Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Writing About Music

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

This enigmatic sentence has been bouncing around the literate world for thirty-plus years. Many attribute it to the cerebral comedian Martin Mull, but its origins, like those of many such catch phrases, remain misty. The sentence could be taken as an innocuous, even positive equation ("Writing about music, wow, man, is like dancing about architecture!"), but most who quote the eight words think of them as a devastating putdown, here, for instance, the equally cerebral rocker Elvis Costello in an 1983 interview: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — a really stupid thing to want to do."

Well, excu-u-use me, Mr. Mull and Mr. Costello, but as one who has been writing about music for most of fifty years, I find the expression to be pompous piffle, snobbish disdain far too weak to devastate me or anyone who takes on the challenge of putting one art into the language of another.

First of all, what makes dancing about architecture stupid? Think of the leaping rhythms of a long row of aqueduct arches, of Bojangles Robinson and Shirley Temple tap dancing up and down a staircase, of Fred Astaire cavorting on the walls and ceilings of a rotating room. The zoot-suited gamblers of Guys and Dolls dance to the jagged rhythms of the Manhattan skyline, and when I think of a classic 1950s ranch house, all flat planes and wide windows, I can see modern dancers in sleek leotards grooving to cool 50s jazz, all mellow flutes and vibraphones.

Of course I get what Mull, Zappa, and Costello are talking about. Music and writing are different, nearly opposite arts. Think for a minute of famous beginnings of Richard III:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York.

— Or A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…

— or Anna Karenina:

Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are unhappy each in their own way.

— then compare them to the equally famous beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: "Boom-boom-boom  boom." Understanding what Shakespeare, Dickens, and Tolstoy meant poses no problem: they use the same words we use every day to converse with our neighbors. But who can say plainly what Beethoven’s triplet of G’s and an E-flat mean? Whatever he meant, the four-note phrase doesn’t have a verbal meaning, like "I must go home" or "You can eat bread." No, "Boom-boom-boom boom" means "Boom-boom-boom boom."

Yet in Beethoven’s "Boom-boom-boom boom," and in the notes, rests, themes, melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that follow, many listeners have discovered profound, even soul-shaking meanings. Here’s what the critic E. T. A. Hoffman found a year and a half after the symphony’s 1808 premiere:

Radiant beams shoot through this region's deep night, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing…pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions we live on...

A dozen years later Balzac put a vivid description of Beethoven’s Fifth into the mouth of a fictional composer, Paolo Gambara:

"Take the C-minor symphony by Beethoven, the musical mind is borne onward into Fancy’s realm on the golden wings of the theme in G-natural, repeated by the cornets in E. He sees a whole nature illuminated in turn by dazzling jets of light darkened by clouds of melancholy, inspired by heavenly strains…"

In his superb textbook, Counterpoint, composer Walter Piston avoids such verbal rhapsodies and sticks instead to nuts-and-bolts analyses of Beethoven’s workmanlike constructions, here a fragment of a violin melody from a string quartet:

This curve rises from its lowest tone A to the high point B-flat, reached in the fifth measure, and it comes to rest on the C-sharp, a note in the lower half of its range of a ninth. The curve is a "wavy" curve, having the lesser points F and G as it ascends, and again the F in the seventh measure.

In Serenade, James M. Cain’s novel noir about a bisexual opera singer, the singer and the captain of a tramp steamer sit up late at night arguing about who is the greater genius, Rossini or Beethoven. The captain favors Beethoven, but the singer will have none of it:

"When you get to the overtures, Beethoven’s name is not at the top of the list and Rossini’s is…[Beethoven] didn’t have overtures in him. You know why? To write an overture, you’ve got to love the theater, and he didn’t….But Rossini loved the theater, and that’s why he could write an overture. He takes you into the theater — hell, you can even feel them getting into their seats, and smell the theater smell, and see the lights go up on the curtain. Who the hell told Beethoven he could treat that guy as somebody with an amusing talent..?"

Sitting rapt and bewildered at a Jimi Hendrix concert in 1967, I scribbled this in my notebook:

…total scream...end of everything...nothing louder exists, 2000 instruments...five tons of glass falling over a cliff and landing on dynamite…

— and in Ray Charles: Man and Music, I did my best to evoke of the sounds of a big band in full flight:

…wah-wah trombones, a muted trumpet burning through banked saxophones like a cigarette through silk, the guitar’s ching-ching chords locked in with the shush-snap of the drummer’s high-hat cymbal, the whole band building pulsing riffs to orgasmic climaxes.

No one wrote better on music than the great French composer, Hector Berlioz, who, while creating passionate symphonies, operas, and tone poems, wrote frank, even brutal criticism of his contemporaries. Singers who refused to sing his scores as written drove him crazy:

 Duprez obstinately declined to sing a middle G in Benvenuto Cellini, although an easier note for his voice or anyone else’s could not be conceived…He always substituted an F, the effect of which was both crude and insipid.
"Why on earth don’t you sing the passage as written," I asked him.
"I don’t know — that note bothers me, makes me nervous. In the future I’ll sing the G for your sake."
Pshaw! Saints or devils could not get him to give up his damnable F. He will die unrepentant.

Here’s his savage portrait of a diva:

Her whole manner suggests that she sees herself as the focus of the drama, the only character with whom the audience need concern itself. "What? Listening to that fellow? Admiring the composer? Interested in that chorus? How can you be so misguided! Look over here, this is what you should be attending to. I am the libretto, I am the poetry, I am the music."

He could be equally unsparing of his own efforts:

…I was held up for quite a long time over the fanfare which I wanted to bring gradually up from the depths of the orchestra to the high note on which the song of triumph bursts in. I wrote version after version. None of them satisfied me. The effect was either commonplace, or it was insufficiently spacious or too light-hearted, or it lacked sonority, or the transition was badly managed.

But music played with precision and emotion thrilled his soul: in tiny Brunswick he found an orchestra, better than any in Paris, that made his Harold in Italy "a brigands’ orgy":

…where wine, blood, joy and rage mingle in mutual intoxication, and the rhythm seems now to stumble, now to rush furiously forward, and the mouths of the brass to spew forth curses, answering prayer with blasphemy, and they laugh and swill and strike, smash, kill, rape, and generally enjoy themselves--the orchestra played as though a devil possessed them.

Writing as vigorous as this can describe music because good writing can describe anything. Nothing is beyond the power of words to describe. Here Berlioz takes on the most difficult question facing any musician or writer about music:

Love or music — which power can lift us to the most sublime heights? It is a large question; yet it seems to me that one should answer it in this way: Love cannot give an idea of music; music can give an idea of love. But why separate them? They are the two wings of the soul.

Writing that, I think, was not a stupid thing to do.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 16th 2013, 3:13 AM
Comment by: Manthos M. (Paphos Cyprus)
A very inspiring piece of textm. Particularly, the idea that nothing is beyond the power of words to describe.
Tuesday April 16th 2013, 8:57 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
Great piece. The Berlioz passage on Harold in Italy reminded me of Walt Whitman at the opera (Song of Myself, 1855):

I hear the chorus . . . . it is a grand-opera . . . . this indeed is music!

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

I hear the trained soprano . . . . she convulses me like the climax of my love-grip;
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches unnamable ardors from my breast,
It throbs me to gulps of the farthest down horror,
It sails me . . . . I dab with bare feet . . . . they are licked by the indolent waves,
I am exposed . . . . cut by bitter and poisoned hail,
Steeped amid honeyed morphine . . . . my windpipe squeezed in the fakes of death,
Let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.
Tuesday April 16th 2013, 9:14 AM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)
Fantastic article. My creative juices are flowing in anticipation of writing today. Thank you.
Tuesday April 16th 2013, 9:36 AM
Comment by: Ted G. (Fairfax, VA)
Why you've turned me on a dime, turned me inside out. I prefer this way. I will keep it.
Tuesday April 16th 2013, 3:52 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
Thanks for this wonderful article, and for making your point so clearly, as shown by the passionate and inspiring comments that follow it. Thanks also to Phil for the luscious Whitman excerpt!
Sunday May 5th 2013, 5:20 AM
Comment by: Cabbie G. (Wenatchee, WA)
I've been wrestling for awhile with how to do this. As a writer, I am constantly striving to find words to describe nuances of emotion, from the mundane to the sublime. Music seems to do this effortlessly - it is a language all its own, universal, on a par with the Divine. Thank you for this inspiring piece - I am still grappling with the issue in my own way, but your article has given me a little more courage to try.

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