Writing About Music is Like Dancing About Architecture

Laurie Anderson? Steve Martin? Frank Zappa? Martin Mull? Elvis Costello? Thelonius Monk?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have a difficult riddle for you. A mailing list I belong to has discussed the following quotation several times during the past ten years, and the question of its origin has never been satisfactorily resolved.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, Frank Zappa, Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, Thelonius Monk, Clara Schumann, Miles Davis, George Carlin and several other people have been credited with concocting this extraordinarily popular and enigmatic simile. There is another common version of the quote: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Is there any chance that you could attempt to trace this famous saying?

Quote Investigator:  With the help of some wonderful music librarians and an individual who left a comment on this blog post QI can report some revealing citations. The first cite known to QI appears in a magazine dedicated to the history of rock and roll called “Time Barrier Express”. The September-October 1979 issue contains a profile of the group Sam & Dave by Gary Sperrazza in which he discusses the interplay and rapport of the duo [TBEM]:

All quick, very natural, and captured on vinyl. It’s so hard to explain on paper, you’ll just have to find the records and listen for yourself (because I truly believe — honest — that writing about music is, as Martin Mull put it, like dancing about architecture).

The second earliest cite was found by Mike Kuniavsky who presented a pointer to its location in a comment. In December 1979 “Arts magazine” published an article about the painter Michael Madore by the critic Thomas McGonigle. The saying is attributed to Martin Mull; however, the domain of the quotation is knowingly transformed to painting. Even in 1979 McGonigle refers to the expression as a “famous dictum” [AMTM]:

So with Madore we have the classic situation: no limits, thus all limits, or to slightly alter the famous Martin Mull dictum: Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture.

Based on current evidence QI believes that Martin Mull is the most likely originator of this expression. It is not clear how Gary Sperrazza and Thomas McGonigle heard or read about the quotation. Mull did release several albums combining comedy and music in the 1970s. He also appeared in the television soap opera parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”, and the talk show parody “Fernwood 2 Night” (later renamed “America 2-Night”). It is possible that he used the phrase in one of these venues, or perhaps he said it during a stage performance or interview.

Researchers have been attempting to trace this well-known saying for many years. It is a recurrent topic in discussion forums and on mailing lists. Alan P. Scott was the key pioneer in this endeavor, and he has created a wonderful webpage that records his gleanings and includes a comprehensive list of people that have been credited with the quotation [APSM].

The clever maxim was probably not created ex nihilo. QI has found similar expressions that date back to 1918. There is a family of related sayings that comment about such difficult exertions as: writing about music, talking about music, writing about art, and talking about art. This backstory helps to illuminate the aphorism, and it begins with a remark involving “singing about economics.”

The earliest statement that QI has located that discusses the inherent difficulty of writing about music and compares it to singing about something is dated February 9, 1918 in the New Republic [NRSE]:

Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics. All the other arts can be talked about in the terms of ordinary life and experience. A poem, a statue, a painting or a play is a representation of somebody or something, and can be measurably described (the purely aesthetic values aside) by describing what it represents.

In 1921 the remark reappears in the form of a sphinxlike simile. The format of the comment uses the word “like” once and the word “about” twice. This conforms to the most common modern template.

Writing about music is like ____ about ____.

The first slot contains terms like dancing, singing, or knitting and the second slot contains terms like architecture, economics, or football.

Over a period of decades different words and phrases are substituted into the slots of this template. Also, sometimes “talking” is used instead of “writing” as is done here in 1921 [FSE]:

Like the musical critic who lamented impotently that “talking about music is like singing about economics,” those musicians with a knack for literary expression may quite possibly be frightened off from a task which is reputed to be as arduous as turning “Das Kapital” into a song.

In 1930 the same author, Winthrop Parkhurst, repeated his observation in an influential scholarly musical journal called The Musical Quarterly. He also elevated the simile to the status of an apophthegm [MQSE]:

Some critic once observed that talking about music is like singing about economics; and it must be admitted that most conversation about music supports the apophthegm, for it is commonly as strange a perversion of the subject as would be the transformation of Das Kapital into a lullaby.

The next citation in chronological order is the one given above from 1979 where the maxim is attributed to Martin Mull by Gary Sperrazza. This version refers to writing about music as did the first 1918 quotation. It also replaces “singing about economics” with “dancing about architecture” [TBEM]:

All quick, very natural, and captured on vinyl. It’s so hard to explain on paper, you’ll just have to find the records and listen for yourself (because I truly believe — honest — that writing about music is, as Martin Mull put it, like dancing about architecture).

Also in 1979 an altered version of the saying is printed in Art magazine. The critic Thomas McGonigle uses the expression in the realm of the visual arts with a nod toward Martin Mull [AMTM]:

So with Madore we have the classic situation: no limits, thus all limits, or to slightly alter the famous Martin Mull dictum: Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture.

In 1980 a revised version of Gary Sperrazza’s profile of Sam & Dave appeared in the publication Black Music and Jazz Review. The attribution to Martin Mull is restated [BMJM]:

I’m not going to attempt to describe the magic here, you’ll have to check the record yourself, cos to write about this level of music is (as Martin Mull so aptly put it) like dancing about architecture.

There are a massive number of cites for this aphorism and for variants that fit the template. Therefore, only a small sample of these citations can be presented here. The arrangement continues in chronological order. Shortly before John Lennon’s death in 1980 he granted an interview to Playboy magazine. He was asked about the interpretation and misinterpretation of his song lyrics, and he responded with a simile that fits the template [JLF]:

Listen, writing about music is like talking about fucking. Who wants to talk about it? But you know, maybe some people do want to talk about it.

In 1982 the musician Mike Oldfield, famous for the composition Tubular Bells, was profiled in the Montreal Gazette. He explained his reluctance to grant interviews by using a simile that harks back to the early citations in 1918 and 1921 because it invokes singing [MOS]:

It soon transpires that Oldfield doesn’t generally do interviews in his native England. Not from any persecution complex or feelings of superiority, mind you, but simply because he feels that “talking about music is like singing about football.”

In October 1983 the artist Elvis Costello was interviewed in Musician magazine and was asked about his treatment in the music press. His response used the maxim as part of a general critique of written reviews of music. (Further below is an excerpt from a magazine interview in 2008 in which Costello disclaimed credit for creating the maxim) [MEC]:

Framing all the great music out there only drags down its immediacy. The songs are lyrics, not speeches, and they’re tunes, not paintings. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.

For several years the quotation above was the earliest known cite for this famous saying. That is one reason the words are strongly associated with Costello. This valuable cite was located by Mark Turner and appeared on the webpage of Alan P. Scott.

Costello’s words were also cited in the Quote Verifier [QVEC] and the Yale Book of Quotations [YQEC]. Top quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, contributes to the popular blog at the Freakonomics website. He discusses quotations and proverbs and presents rigorously verified information supplemented with updated research. In April 2010 he mentioned some of the initial results QI obtained while researching this adage [QUG].

On October 9, 1983 an interview with flutist Eugenia Zukerman was published in a Nebraska newspaper. Zukerman who is also a novelist was queried about her experiences writing [OWM]:

When asked, she admits that writing about music, as humorist Martin Mull once quipped, is like dancing about architecture.

“It’s very hard,” she said. “It’s easy to write in such a silly way about music. It is its own language. You don’t write about English in Italian . . .”

It is not completely clear to QI from the text if the crediting of Mull is directly based on Zukerman’s remarks or if the interviewer Rick Ansorge is adding the attribution. This fine cite was found by Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders and placed on the webpage of Alan P. Scott.

Other musicians were credited with the saying in the 1980s. For example, on June 18, 1985 a story in the Los Angeles Times used the adage as a subtitle for an article and attributed the words to Frank Zappa [LAFZ]:

INDIAN RAGA IS JOINED BY A LATIN BEAT

“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”
—Frank Zappa

The article by Kenneth Herman began with the following:

La Jolla—Encountering music from non-Western cultures lends credibility to the barb Zappa hurled at his less-than-favorable critics. The more engaging a performance of exotic music, the more that description and metaphor tend to diminish its unique character.

The performance artist Laurie Anderson is a popular figure for attribution, and she did use the quotation in a high-profile work titled “Home of the Brave”. In 1986 a review of the piece in the Philadelphia Daily News noted that the memorable saying was flashed on the screen during her concert. (Further below is an excerpt from a radio interview in 2000 during which Anderson disclaimed credit for creating the adage) [PNLA]:

Anderson’s direction is varied and competent on the whole. But some of the slogans flashed on the rear screen projections (“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture “) rush by so fast that the jokes are easily missed.

In 1990 a variant of the saying occurred in quotation marks and was assigned to the musician Jackson Browne. This variant with the word “singing” is identical to the one used by Mike Oldfield in 1982 [NJBF]:

Jackson Browne: “As they say in the studios of L.A., talking about music is like singing about football.”

In 1991 an article in The Times of London, England discussed a group of paintings. The author depicted the difficulty of cogently writing about art by employing two similes that follow the template of the family of aphorisms under discussion [TLKM]:

Writing about art is like dancing about architecture or knitting about music. It is a category mistake. But here goes.

In 1995 Martin Mull who is also a painter used a variant of the saying in one of his own books; however, he did not attribute the saying to himself. He stated that he heard it as part of a story about a teacher. This may mean that Mull did not originate the saying, or it may mean that he was simply using a rhetorical distancing device. This variant contains the phrase “talking about art” [MPA]:

I once heard a story about a painting instructor who told his class that “talking about art is like dancing about architecture.” Immediately upon hearing this, one of his students leapt to his feet, did an impromptu tap routine, and proudly proclaimed his fancy footwork to be the Flatiron Building.

And so, with little more than this snippet from academia to guide me, I will now undertake the fool’s errand of attempting to describe the methods and madnesses that constitute the process by which I make pictures.

In 2000 the radio program Morning Edition investigated the saying, and the host Susan Stamberg contacted the artist Laurie Anderson. Anderson attributed the adage to the comedian Steve Martin [MELA]. During the discussion Stamberg mentions a website; she is referring to the website of Alan P. Scott cited earlier in this post [APSM].

SUSAN STAMBERG: Laurie Anderson, are you the one who first said, `Talking about music is like dancing about architecture’?

Ms. LAURIE ANDERSON: Oh, no, no. It’s one of my absolute favorite quotes, and I always try to–that’s so funny that you should ask that. I always try to preface it by Steve Martin. Now, Steve Martin, the comedian, is the one who said that.

STAMBERG: Well, good. Thank you for clarifying it for us, we think. Although, you know, there’s now a Web site on this question. And he lists Steve Martin on there. He says that there are at least three places where it says it was Steve Martin who said it, but he doesn’t believe it. And you’re one of three who names him.

In 2005 the bassist Jesse Keeler of the Canadian musical group “Death From Above 1979″ used a variant of the expression containing the word singing during an interview with a Boston Globe journalist. The interviewer was immediately reminded of the most common variant which he attributed to Costello [BGDA]:

“I’m using a quote I saw the other day — ‘Talking about music is like singing about football,’ ” Keller says in a recent telephone interview during a tour that will bring them to the Middle East Downstairs on Monday. Or, as Elvis Costello once said, “like dancing about architecture,” although if one could do such an abstract thing, DFA ’79 could provide as appropriate a soundtrack as anyone.

In 2008 Q magazine, a UK music periodical, ran an interview with Elvis Costello in the March special issue with the cover title “50 Years of Great British Music.” Costello denied creating the saying and he credited Martin Mull. Below is an excerpt that begins with a question directed to Costello and follows with his reply [QECM]:

These days you dabble in music journalism for Vanity Fair magazine. But wasn’t it you who said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”?

Oh, God! Can I please put in print that I didn’t say that! I may have quoted it, but I think [’7os US actor/singer] Martin Mull coined that. It still follows me around, that one. It’s probably in some book of quotations credited to me.

Contacting a candidate such as Martin Mull or Steve Martin directly to ask questions on this topic would help to resolve the mystery. A posting dated July 17, 2010 on a blog named “The Online Photographer” discussed an attempt to contact Martin Mull and ask him about the saying: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. The blog author Mike Johnston was interested in the provenance of the quote, so he asked Mull’s art dealer to make an inquiry. Here is an excerpt from the blog [OP]:

So one of the lines I threw into the water was an email to Martin’s art dealer, Carl P. Hammer of Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago. Carl contacted Martin for me, and Martin confirmed that he is indeed the originator of the famous one-liner.

Note that this datum was sent along a chain: Mull talked to Hammer who talked to Johnston who wrote an item on a blog. The Hammer Gallery has a webpage that features some artwork by Martin Mull [HGM]. The blog post of “The Online Photographer” website was mentioned on the excellent “Quotes Uncovered” blog of Fred Shapiro based on an email sent from the mathematician William C. Waterhouse [QUW].

A more direct statement from Mull with fewer intermediaries would of course be desirable. Perhaps Mull could provide details about where or when the quote was spoken or written. Mike Johnston deserves kudos for initiating a query and sharing the results.

The artist Grant Snider created an entertaining comic on this theme and depicted the “Postmodernist Pogo” and the “Bauhaus Bounce”. The work was posted on his website “Incidental Comics” in June 2012.

QI will stop adding citations at this point although an almost endless supply is available. Currently, Martin Mull is the leading candidate for crafter of this maxim. Intriguingly, there exists a family of related sayings that follow a template, and these adages begin in 1918 or earlier. QI thanks you for your question and wishes you fine success in your ventures whether they involve: singing, dancing, knitting, or something else.

[TBEM] 1979 September-October, Time Barrier Express, “Looka Here! It’s Sam & Dave!” by Gary Sperrazza, Page 25, Column 1, Issue Number 26, Volume 3, Number 6, White Plains, N.Y. (Verified using scanned images from the Music Library & Sound Recordings Archives at Bowling Green State University; Great thanks to the librarian at BGSU)

[AMTM] 1979 December, Arts magazine, Michael Madore by Thomas McGonigle, Page 5, Column 1, Volume 54, Number 4, Art Digest, Co., New York. (Verified on paper; Great thanks to Mike Kuniavsky for pointing out this citation)

[APSM] Alan P. Scott authored webpage about the origin of the saying “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture” (Accessed 2010 November 7) link

[NRSE] 1918 February 9, The New Republic, The Unseen World by H. K. M., Page 63, Vol. 14, The Republic Pub. Co.  (Google Books gives an incorrect date of 1969. Quotation verified on microfilm) link

[FSE] 1921 October 5, The Freeman, Vol. 4, No. 82, Music, Mysticism and Madness by Winthrop Parkhurst, Page 93, The Freeman, Inc., New York. (Google full view) link

[MQSE] 1930 July, The Musical Quarterly, “Music, the Invisible Art” by Winthrop Parkhurst, Vol. 16, No. 3, Page 298-299, G. Schirmer now Oxford University Press. (Google snippet; Verified on paper) link link

[BMJM] 1980 July, Black Music and Jazz Review, Volume 3, Issue 3, Page 24, IPC Specialist & Professional Press, London. (Verified using scanned images from the Music Library of the University of Virginia; Great thanks to the librarian at UVA) link

[JLF] 2000, [1980 Interview with John Lennon], All we are saying: the last major interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Conducted by David Sheff, Page 88, Macmillan, New York. (Google Books preview; Many thanks to Vic Steinbok for pointing out this citation) link

[MOS] 1982 April 12, The Montreal Gazette, Oldfield tackles North America, and it takes him by storm by John Griffin, Page B6, Column 1, Montreal, Canada. (Google News archive) link

[MEC] 1983 October, Musician magazine, “Elvis Costello: A Man Out of Time Beats the Clock” by Timothy White, Page 52, Column 2,  Number 60. (Verified on paper)

[QVEC] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 256-257, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

[YQEC] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations edited by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 175, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[QUG] 2010 April 22, “Quotes Uncovered: Does Economics Make You Want to Sing?” by Fred Shapiro, Freakonomics blog at the New York Times website. (Accessed 2010 November 08) link

[OWM] 1983 October 9, Omaha World-Herald, “Eugenia Zukerman: Renaissance Woman” by Rick Ansorge, Section: Entertainment, Omaha, Nebraska. (NewsBank)

[LAFZ] 1985 June 18, Los Angeles Times, Indian Raga is Joined by a Latin Beat by Kenneth Herman, Page SD_D1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[PNLA] 1986 July 18, Philadelphia Daily News, A Sense of Laurie Anderson by Jonathen Takiff, [Review of “Home of the Brave” by Laurie Anderson], Page 43, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (NewsBank)

[NJBF] 1990 August 5, The Buffalo News, Loose Lips, Page M22, Buffalo, New York. (NewsBank)

[TKLM] 1991 August 3, The Times, The comfort of a nude in the bathroom; Enthusiasms by Philip Howard, London, England. (Gale Cengage Academic OneFile)

[MPA] 1995, Martin Mull: Paintings, Drawings, and Words by Martin Mull, Page 7, Journey Editions, Boston.  (Google Books snippet; verified on paper) link

[MELA] 2000 January 14, Morning Edition radio program, “Profile: Letters from listeners. (10:00-11:00 AM)”, Broadcast transcript. (Gale Cengage Academic OneFile)

[BGDA] 2005 April 29, Boston Globe, “Categorize this duo’s sound as loud” by Renee Graham, Boston, Massachusetts. (Boston Globe online archive) link

[QECM] 2008 March, Q magazine, 50 Years of Great British Music, Elvis Costello Interview, [Interview begins with a picture on page 64 and with text on page 65. The quote is on page 67], Bauer, London, UK. (Verified with photocopies of pages from the article. Special thanks to the librarian at the Cleveland Public Library Periodical Center for locating this text on paper in the March issue when given an inaccurate cite to the February issue.)

[OP] The Online Photographer website, theonlinephotographer.typepad.com, Blog post “OT: We Hear from Martin Mull” by Mike Johnston. (Accessed 2011 January 27) link link

[HGM] Carl Hammer Gallery website, hammergallery.com, Martin Mull artwork and biographical information webpage. (Accessed 2011 January 27) link link

[QUW] Quotes Uncovered: Freakonomics: New York Times blog, freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com, Blog post “Quotes Uncovered: Dancing About Architecture” by Fred Shapiro. (Accessed 2011 January 27) link link

Update history: On January 27, 2011 material about Mike Johnston’s attempt to contact Martin Mull was added to this entry.

Update history: On June 30, 2011 the citation in Art magazine dated December 1979 was added to the post.

Update history: On June 20, 2012 the link to Grant Snider’s comic was added.

9 thoughts on “Writing About Music is Like Dancing About Architecture

  1. 2 things:

    1) While the earliest print citations of the phrase in its most popular form may indeed be from Mull, the fact that he explicitly attributes it to someone else is probably not just a literary device; apparently he’s not the coiner. Someone ought to ask him if he remembers who he got it from.

    2) Another simile which is virtually identical in form and sense but completely different in content is the popular lesbian feminist maxim, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. The origin of that one deserves research, and conceivably that could even lead to more info about the “dancing about architecture” one if the coinage was influenced by that one.

  2. Re: my previous post–
    A little googling reveals that the maxim “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” was apparently coined in 1970 by Australian educator/journalist/politician Irina Dunn, who says she based it on the maxim “Man needs a god like a fish needs a bicycle”, which she’d encountered in a philosophy text. The same webpage whereon I read that–
    http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/414150.html
    –gives a related example from 1898: “The place [Aragon, Spain] didn’t need an American consul any more than a cow needs a bicycle…” Clearly this basic form, which relates to the “dancing about architecture” maxim that started this discussion, goes way back. I’d be surprised if it weren’t, in some form, centuries old.

  3. Dixon Wragg,
    Thanks for visiting QuoteInvestigator.com and leaving some fine comments. An attempt apparently was made to contact Martin Mull. The article above has been updated to discuss this development.

    I have investigated the phrase “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and some of its variants. The webpage you link does contain very useful information. I plan to write about this phrase at some point in the coming weeks.

    The 1970 coinage claim is discussed in the Yale Book of Quotations, but to my knowledge there is no citation that goes back to 1970. YBQ has an excellent cite dated July 26, 1976. Ace researcher Bill Mullins and I have each found cites earlier in 1976. YBQ also treats “A man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle”.

    Looking for phrases that may have functioned as precursors to a modern saying is a helpful and entertaining task though it is unavoidably subjective. A precursor may have an analogous structure and/or a similar theme. I think there is a relevant saying for the fish/bicycle maxim in 1859.
    Garson O’Toole

  4. Another 1979 Mull citation: “Arts Magazine,” Volumes 3-5:

    “So with Madore we have the classic situation: no limits, thus all limits, or to slightly alter the famous Martin Mull dictum: Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture.”

    http://is.gd/fUn0XX

    Note that at that point it was already “the famous Martin Mull dictum,” where “famous” may have been the New York art circles where Anderson heard it. Also, art writing is hilariously vapid. “So with McGonigle we have the classic situation: no meaning, thus all meaning, or to slightly alter the famous Barnum dictum: there’s a critic born every minute.”

  5. Mike: Thanks for leaving a comment with such valuable information. The post has been updated to include this data and acknowledge your help.

  6. Odd, for years I have been attributing this quotation to David Byrne, former art student at Rhode Island School of Design, where a certain Martin Mull had once been on the faculty.

    Go figure. Now…who first said, “The Devil is in the details”? (Cf. Bonfire of Vanities)

  7. Possibly the same person who said that military justice is to justice as military music is to music. Google’s odd matchup with Groucho Marx the favorite in one corner and Tiger Clemenceau the underdog in the other is somehow unsatisfying.

  8. I’m acquainted with Martin Mull’s sister Anodea, but haven’t seen her for a couple years. I asked her ex-boyfriend, who’s a friend of mine, whether it might be possible to put the question of that phrase’s origin to Martin through Anodea. He said that as far as he knew, Martin and his sister haven’t been in touch in recent years, so that avenue of inquiry would seem to be closed for now. If I can find out more, I’ll report!

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