Cahill Music

Music Theory Musings

Category: Music Theory

Industrial Meditation…

There is always noise in my head. Sometimes it is intentional – playing, studying or teaching music, listening to it, singing whilst doing the washing up… Sometimes is isn’t – lists rolling around my head of things I need to do, overthinking things when I don’t want to, worries and anxieties…

I have been thinking a lot about auditory masking this week since we have been looking at it as part of my MSc in Music Psychology. Auditory masking is where one sound can no longer be heard because, at a certain volume, another sound will cover or ‘mask’ it.

Usually, this refers to actual sounds – not being able to hear the whir of the microwave when you turn on the vacuum cleaner for example. But I think we do this all the time with music – we mask the sounds we feel like we can hear but which are not really there. We distract ourselves – cover the unpleasant noise with something more bearable.

“Someone said my music is about revealing sounds that were always there but you’ve never heard them exactly


People talk a lot about meditation and mindfulness these days as a way to feel calm and focussed. Personally, I find ‘noise’ very calming and I also think you can interpret mindfulness in a whole lot of ways. I like industrial sounds and find them very relaxing (think the screeching of the London Undergound trains or the Eraserhead soundtrack!). I am not sure why this is, but one thing I have noticed is how well these sounds work when I want to shut off my own noise. I suppose it’s not that strange – babies are known for falling asleep almost instantly to vacuums and hairdryers – and white noise apps are directly marketed at new parents!

Add Violence EP, Nine Inch Nails 2017

So, as a musician, psychology student, and someone who needs absolutely no excuse to talk about Nine Inch Nails, I wanted to share some of my favourite meditations with the world. There are loads more of course, but these two work really well I think.

The Background World from Nine Inch Nails’ Add Violence is my absolute favourite meditation music. It’s a great song anyway but it’s the end that makes it so unusual. The last seven and a half minutes of the song is just a loop of the same 12 beats over and over. But each time they get slightly more distorted – you hardly even notice it happening – until by the end of the song you are listening to basically pure, beautiful, wonderfully calming distortion.

Crucially, each repetition has a tiny gap between, like a hiccup, disrupting the flow – so your mind may still wander, but you keep being brought back to focus on the beginning of the loop every few seconds, until the distortion covers even the tiny gap.

If you really allow yourself to focus on just the complex, ever changing sound, gradually your mind should clear. Just as the music succumbs to the noise, so will your thoughts. By the end, you might feel quite relaxed (just don’t have it autoplay anything afterwards!)

Alvin Lucier – Two Circles. This is my favourite version.

If you want to try something else (which is less music, more sound), have a listen to Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room (1969). The performer is sitting in a room and speaks a few lines which are recorded. This is then played back into the room and that sound is rerecorded. This is done over and over again until you can no longer make out the speaker’s voice and all that is left, as with NIN, is a totally different sound, formed from the resonances of the room. Each performance of this piece is therefore very different and there are a many versions, but here is my favourite – it’s 17 minutes long but if you have the time I would urge you to try it, it becomes quite beautiful.

This idea has been copied by a couple of people on YouTube – where someone downloaded an reuploaded the same video over and over again. I have even heard about a TikTok version…

I would love to know – if anyone reads this and listens to the music – if it worked for you. Happy meditating!

This is an interesting short video about Lucier’s piece, featuring him talking about it and doing the soundcheck.

A bit about John Cage

I have nothing to say and I am saying it

John Cage

I always love talking to my students about John Cage. I love the way his music steps out of the traditional realm of music.

Cage (1912-1992) was really interested in the idea of chance and many of his pieces reflect that. He even used the Chinese I Ching to create compositions. He was also a pioneer of using instruments in a non traditional way and incorporating recorded sound (electroacoustic music).

Most people who have heard of him know his famous ‘silent’ piece, 4.33. It is a piece which lasts 4 minutes and 33 seconds where the performer does not play anything.

It was partly inspired by Cage’s visit to an anechoic chamber where he was amazed that when he expected to hear nothing, he could actually hear his own blood circulation. He realised that real silence is impossible for us to hear and this led to the composition of 4.33 – it is often referred to as the silent piece, but the point is that is it NOT silent.

The time can be divided into three movements however the performer likes, as long as the total makes 4.33. You can perform it on anything so here it is for piano…

And here is is performed by a death metal band…

One of my favourite pieces by Cage is Sonata V which is for prepared piano. This means the score comes with a diagram showing where objects (such as metal bolts) should be placed between the piano strings. The effect is that the piano sounds like some kind of strange percussive instrument.

This video shows the inside of the piano too so you can see the set up. I absolutely love the sound it makes but I got in trouble for trying to recreate this on my school grand piano as it is not good for the instrument! So don’t try this at home…

Organ/ASLSP, which is based on an earlier work for piano, As Slow As Possible, is a REALLY slow piece. Performances often last 12 hours, with one stretching to over 14 hours.

It is currently being performed on a specially built organ in a church in Germany. The piece started with a 17 MONTH REST! it began in 2001 and will last 639 years, scheduled to finish on 2640… That’s a pretty slow piece! Here is a tiny tiny excerpt from that performance.

Here is one of his stranger pieces, Water Walk, performed live on tv in 1960. ‘What do you make of it? Do you consider this music? Or performance art? Does it even need to be in a box?

Whatever you think of these, John Cage will always make you question your perception of music. If you enjoyed these pieces, I would recommend getting a copy of the book, ‘Silence’ which is a great collection of his letters and writings.

© 2021 Cahill Music

Theme by Anders NorĂ©nUp ↑