The origins of this quote have long been shrouded in mystery and controversy. But I think that, at long last, we may have a solid answer. Thoughtful researcher Garson O'Toole, in a post in November 2010 on his Quote Investigator, reports on the heavy lifting he has done—interviewing music historians and deep literature searching—that I never did. Please see O'Toole's site for the details... the short answer, though, is Martin Mull, first attributed in print in 1979.
O'Toole didn't stop there, though... broadening his search to a more generic form, he's discovered that the phrase "Talking (or rather 'Writing') about music is like ------- about ------------" has appeared in print as early as 1918! That's right... while Martin Mull may have originated the memorable phrase "dancing about architecture," something like this quote has been around in other forms for almost a century at least!
We may never know who really said it first, even leaving aside the mutation to (or from) the more current and euphonious "Talking about...." (It's certainly not my own—I lay no claim to this quote whatsoever. If you ever see "dancing about architecture" attributed to me, it's more than likely just someone's sloppy reading of this very web page!)
When I first did a thorough Web search for an answer, wa-a-ay back on December 30, 1996, most instances didn't have any attribution at all—and those that did credited one (or more!) of a dozen different people.
For a long time, the earliest solid citation I'd ever seen was this one, kindly provided by alert reader Mark Turner (email@example.com)—and it's real enough; I've seen the article myself:
"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it's a really stupid thing to want to do."
—Elvis Costello, in an interview by Timothy White entitled "A Man out of Time Beats the Clock." Musician magazine No. 60 (October 1983), p. 52.
However, this wasn't the final word on the subject, by any means. Australian music journalist Michael Dwyer tells me, based on an interview Dwyer did with Elvis Costello in October 2005, that Costello himself doesn't remember having said this, and that Costello would attribute it—at least tentatively—to Martin Mull.
Which leads me to this, provided to me in June 2009 by noted columnist Doug Saunders with the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail:
"When asked, she admits that writing about music, as humorist Martin Mull once quipped, is like dancing about architecture."
—From "Eugenia Zukerman: Renaissance Woman," by Rick Ansorge, staff writer for the Omaha World-Herald, October 8, 1983.
Note that date—this appeared in the very same month and year as that Musician article. And Costello himself credits Martin Mull.
This, by itself, is not absolute proof that Mull said it first... but this attribution did begin to tip the scales in that direction, even before O'Toole's work came to light.
Martin Mull shows up in quite a few other attributions as well. Another correspondent, Barry Gilbert, wrote (quoted with permission from email 4/19/2002):
I remember hearing it while in college in upstate NY. When I told this to a couple of friends, we decided to see if dancing about architecture was really so strange. We decided to do an improvisation at our campus's open mic night. My friend Tom improvised on acoustic guitar, while my friend Don improvised poetry about architecture, and I interpreted it in "dance". It was altogether weird. I left school in spring 1981, so I can be 100% sure that I heard this quote prior to that. I also remember, at the time. reading it quoted from Martin Mull [emphasis added]. I was a big fan, at the time, of his comedy/musical recordings and read everything I could find about him. I'm not 100% sure that he is the first to ut[t]er this quote, but I know he used it.
Songwriter Jimmy Webb begins his excellent book Tunesmith (itself quite a dance about the architecture of music!) by attributing the quote to Martin Mull... though without any specific source. Thanks to Bob Bennett for pointing this one out.
Another correspondent named Julian tells me that he clipped a copy of this quote, attributed to Martin Mull, from the Village Voice in 1982 or 1983. However, Julian was unable to tell me a specific issue to look for, and I have not seen it myself.
There have definitely been some blind alleys and other contenders along the way. Journalist and film music historian Jon Burlingame once asserted another, much older possibility: the 19th-Century composer and pianist Clara Schumann (thanks to Alan Kay, whose own contender is Igor Stravinsky, for the link, and to Seth Orbach for the pointer to Kay!).
Unfortunately, Burlingame didn't include a specific cite, and I have so far been unable to locate the quote in my own perusal of the—ironically—voluminous diaries, letters and the like in which Clara Schumann wrote about music. Also, I have myself seen (independently corroborated November 2003 by Alec McLane on the Usenet newsgroup bit.listserv.mla-l) that the Clara Schumann attribution may be nothing more than an artifact of a Google search result for this site, which listed a different quote from Schumann just above a cite (naming Laurie Anderson) of "Talking about music..." in a way that led Google to display it with Schumann's name above the quote—and Anderson's omitted.
Correspondent Maggie Mortensen remembers having heard the quote in the 1970s, attributed to Thelonious Monk. Attribution to Monk also appears in a book called Quotations for Artists, Performers, Managers & Entrepreneurs, edited by Chuck Suber, though unfortunately only with the notation "[??]," which I am told means only "missing data. [Readers, please assist.]"—not very definitive.
I was once told quite definitely by author Rafi Zabor that David Breskin, undoubtedly a talented man of many hats (poet, musician, journalist and novelist) who was involved with Musician magazine at the time of the interview with Elvis Costello quoted above, was the source of—or at least an early and vigorous vector for—this quote. However, I have never received any more solid information from or about Breskin's role.
Even David Byrne and Frank Lloyd Wright have been mentioned to me as sources, though so far without any specific citation. While they've certainly been around long enough to be possibilities, I find myself wondering why they weren't mentioned earlier...
The same goes for Frank Zappa, another long-time contender I keep hearing about—plenty of assertions, but never any specific citations.
Further comments and, especially, information are always greatly appreciated. In particular, if you know how I could get in touch with any possible primary sources who're still alive, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And while you're here... this is the full list of candidates I found back in 1996, most frequent first, for "Talking about music..." (which I now think is the later variant):
The most frequent attribution, but most definitely incorrect. Anderson's video Home of the Brave (Warner, 1986) contains this quote; that's in fact where I saw it first. She also ripostes, "How about a square dance?", which I think is pretty funny.
However, Anderson herself attributes this quote to Steve Martin in Mark Russell's book Out of Character (Bantam, January 1997), as Ponty Lox informed me May 30, 1998. That alone was enough to get me to pull the quote from my section on Laurie Anderson's quotes. Then Thornley Jobe sent me a link to the listeners' mail section of National Public Radio's Morning Edition for January 14, 2000 (Real audio link), in which they speak with Anderson herself and she confirms her belief that Martin said it. And the NPR commentator even mentions the existence of this very page!
These attributions specifically mentioned the version "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."
If you came to this page directly, please feel free to peruse the rest of my site—there's a lot more here!
My heartfelt thanks go out to the many kind correspondents, both named above and not, who've provided or tried to provide information to me about this quote over the years. Without you this page would be a lot shorter.
visitors since 3/5/2004.
©1996-2010 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated December 31, 2010