writing about music is like dancing about architecture


I just published a novel about music. Early in the process of writing it, I was warned by a similarly music-obsessive friend that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”[1] Since that first somewhat menacing reminder, I’ve heard the line frequently. At first blush, the claim is a smugly dismissive one: verbal descriptions of music are doomed to be pointlessly, perhaps even ridiculously, inferior to actual music. As a reader, I resisted this idea; it just felt false, though I couldn’t quite say why. But as a writer, this assertion paralyzed me: I didn’t want to waste two or three years trying to produce something that could not be produced.[2] I tried to put aside the line’s foundational snobbery (“My music is too ineffable for your inky art”), and then, reassuringly, it seemed like nothing more than a truism: words are words and music is music. And perfume is perfume; paintings are paintings; facial features are facial features. Yet writers are never counseled against attempting to evoke paintings or smells or faces or feelings or buildings or the nonmelodic sounds of jackhammers, thunder, or snoring. What was so elusive about music that it couldn’t be captured by words?

more from Arthur Phillips at The Believer here.