Those Who Dance Are Considered Insane by Those Who Can’t Hear the Music

Friedrich Nietzsche? Megan Fox? Anne Louise Germaine de Staël? John Stewart? Norman Flint? Science Fiction fans? Angela Monet? Rumi? George Carlin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement is credited to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.

Yet, I have never seen a precise pointer that stated where in the works of Nietzsche this quotation appeared. I know that Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown, so he may have been sympathetic to individuals who were labeled insane. I also know that music was very important in his thoughts and philosophy.

The quotation is so popular that the actress and supermodel Megan Fox decided to get the words tattooed across her back and side. Astutely, Fox did not include an attribution for her tattoo. If she wanted to append a credit whose name should be rendered in ink?

Quote Investigator: QI has not yet located substantive evidence that Nietzsche wrote or said the statement given above. In 2003 a message in the large distributed discussion system called Usenet attributed the quote to Nietzsche. The message appeared in the alt.quotations newsgroup.[ref]2003 August 28, Usenet Newsgroup: alt.quotations, Subject: IM Friedrich Nietzsche, From: dougk. (Google Usenet groups archive; Accessed June 5, 2012) link.[/ref] But Nietzsche died in 1900, so 2003 is an extremely late date.

A precursor to this statement appeared in the early Nineteenth century. In 1813 the influential writer Anne Louise Germaine de Staël published the work “De l’Allemagne” in French. The English title was “Germany”, and in 1814 an excerpt was printed in “The Universal Magazine”. Madame de Staël envisioned herself watching a ballroom filled with dancers, and she imagined her reaction if she had been unable to hear the music:[ref]1814 April, The Universal Magazine, “On the Moravian Mode of Worship by Madame De Stael [From her ‘Germany’]”, Start Page 296, Quote Page 296, Column 2, Printed for Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, London. (Google Books full view) [Thanks to poster RobotWisdom who shared this cite at the “Shortcuts” blog of the Guardian newspaper here] link [/ref]

… sometimes even in the habitual course of life, the reality of this world disappears all at once, and we feel ourselves in the middle of its interests as we should at a ball, where we did not hear the music; the dancing that we saw there would appear insane.

This figurative language was employed powerfully to illustrate an episode of dissociation. Madame de Staël was temporarily alienated from the normal rush of living, and the actions of those around her seemed purposeless and absurd.

In 1927 a version similar to the common modern examples was printed in “The Times” newspaper of London where it was labelled an old proverb. This concise instance used the word “mad” instead of “insane”:[ref] 1927 February 16, The Times (UK), The Dance, Page 15, Column 4, London, England. (Times Digital Archive GaleGroup)[/ref]

They who dance are thought mad by those who hear not the music. The truth of the old proverb was never more surely borne out that it is just now.

This phrasing is distinct, but the core idea is the same. In recent times, the comedian George Carlin helped to popularize the phrase as shown further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1813 a precursor statement was printed in a book by Anne Louise Germaine de Staël as noted previously. In 1848 another precursor appeared in a letter written by an American journalist named William Cowper Prime.  However, Cowper described the dancers as “ludicrous” and not insane. In fact, several precursor expressions accented the comical aspects of dancing without music:[ref] 1848, The Owl Creek Letters: and Other Correspondence by William Cowper Prime, [Letter XVIII: A Memory of the Old Congress; Saratoga, August 16th, 1847], Page 143-144, Baker & Scribner, New York. (Google Books full view) [Hat tip RobotWisdom] link [/ref]

Did you ever pass the windows of a room in which there was dancing, and watch the figures when you could not hear the music? Try it sometimes, and if the graceful movements of the dance do not become positively ludicrous, then I am no judge.

In 1860 the notable American writer Harriet Elizabeth Prescott Spofford published “Sir Rohan’s Ghost”. In a passage about love Spofford discussed a metaphorical dance of love. She commented on the confusion experienced by some observers of this dance:[ref] 1860, Sir Rohan’s Ghost: A Romance by Harriet Elizabeth Prescott Spofford, Page 279, Trubner & Co., London. (Google Books full view) [Hat tip RobotWisdom] link [/ref]

And those who stand without, who see the dance and do not hear the music—what more weird fantastic folly, the madness of the saturnalia, the sacred fury of eleusinian or evantian choir, ever dawns upon their dazzled darkness!

In 1873 the complete sermons of the preacher Thomas Manton were published, and in one address he invoked the following simile about watching dancers from a distance:[ref] 1873, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, D.D., Volume 13, Sermons Upon 2 Corinthians V, Sermon XX, Start Page 110, Quote Page 113, James Nisbet & Co., London. (Google Books full view) [Hat tip RobotWisdom] link[/ref]

…  if a man riding in an open country should see afar off men and women dancing together, and should not hear the music according to which they dance and tread out their measures, he would think them to be fools and madmen, because they appear in such various motions, and antic gestures and postures. But if he come nearer, so as to hear the musical notes, according to which they dance, and observe the regularity of the exercise, he will change his opinion of them, …

In 1883 Friedrich Nietzsche released “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in German. The English title was “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. The work contained the following thematically relevant aphorisms. The translation from German to English given here was performed by Walter Kaufmann:[ref] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Friedrich Nietzsche, Page 552, Column 2, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

I would believe only in a God who could dance.

One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.

These sayings are notably different from the quotation being examined. Nevertheless, the shared theme of dancing provides a connection, and it may have made the ascription plausible to some people.

In 1885 British American writer Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr released “The Hallam Succession” which contained the following passage:[ref] 1885, The Hallam succession by Amelia E. Barr Page 95, T. Woolmer, London. (Google Books full view) [Hat tip RobotWisdom] link [/ref]

Did you ever watch a lot of men and women dancing, when you could not hear the music, but could only see them bobbing up and down the room? I assure you they look just like a party of lunatics.

The prominent French philosopher Henri Bergson published a series of three essays about laughter in the periodical “Revue de Paris”. The combined essays were published in 1900, and an English translation was released in 1911. In the following excerpt dancers were depicted as “ridiculous” without sound:[ref] 1911, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic by Henri Bergson, Translation by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, Page 5, Macmillan Company, New York. (HathiTrust full view) link link [/ref]

Now step aside, look upon life as a disinterested spectator: many a drama will turn into a comedy. It is enough for us to stop our ears to the sound of music in a room, where dancing is going on, for the dancers at once to appear ridiculous. How many human actions would stand a similar test?

In 1927 a version comparable to modern instances was published in “The Times” of London. This version used the word “mad” and was mentioned near the beginning of the article:[ref] 1927 February 16, The Times (UK), The Dance, Page 15, Column 4, London, England. (Times Digital Archive GaleGroup) [/ref]

They who dance are thought mad by those who hear not the music. The truth of the old proverb was never more surely borne out that it is just now.

In 1929 the expression was listed in the reference: “English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases: A Historical Dictionary”. The citation given was to the 1927 newspaper instance which was presented immediately above in this article. Hence, the editor was unable to trace the phrase further back in time:[ref] 1929, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases: A Historical Dictionary, Editor G. L. Apperson, Quote Page 133 and 134, J. M. Dent and Sons, London. (Questia) [/ref]

They who dance are thought mad by those who hear not the music.
Spoken of as an “old proverb.” 1927: Times, 16 Feb., p. 15, col. 4.

In 1936 the Boston Globe newspaper printed an instance using the word “mad” in the title of an article and called it a modern proverb:[ref] 1936 October 3, Boston Globe, “MODERN PROVERBS: Those Who Dance Are Thought Mad by Those Who Hear Not the Music” by Vida Hurst, Quote Page 10, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) [/ref]

“Those Who Dance Are Thought Mad by Those Who Hear Not the Music”

In 1967 a column in a newspaper in California ascribed the expression to a person named John Stewart. This probably referred to the singer/songwriter who was a member of The Kingston Trio. It did not refer to the comedian Jon Stewart of today:[ref] 1967 November 19, Arcadia Tribune, Nosegays from DeMuth, Quote Page 3, Column 6, Arcadia, California. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]

John Stewart says those who dance are thought mad by those who don’t hear the music.

In 1969 the popular magazine LIFE included a version of the saying without attribution as the prefatory statement to an article:[ref] 1969 January 10, LIFE, Volume 66, Number 1, “October”, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Published by Time Inc., New York. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

Those who dance are thought mad by those who don’t hear the music.

In 1972 an instance using the word “insane” instead of “mad” was ascribed to a radio program director working at the station KHYT in Arizona:[ref]1972 April 22, Tucson Daily Citizen, Section: Tucson Daily Citizen Magazine, The Music Called Rock: Fun Is All That Ever Was Intended by R. Kent Burton, Start Page 14, Quote Page 15 [NArch Page 52], Tucson, Arizona. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]

“Those who dance are thought to be insane by those who can’t hear the music.”
—Norman Flint

In 1989 the Pennsylvania Folklore Society published an issue of the journal “Keystone Folklore” that was focused on the science fiction community. An article about slogan-buttons noted that the following statement was written on some buttons worn by SF aficionados:[ref] 1989, Keystone Folklore: A Publication of the Pennsylvania Folklore Society, Volume 4, Issue 1, “‘Reality is a Crutch for People Who Can’t Deal With Science Fiction:’ Slogan-Buttons Among Science Fiction Fans” by Stephanie A. Hall, Start Page 19, Quote Page 25, Published by West Chester University, West Chester, Pennsylvania, by the Department of Anthropolgy and Sociology. (Google Books preview)[/ref]

Those who dance are thought mad by those who hear not the music.

Also in 1989 the San Francisco Chronicle published a nostalgic article looking back at the famous Woodstock music festival. The musician Paul Kantner, a member of the rock group the Jefferson Airplane who played at Woodstock, was interviewed. Kantner spoke a version of the saying and connected it to the Sufis, a religious group:[ref] 1989 August 13, San Francisco Chronicle, Section: SUNDAY DATEBOOK, “Woodstock Remembered: A Sentimental Journey – Participants recall the music, the mood, the mud 20 years after legendary concert” by Edward Guthmann, Page 20, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

“I’ve got you a little quote I just pulled out: I think it goes back to the Sufis, but it says: ‘Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn’t hear the music.’ It has a lot to do with Woodstock and its observation by the media.”

In 1997 the provocative comedian George Carlin published “Brain Droppings” which included the following remark:[ref]1997, Brain Droppings by George Carlin, [Freestanding remark], Page 74, Hyperion, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Those who dance are considered insane by those who can’t hear the music.

Carlin’s jokes are enjoyed by many who exchange information on the internet. Indeed, the demand for Carlin one-liners has been so strong that many jokes have simply been reassigned to him. Hence, today many counterfeit Carlin quips are in circulation. Back in 2001 an article in the Los Angeles Times presented some fake Carlin jokes:[ref] 2001 Oct 2, Los Angeles Times, City of Angles; Hello, Mr. and Mrs. J. Lo by Ann O’Neill,  [Ann O’Neill is on vacation. This column was written by staff writers Gina Piccalo and Louise Roug], Page: E2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)[/ref]

If a pig loses its voice, is it disgruntled?

And it presented some real Carlin jokes:

I never eat sushi. I have trouble eating things that are merely unconscious.
Those who dance are considered insane by those who can’t hear the music.

Also in 2001 George Carlin published “Napalm & Silly Putty”, a sequel to his 1997 bestseller. The new book included the same quip about dancing, but this time Carlin explicitly disclaimed credit:[ref] 2001, Napalm & Silly Putty by George Carlin, [Freestanding quote], Unnumbered page before Introduction, Hyperion, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Those who dance are considered insane by those who can’t hear the music.  – Anon.

In 2002 the reference “Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphor” from Routledge included a version of the adage and assigned it the remarkably early date of 1575. A precise citation to support this date was not given, and QI has so far been unable to locate a sixteenth century work containing the saying:[ref] 2002, Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphor, Editor P. R. Wilkinson [Peter Richard Wilkinson], 2nd Edition, Section: K.9b Dancing and music, Page 897, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York. (Google Books Preview) [/ref]

they who dance are thought mad by those who hear not the music [1575] Said when someone’s motivation is not appreciated; we should not judge others without knowing all the facts.

Also by 2002 a newspaper in Colorado was attributing the adage to a woman named Angela Monet:[ref] 2002 July 20, Daily Camera, Section: Portraits Faith, “DEEPER MEANING – Kabbalah teaches mystical side of Judaism” by Kevin Williams, Page D1, Boulder, Colorado. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

‘Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music’ — Angela Monet

In 2003 a message in the alt.quotations newsgroup ascribed a version of the sentiment to Nietzsche as noted previously in this article.

In 2004 an updated translation of selected writings by Rumi, a 13th-century poet and Sufi mystic, was published. The volume included a thematically related passage about music and dancing:[ref] 2004, The Essential Rumi: New Expanded Edition by Jalal al-Din Rumi, (Translated from the Arabic), Translations by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, Page 106, HarperOne: HarperCollins, New York. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

We rarely hear the inward music,
but we’re all dancing to it nevertheless,
directed by the one who teaches us,
the pure joy of the sun,
our music master.

In 2005 a Florida newspaper printed a short piece with the title “They Said It” and ascribed the words to Nietzsche:[ref] 2005 February 8, The Ledger, Section: East Polk, They Said It, Page F4, Lakeland, Florida. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche philosopher (1844-1900)

In 2010 a writer at The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom discussed the new tattoo adorning Megan Fox. The image at the beginning of this article shows part of the tattoo:[ref] 2010 June 1, The Guardian (UK), “Who is the mystery poet behind Megan Fox’s new tattoo?” by Patrick Kingsley, Section: Life & Style: Celebrity: Books. (Accessed on December 3, 2012) link [/ref]

Tabloid reports suggest that it’s the work of a little-known poet called Angela Monet, and a quick Google search confirms as much. Thing is, though, Monet doesn’t appear to exist. Staff at the Poetry Society have never heard of her, while Chris McCabe, head librarian at the Poetry Library, says, “There’s no record of her in the library’s database.”

In 2012 the BBC website published a “Quiz of the week’s news” that included the following question:[ref] 2012 April 12, BBC News website, Quiz of the week’s news: Question 7, BBC, United Kingdom. (Accessed on June 5, 2012) link [/ref]

A tattoo featuring musings by philosopher Nietzsche – “and those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” – was airbrushed out of a photo of …

The answer was: Megan Fox. The cover image of the French magazine Grazia depicted Fox, but the tattoo on her back was Photoshopped off her skin.

In conclusion, QI has not yet located any substantive evidence that Nietzsche used this expression. The general idea of the saying has a long history as shown above. The 1927 instance in ‘The Times” is similar to the common modern version although it uses the word “mad” instead of “insane”. Also, in 1927 the saying was called an “old proverb”. Based on current evidence the statement origin seems to be anonymous.

Update History: On December 2, 2012 the citations in 1927, 1929, 1936, 1967, 1969, 1972, 1989 and 2002 were added. The conclusion was rewritten. In addition, the footnotes were switched to numeric style. On December 3, 2012 citations in 1989 (San Francisco Chronicle), 2002 (Daily Camera, Boulder, Colorado), 2004, and 2010 were added. On September 25, 2017 the likely identity of John Stewart was added.

(Thanks to Gaby Clingman whose query led to the construction of this question by QI and the initiation of this trace. Thanks to Barry Popik who suggested that I include a mention of Angela Monet. In addition, thanks to Dennis Lien who identified the most likely person matching the name “John Stewart”.)

7 replies on “Those Who Dance Are Considered Insane by Those Who Can’t Hear the Music”

  1. This quote is part of a poem by the 13th Century mystic and poet Rumi
    The Sufi Way:

    You believe he is insane
    because the music he dances to
    cannot be grasped by your ears.

  2. The mystery lingers. I purchased a calligraphy button at a Star Trek convention in 1986 that had these words written on it: “Those who dance are thought mad by those who hear not the music.” No attribution. On that note, I wonder who gets credit for “Beam me up, Scotty: there’s no intelligent life down here.”

  3. “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” is a translation from one of the lines in a French play called the Madwoman of Chaillot. It’s a fabulous play about living a life free from the pollution of money and all the dark, needless things that cause life to become dreary.

  4. Citizen Taqueau: Thank you for your comment. I have updated the article with several instances of the saying that use the word “mad” starting in 1927. In addition, the article now has a 1989 cite describing a button worn by some individuals in the SF community.

  5. Collin Scot: Interesting. Thanks for visiting. Do you know the specific part of the play that you believe contains the statement? Do you know which character makes the statement, or what phrase was used in the original French?

  6. Claudio Edinger; Thanks for your comment. I have added some material related to Sufis and Rumi.

  7. (The following comment was added by Garson O’Toole based on an email from Dennis Lien.)

    Reply to Citizen Taqueau: I strongly suspect the calligraphy-style button would have been from Nancy Leibowitz, who’s been the famous “button person” (especially for calligraphy buttons) at sf convention dealer rooms since at least c.1980, possibly considerably earlier.

    I’m sure some of the sayings on her buttons are original with her, but most are not.

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