Writing about Music is Like Dancing about Architecture. Some thoughts.

I’ve never fully understood resistance to writing about music – especially when it comes from those who spend a good proportion of their lives verbally discussing it. Why shouldn’t those thoughts be put down on page or screen? It seems odd to object to written attempts to convey such observations, and absurd to declare any area of discussion off limits.

Recent talk in the pub got me onto this – together with coming across several references to the above quote, each rejecting its apparent message: the inevitable failure of metaphor, or any use of language, to describe music.

Elvis Costello put the record straight a few years ago, revealing that the quote was not his after all. He attributes it to writer, musician and comedian Martin Tull and, having disowned it, Costello has felt free to write his own 600 pages. [1]

In last week’s Observer rock journalist Paul Morley championed music writers who  ‘succeed’ thereby discrediting the message behind the quip.[2] And Tiarney Miekus takes a hatchet to the phrase in her article ‘Where Metaphor Fails’ describing it as ‘vapid and reductive as they get’.[3] Poor Tull.

Though scathing in her attack, Miekus acknowledges that the quote reflects a long held realisation that music cannot be reduced to or fully explained by language. This was succinctly articulated by Philosopher John Dewey back in 1934: ‘if all meaning could be adequately expressed by words, the arts of painting and music would not exist…to ask what they mean in the sense of something that can be put into words is to deny their distinctive existence’.[4] The title of Robert Christgau’s essay ‘Writing about Music is Writing First’ puts a metaphorical finger on this limitation, [5] but the problem he identifies is not that writing about music is futile, rather that there is so much bad writing out there.

Christgau’s solution to the challenge of ‘evoking music’s magic’ is to address the craft of the writer: to rid it of ‘slack grammar, vague verbs, clichés…’ in the hope that language can ‘surround… evoke… open a window’ to music. But really, couldn’t this be a workshop about any writing? Is the ability to (almost) ‘evoke’ the impact of music the same as getting closer to understanding music? If writing cannot quite capture music’s essence, then it can help connect music to the social, personal, historical and cultural, and reveal how important and inextricably tied it is to our lives. But whether writing addresses the ‘object’ of music or explains its social significance, I can’t help thinking that it (always? inevitably? Christgau’s and mine included?) seems to ‘navigate around’ music, grasping its connections and significance but not quite capturing the thing itself. If only we could find the right metaphor…

So where does this leave us?

Now, I appreciate that Christgau might find me at a slight disadvantage as I am, as this prose reveals, more musician than writer. But is it possible that considering musicians’ experience might shed some light?

Along with Costello, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson and John Lennon have all been erroneously credited with Tull’s phrase. They have, however, voiced similar objections to writers assessing and interpreting their work; displaying an annoyance and frustration that cannot simply be explained away as reactions to bad reviews (although I’m sure those didn’t help). [6]

We all have distinct, subjective responses to the sound(s) of music – and these perceptions are moulded by our own particular backgrounds and experience. When these responses are then articulated in writing they are further shaped by the peculiarities of the language and agenda of the writer. Small wonder, then, that by the time an assessment or commentary is down on paper, it contains so many subjective factors that any one ‘interpretation’ seldom squares precisely with another. And critics’ assessments might particularly jar with those of the music’s creator(s); after all he or she has a greater stake in the sounds created and, we might assume, a more informed view of the experience of producing.

Whoever is talking or writing, lively and heated discourses are generated by this subjectivity, often driven by our refusal to accept that other interpretations are automatically more valid than ours. These dialectics may lead to real insights but they highlight the impossibility of truly objective assessments of music.

But there’s more to this than the problem of subjective responses. Creators of music are not just passive ‘listeners’; they are also human agents. What they produce can be considered ‘objects’, musical works to be listened to and discussed but, as Christopher Small has articulated, music should also be seen as a process, a performance, a verb: the act of ‘Musicking’.[7] Such ‘performance’, vital for any music to exist, involves complex social activity including writing, playing, listening and recording. Behind these processes lie artists’ intentionality, motivations and activities not necessarily obvious to those outside their immediate experience. Arguably then, the performer/creator’s unique experience leaves them in a privileged position over and above the writer and pub commentator; they have an insight and knowledge of their own ‘musicking’ process that mere ‘non musicians’ lack.

Ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson describes how recent decades have witnessed a ‘linguistic hegemony’ that has tended to reduce the creative arts to ‘texts’ to be read and interpreted. [8] Such an approach, she argues, ignores the sensory, active and experiential nature of music and, through her concept of ‘Perceptive Agency’, illustrates how listening (together with other aspects of musical performance) is a directed, nuanced and subjective act and is essential in the performance and production of music – especially in forms that incorporate improvisational practice.

This complexity belies the idea that written assessments of music are adequate responses to some identifiable, fixed music object (the record, the performance, the score) or can somehow ‘get to the bottom’ or ‘explain the magic’ of music. When music writing ‘works’ it is, as Christgua states, because the writing skilfully convinces us, the reader, that there is some universal significance in the sonic material we hear. Perhaps there is. But we can’t know this by writing alone.

So, if we are to at least try to understand music, we need to use and also go beyond language. To do this is to recognise music’s sensory, subjective and performative nature. Metaphor and simile can only get us so far, so let’s not just write about music – we should ‘music’ about music too.

 Michael Cook


[1] Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, (London: Penguin, 2015).

[2] Paul Morley, The Observer, 15th January 2017.

[3] Tiarney Miekus, ‘When Metaphor Fails’, Collapsed Board, 8thJune, 2015.

[4] John Dewey, Art as Experience, (New York: Minton, Balch and Company, 1934) p74.

[5] Robert Christgau, ‘Writing about Music is Writing First’, Popular Music, (London: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[6] Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book (London: Picador, 1990); Timothy White, ‘A Man Out of Time Beats the Clock’, Musician Magazine, October 1983,52; David Scheff, Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, (New York: McMillan, 1980).

[7] Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (New York: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).

[8] Ingrid Monson, ‘Seeing Hearing and Perceptual Agency’, Critical Enquiry, issue 34, 2008, 36 to 58.


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