It is unclear who first said “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, but the culprit might wish they had a penny whenever the phrase was used. In the opening sentence of Dark Mirror: The pathology of the singer-songwriter, Donald Brackett ascribes the wisecrack to Elvis Costello, who added in a 1983 Musician magazine interview: “it’s a really stupid thing to want to do”. But Costello himself tentatively attributes it to the comedian Martin Mull. Other contenders include Thelonious Monk, Frank Zappa, Schopenhauer, Yoko Ono, Steve Martin and Laurie Anderson; in fact, anyone you like.
What is clear, however, is that the quotation is overused, practically meaningless, and makes for a disheartening first line. It’s not hard to see why it gained currency both among artists (a glib bon mot at the critics’ expense) and critics (a licence to abdicate responsibility), but as Alex Ross, the author of The Rest Is Noise (2008), asks: “Why is music more difficult to write about than any other art form?”.
TLS 4/9/09 Wesley Stace