electronic devices and tape recorders to create music. These early experiments laid the foundation for his later work, which often incorporated chance procedures and extended experimental techniques.

Cage’s best-known work is probably 4’33”, a composition for piano (or any other instrument) in which the performer does not play a single note. The “music” comes from the ambient noise of the room and the audience, who are left to their own thoughts and impressions during the piece. While some people find this work controversial, it has been incredibly influential for subsequent generations of composers.

If you’re interested in exploring Cage’s music, we’ve put together a list of some of his most important works, along with links to resources where you can learn more about him.

Early Electronic Music

John Cage’s seminal work in early electronic music helped to shape the course of avant-garde music in the 20th century. His work with electronic music and tape music was some of the earliest of its kind and had a profound influence on subsequent generations of composers.

“Imaginary Landscape No. 1”

John Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape No. 1” is one of the earliest examples of electronic music. It was composed in 1939 and uses two variable-speed turntables, each playing a different record. The speed of the turntables is controlled by a pair of ±2 volts DC voltmeters, which Cage called “volume indicators.” The voltmeters are connected to a power supply, and the output of the power supply is amplified and sent to a speaker.

The records used in “Imaginary Landscape No. 1” are specially prepared piano rolls, which have been cut so that they will play at different speeds. The pitches of the notes on the piano rolls are also adjusted so that they will be in tune with each other when played at the different speeds.

“Imaginary Landscape No. 1” is meant to be played continuously for 24 hours. At various points during the piece, the sound of one or both of the turntables will change, creating new sonic textures.

“Imaginary Landscape No. 4”

In 1952, American composer John Cage created one of the first purely electronic works of music, “Imaginary Landscape No. 4.” The piece was created using two variable-speed turntables, one playing a piano record and the other playing static from a radio tuned between stations. Cage manipulated the speed of the turntables to create shifting soundscapes.

Tape Music

Tape music is a type of music that uses recorded tapes to create sound. It was one of the first forms of electronic music. The first tape music was created in the 1930s by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. In the 1940s, John Cage and other composers started using tape music in their compositions.

“Williams Mix”

“Williams Mix” is a composition by John Cage, written in 1952. It is one of the earliest examples of Cage’s use of chance operations, a technique he would come to be known for. The piece is created by splicing together strips of magnetic tape, each containing different recordings. The tape is then played back at random, creating an ever-changing soundscape.

“Williams Mix” was inspired by Cage’s work with David Tudor on his “Piano Piece for David Tudor #1”. In that piece, Tudor was instructed to play the piano in any way he liked, with the only caveat being that he could not repeat anything he played. This use of chance operations led Cage to wonder if he could create a similar work using taped sounds.

Cage asked Williams what kind of sounds he would like to hear, and Williams gave him a list which included bird sounds, factory noises, and the sound of breaking glass. Cage then went out and recorded these sounds himself, using a variety of microphones and recording devices. He then cut the tapes into strips and spliced them together at random.

The resulting composition was first performed in 1952 at Black Mountain College, with Williams operating the tape machine. It has since been performed several times, most notably at Cage’s 70th birthday concert in 1982.

“Fontana Mix”

John Cage’s “Fontana Mix” is a classic example of early electronic and tape music. The piece is composed of six sections, each with its own unique sound. The sections are meant to be played in any order, allowing the listener to create their own mix of the piece.


In conclusion, John Cage’s early electronic and tape music had a profound impact on the course of 20th-century music. By breaking down the barriers between noise and music, he paved the way for a new era of creativity in which all sounds could be used as musical material. His innovative use of technology also opened up new possibilities for composers, giving them new ways to create and manipulate sound. Although Cage himself would later move on to other musical styles and forms, his early electronic and tape music remains an important part of his legacy.

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