Let there be music


Dear Artist,

Let there be music. It could be any music. High brow, low brow. Music gives a key to what art is, to what art can do. For my desert island I’ll include the Sibelius Violin Concerto (D major, Opus 64). I’ll choose Pinchas Zukerman to play it. I’ll have to say it’s not the notes. It’s the spirit of the thing. As Zukerman says, “It has this incredible stuff happening everywhere.” Up and down, back and forth, the wonderful arbitrary quality of it all. Music, almost fully abstract, need not engage in realistically copying bird songs, wind, the sounds of traffic or falling coconuts. This one certainly doesn’t. This music takes a step away from reality and is a sound unto itself. It is its own thing. It seems to pluck its life right out of the air. The Sibelius concerto, like many others, exists for no other reason than to exhibit its own exuberance.


“Nocturne: Grey and Silver”
oil painting by
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

In painting, and in all the other visual arts, this understanding can make the difference between excitement and boredom, between perceived mastery and creeping mediocrity. A picture might be engineered to have areas that are brilliantly casual — or areas that dazzle with virtuosity and verve — or to drift effortlessly into simplicity where complexity might be expected. Like music, a painting may be brought to life with unexpected surprises. Eyes need encouragement to stop and be guided to engagement or thought. As is the case with music, there’s potential for eternal replay.


“A Deep Sea: Violet and Silver”
oil painting by James McNeill Whistler

Music has wonder, exaltation, honour, pomp, joy, sadness, elegance, energy, ennui, disappointment, majesty, reflection, hate, love and more. Music is one of the greatest of the man-made things. Would that we could put the qualities of music into our paintings. For those of us who render well and try to get things right in our pictures, let’s not forget the lessons of music. Fill your foregrounds with counterpoint and grace notes. Paint arpeggios into your distances. Let there be rhythm, harmony and melody in your compositions. For those of us who work and play with shapes, colours and textures, let there be concertos and symphonies. Ask what choirs might be brought into service. Let there be music.


“Sunset: Red and Gold”
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Best regards,


PS: “Music has been a fantastic guidance for me. I’ll be eternally thankful for this guidance.” (Pinchas Zukerman)

Esoterica: James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was a painter who saw a relationship between painting and music. He exploited unifying and simplifying harmonies to achieve moods. He magnified simplicity and softened complexity. Delicate and wispy passages were often placed within grander themes. “A picture is an arrangement of light, form and colour,” he said. His titles often included the words symphony, nocturne and harmony. The title of the painting known as Whistler’s Mother is Arrangement in Gray and Black.

This letter was originally published as “Let there be music” on December 17, 2004.


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With many thanks for your friendship and our best wishes for the holidays.



  1. This advice is so timely to me – thank you so much! :) For my desert island music, I would bring Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – played by Nigel Kennedy. While this is my favourite piece of classical/baroque music and I love it no matter who plays it, Kennedy gives it a spark like no other. I will give it and Sibelius a listen next time I’m in the studio!

  2. Karen Bettilyon on

    I would like to share some of your words in our small watercolor newsletter. How do I get permission? I know these words of artistic advice will receive credit for content. Thank you.

  3. My mother was musically inclined so we all learned to play instruments. I started on piano- but switched to cello- then bought a bass guitar in my teens. One of the very few regrets I have is not becoming adept on the guitar because of the subtle differences between it and the cello. However- I still own it. But always a visual artist- that need to create visually (and a job) usurped music for a number of years. Right up until I decided to start spinning dance music in clubland. My second career was born- simultaneously to putting myself on my full-time art path.
    I managed to work parallel art/music jobs for the next 7/8 years- until finding myself too depressed to make other people happy dance- thereby becoming politically incorrect. Oh well. But I never stopped programming music- and my studio is constantly awash in trance music- of all kinds. And my art/music creation experience is 100% integrated. And I live alone so nobody gets to tell me they don’t like what I’m listening to or they’d prefer to watch tv.

  4. Wishing every creative spirit that reads and shares in the Painter’s Keys inspiration renewed creative energy, inspiration and especially happiness in all of your endeavours in 2017.

  5. I love painting to music in front of an audience. I have done seveal “performance” pieces to QUEEN, ABBA, and LEONARD COHEN. They are large (60×72) acrylics and very well received. No preconceived images I just have large containers of paint ready with big brushes. Oh what fun!

  6. I couldn’t agree more with Robert’s thoughts on this matter! For the most part, I also have music playing while I paint or draw. The aformentioned Vivaldi ‘Four Seasons’ is a real favorite, as are works by Strauss, Beethoven and contemporary classic performers ie. The Canadian Tenors, Jim Brickman, Michael Buble…. Sometimes I’ll start a painting session with something upbeat, like Jimmy Buffet or some old Motown tunes, to switch to more low-tempo classic works/instrumentals. Funny how my strokes will pick up the beat of some music and my mind becomes more focused with others. Artists of many genre certainly move to the rhythm of their own drums, creating inspirational works of so many media. I have to admit to being hearing impaired and having the volume so high on my stereo, even my ‘studio’ cat leaves the room! Sometimes we just have to ‘feel it’!

  7. What a great letter. I very much need this encouragement to not dwell on the details in front of me. It’s a constant struggle to “loosen up” and not be ruled by the actual scene.

  8. sometimes music is a distraction but if I had to chose it would be jazz by Ella or Fats or Natalie Cole. They transport me out of any dead space.
    I just saw the “Landscapes” show at the AGO in Toronto. Though overall somewhat in-cohesive, there were a few memorable pieces, not one of these of Whistler’s though. I like these much better and they represent landscapes so much better. There was a fabulous Norwegian painter who did night capes of the fiords and city, very dark blues with just the city lights along the coast to distinguish sky from water.
    Thanks for republishing Sara and gang

  9. Barrie Sheppard on

    The Violin concerto, Yes. And the magnificent, grand second symphony, which I think captures the huge emotions that the politics of Finlamd generated at the time.

  10. Love this post. I have painted and played the piano most of my life but took up writing in my later years and now the author of four novels (one just published) and a memoir. With the three outlets, I never suffer from block or boredom. One activity seems to feed off another and I can’t say which I love more. I just know that creativity keeps me alive and happy. Happy Holidays.

  11. What a delightful gift this season! Robert’s insights into the heart of creativity strike true as do James Whistler’s paintings. I hope to be reminded again next year. Thank you, Sarah.

  12. Once I dreamed of painting as one of these artists describes, with very large brushes, and large a canvass. The paint was in house painting sized cans. The brushes could have painted a bridge! I was doing abstracts, which I never did. I have been a people painter. I seemed to be on a large stage and painting scenery. I have always wanted to do that. I woke up feeling so happy! I listen to music all day on Classic Arts Showcase or other music stations. I am alone now and so can turn it up as far as I want. Neighbors cannot hear.

    I think of music as the other voice of God.

    Donna Veeder

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