Four Unusual Musical Compositions

Feb 21, 2024

Last week, we talked about an interesting composition titled Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible) by the late John Cage and the effort to perform the song over the course of 639 years. That unique story has inspired us, and this week, we will explore this concept of unique and unusual musical compositions. We’ll start with another John Cage piece, titled 4’33”, then move on to the Toy Symphony, thought to be composed by Leopold Mozart, The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives, and then finish with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s One Note Samba.

Unusual Musical Compositions

4’33”

John Cage’s 4’33” is a truly unique piece of music, if you can even call it that. Initially composed in 1952 for any instrument or combination of instruments, the score specifically instructs performers not to play their instrument throughout the piece. With a length of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the piece is divided into three movements, lasting thirty seconds, two minutes and twenty-three seconds, and one minute and forty seconds, respectively. However, Cage said that the performers can determine the length of each movement as long as the entire piece is the proper length.

Because the musicians don’t actually play their instruments, the piece is marked by utter silence from the performers, while ambient sounds from the audience make up the “music.”

As you might expect, when 4’33” originally premiered in 1952, the piece was met with shock and controversy; many musicologists were forced to reevaluate their definition of music and questioned whether it qualified. Cage had intended the piece to be experimental with the goal of testing the audience’s attitude toward silence. He aimed to prove that, since absolute silence does not exist, any sounds in a given timeframe may constitute music. Furthermore, since 4’33” does not utilize harmony or melody, many musicologists consider it the birth of “noise music,” and it has been compared to Dadaist art. Moreover, 4’33” is emblematic of “musical indeterminacy” as the interpretation of the silence is left up to each individual audience member, encouraging them to explore their surroundings and themselves.

Despite the controversy, 4’33” has profoundly influenced modernist music and worked to further the genres of noise music and silent music. While both these genres remain controversial today, they continue to reverberate with many contemporary and experimental musicians.

Toy Symphony

The next of our unusual musical compositions is the Toy Symphony. This piece, dating from the 1760s, includes parts for toy instruments, including toy trumpet, ratchet, bird calls (cuckoo, nightingale, and quail), mark tree (a hanging chime instrument), triangle, drum, and glockenspiel. Toy Symphony features three movements and usually takes about seven minutes to perform.

While the unique instruments are certainly enough to land this piece on our list, it also has one more unique element: no one is quite sure who wrote it. Originally, the writer was long thought to be Joseph Haydn. However, more recent scholars name Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s father), Joseph Haydn’s younger brother Michael Haydn, or perhaps even the Austrian Benedictine monk Edmund Angerer. We may never know who the true composer is, thanks largely to its confused origins and the scarcity of related manuscript sources.

The Unanswered Question

Written by American composer Charles Ives as early as 1908 – more than 50 years before the musical minimalism movement began – the impact of The Unanswered Question can be felt throughout the piece. The song features three different ensembles: strings, brass, and flutes. What’s more, each ensemble is separate from the others and plays in wildly different rhythms and keys. The strings represent “The Silence of the Druids” and are hidden from the audience to create an eerie, disembodied sound; a solo trumpet poses “The Perennial Question of Existence,” and a quartet of woodwinds create “Fighting Answers,” which tries to provide an answer to the question of existence. However, this effort is in vain, as the woodwinds grow increasingly frustrated and dissonant until they finally give up.

One Note Samba

Samba de uma Nota Só, or One Note Samba as it’s known in English, is a bossa nova and jazz standard composed initially by Antônio Carlos Jobim with Portuguese lyrics by Newton Mendonça. It was first recorded in 1960 by João Gilberto for his album O Amor, o Sorriso e a Flor. The title refers to the song’s main melody line, which, at first anyway, consists of a series of notes, all with the same tone (most often D, as played in the key of G). This is played over a descending chord progression with a bossa nova rhythm. The first eight measures are made up of only D, followed by four measures of G, and then four more measures back at D. Then, and only then, does the song break into eight measures of a more conventional, scalar melody line.

The popular song reached its first wide audience on the Grammy-winning bossa nova LP Jazz Samba by Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd, and Keter Betts, which hit the number-one spot on the Billboard 200 in 1963. It has since been recorded dozens of times by famous artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Barbara Streisand, and Frank Sinatra.

Mainstream Music Lessons

While the world of unusual musical compositions is undoubtedly fascinating, if you’re looking to start your own musical journey, you’re probably interested in something a little more mainstream! The Music Studio offers Music Lessons You’ll Love for children and adults of all ages and skill levels. Discover your passion for music at The Music Studio! Choose from our in-person lessons taught in a safe and professional learning environment and our live and interactive online lessons. Whether you prefer in-person or online lessons, you receive the same proven lesson material taught by professional teachers.

Check out all our programs and sign up today!