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.”