One of the most challenging pieces of music is John Cage’s 4’33’’.  It premiered in 1952 at a small concert hall in Woodstock, New York. Unlike anything he had ever played before, David Tudor walked across the stage, sat down at the piano, opened the score (which directed him with the Latin, tacet—or “silence”), and followed it perfectly: he touched not a single key for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. He then left the stage.

One of the most haunting pieces of music is Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground. It’s an old blues recording from 1927 and he doesn’t sing a word, choosing instead to hum to the slow pace of his guitar. It’s lonely and sad—exactly what he intended—fitting for a man whose life started anonymously and finished quite tragically.

One of the most delightful pieces of music is Duke Ellington’s Jeep’s Blues. And when you hear the jazz ensemble working playfully together, its rhythm and volume altering nicely throughout, you get to the end and feel like standing and clapping. And as you do, you might think, maybe—just maybe—Ellington was right when he said: “There is no art without intention.”

What does art—in this case, music—teach us about purpose? Using these examples, five things come to mind:

  • Music teaches us just how much structure we’re comfortable with. All music—whether planned in advanced or improvised on stage—can ultimately be reduced to meter and note. Its most beautiful form, though, is not on paper. Miles Davis famously said, “I’ll play it first and tell you what it is afterwards,” and his improvisation was as right as Mozart’s preparedness.
  • Sometimes we have feelings we know are there but don't know how to express. The chilling impact of Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground is that Blind Willie Johnson couldn’t find any words to say what he wanted. Pink Floyd did the same thing in The Great Gig in the Sky, and some of the most powerful moments The Rolling Stones ever created were the wordless vocals of Merry Clayton in Gimme Shelter. Emotion can often produce the most beautiful and sincere musical outcomes.
  • Confidence matters. On July 18, 1953, Elvis Presley walked into Sun Records, met Marion Keisker—secretary to the legendary producer Sam Phillips—and before he recorded My Happiness for $4, she asked him who he sounded like: “I don’t sound like nobody,” he said. History suggests he was right.
  • Repeating yourself doesn’t always mean you’re stuck. A fugue is a piece of music in which tunes are repeated in complex patterns. Multiple themes are repeated or imitated, voices come and go, and everything is interwoven. Think of it as a beautiful discussion between disparate parts. Intentions are the same, they relate and repeat, are clearly shown or hidden under layers.
  • You must be okay with silence. The lesson of John Cage is one of finding comfort in quiet. Silence (or, creating a space that allows many other sounds to drift in and out), the ability to sit moment-to-moment without judgment, not fighting for certainty, and not dismissing something because it defies our perceived idea of what it is supposed to be—these four things are immensely difficult. But they should be done. 

  • Music is often instructive, and it certainly is here. Perhaps, then, it’s fitting to close with one of Beethoven’s intentions, one that also applies to art and life alike: “To play without passion is inexcusable!”

    Want to practice intention this year? Come to our Intentions & Habit Building Workshop on January 20th!


    Joe Stephens is the creator of little hunches, an incubator of creative thought and a place where ideas collide and connect. A firm advocate of restlessness, he’s also an entrepreneur, a lawyer, and an Ironman triathlete working on his first book.

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