Quote: writing (talking) about music is like dancing about architecture (1983) (singing about football 1982) (singing about economics 1918)

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Fri Jan 22 18:09:20 UTC 2010

Thanks, Garson, for this wonderfully thorough and surprising posting!  At a time when it has become clear that there is some real wackiness being posted on this list, it is gratifying to see a new participant contributing material of such quality.

Fred Shapiro

From: American Dialect Society [ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Garson O'Toole [adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM]
Sent: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 10:45 PM
Subject: Quote: writing (talking) about music is like dancing about              architecture (1983) (singing about football 1982) (singing about              economics 1918)

A popular saying uses an unusual simile that emphasizes incongruity to
depict the difficulty of talking or writing about the experience of

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Fred Shapiro was asked about the source of this saying on February 5,
2009 in the Freakonomics blog of the New York Times. He stated that
the earliest occurrence noted in The Yale Book of Quotations appears
in an interview with the performer Elvis Costello (Declan MacManus) in
Musician, October 1983. This quote and cite also appear in The Oxford
Dictionary of American Quotations by Hugh Rawson and Margaret Miner.

Ralph Keyes attempted to trace the quote in "The Quote Verifier" and
he lists a diverse set of artists and comedians that he encountered
during his search:

This much-quoted line has no clear point of origin, but lots of
alleged originators. They include rockers Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa,
Grace Slick, and David Byrne; jazz musicians Thelonius Monk, Miles
Davis, and Charles Mingus; comedians Steve Martin, Martin Mull, and
George Carlin; filmmaker Laurie Anderson; author William S. Burroughs;
and rock critic Lester Bangs.

Keyes points to a web page devoted to the quote that is curated by
Alan P. Scott who has assembled a collection of citations that
includes Costello's. However, Scott now leans toward crediting the
satirist Martin Mull based on another cite from October 1983.

(Start of excerpt from the website of Alan P. Scott)

However, this isn'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. I don't
think this is absolute proof that Mull said it first... but this
attribution does tip the scales in that direction.

(End of excerpt from the website of Alan P. Scott)


Entertainingly, Martin Mull does tell a story that contains a variant
of the quote in his 1995 book of paintings and essays. The story
assigns the quote to a "painting instructor" and replaces the
subphrase "writing about music" with "talking about art". Mull
playfully undercuts the simple interpretation of the simile.

Citation: 1995, Martin Mull: Paintings, Drawings, and Words by Martin
Mull, Page 7, Journey Editions. (Google Books snippet only).

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.


I was not able to find any close matches to the saying before October
1983; however, I did find some structural matches that I think help to
illuminate the creative process employed in formulating the quotation.
In the preceding year, 1982, the musician Mike Oldfield, famous for
the composition Tubular Bells, was profiled in the Montreal Gazette.
He explained his reluctance to grant interviews using a simile that
follows a template similar to the quote under investigation.

Citation: 1982 April 12, The Montreal Gazette, Oldfield tackles North
America, and it takes him by storm by John Griffin, Page B6, Column 1.

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."


I do not think that this expression is as effective as the one using
"dancing about architecture" because people do sing about football in
pubs sometimes, and cheerleaders do chant about football.
Nevertheless, the saying is still in use and unsurprisingly it has
accumulated new attributions: Jackson Browne and Billy Joel.

Citation: 1990 August 5, The Buffalo News, Loose Lips. (Google News
archive unverified text snippet only)

Jackson Browne: "As they say in the studios of LA, talking about music
is like singing about football."


Citation: 2009 September 21, Blues Drummers Comment Wall at
livebluesworld.com, Comment by Thommy "bluesdrums" Tauscher.

Now we have a place to talk about this. Ok, Jackson Browne once said:
"Talking about music is like singing about Football" and most drummers
prefer playing to talking, but that shouldn't keep us from sharing our


Citation: Satchmo meets Amadeus, Volume 2 by Reinhold Wagnleitner,
Page 190, StudienVerlag Innsbruck, Austria. (Google snippet view)

But I have another one, one more quoting Billy Joel: Talking about
music is like singing about football. Not bad, hu? He has a point!


The bassist Jesse Keeler of the musical group "Death From Above 1979"
used the expression in an interview with a Boston Globe journalist.

Citation: 2005 April 29, Boston Globe, Categorize this duo's sound as
loud by Renee Graham.

The Canadian band's music has been described as everything from
"stoner rock" to "disco hard core." Keeler, who once took the bait by
calling his duo "a pop band in wolf's clothing," now steadfastly
refuses to engage in such conversations.

"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.


The reporter is reminded of "dancing about architecture" when he hears
"singing about football" and I think he is correct to perceive a
significant similarity. Two other subphrases were uncovered during my
search: "singing about economics" and "playing ping pong about
diarrhea". The last appears to be a scatological parody. Each member
of this cluster of sayings may have been arrived at independently;
however, it is also possible that one phrase in the group inspired the
construction of another phrase in a single-step or multi-step process
of term substitution.

Citation: 2007 January 30, Rolling Stone website, I'm from the Rolling
Stone: Live Chat With Russell Morse: The Complete Transcript.

mr_jones: what comes first for you music or writing?
Russell: writing, no question. that’s like the old question: would you
rather be deaf or blind. I’ll take deaf every time. At least you can
still look at ass. what’s the quote? . . . Writing about music is like
playing ping pong about diarrhea. Or something like that.


In this cluster of sayings the oldest citation that I found dates to
1918 and uses the subphrase "singing about economics.

Citation: 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)

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.


Citation: 1921 October 5, The Freeman, Vol. 4, No. 82, Music,
Mysticism and Madness by Winthrop Parkhurst, Page 93, The Freeman,
Inc., New York.

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


Citation: 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. (Quotation verified on paper)

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.


My final citation is a blog posting by the economist Tyler Cowen
(unverified) who discusses a musical inspired by a famous treatise in

Citation 2009 March 16, Blog Quote Unquote,
quoteunquotenz.blogspot.com, "Das Kapital, the musical" by Tyler

Danwei, a Beijing-based website about Chinese media, advertising and
urban life, reports:

Drawing inspiration from a best-selling Japanese manga adaptation of
Das Kapital, Chinese theater producers are planning to bring Marx’s
masterpiece to the stage. ...

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as Frank
Zappa said, what is the analogy for singing about economics?


Tyler Cowen is reconstructing part of an analogy that was first
formulated more than ninety years ago. Curiously, Das Kapital is
prominent in the 1921 citation also.

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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