Should I Use Song Lyrics in My Writing?

While catching up on newspaper reading, I ran across an article about movie soundtracks and how uneven they can be. The article’s author offered praise for some for adding atmosphere, while opining that the soundtrack took away from other movies.

But what about books? Do song lyrics offer atmosphere, or add to characterization?

In my opinion, song lyrics are more problematic than they’re worth, even when you observe copyright rules so you don’t have to pay a usage fee. Here’s why:

Let’s say you ask the reader to think about lyrics, sung to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat:

Now I have to think about that song’s tune.

I’ve stopped the story much to my reading rhythm’s ruin.

The reader has been taken out of the story, and for what?

An audience watching a movie doesn’t have to think about a background song. It just seems to happen. But forcing readers to recall a song, even one as familiar as Amazing Grace, stops their reading beat.

If your characters sing, perhaps, “After the hymn sing, Joseph and Miriam ventured to the ice cream parlor.”

I feel the same about mentioning books. I remember reading a story where the author noted a current Christian author and book by name. While a nice gesture, I didn’t think it added to the story and caused me to pause to think about another author. It also felt like product placement. I have a similar view of mentioning a classic. If a character is reading Bleak House, I’m thinking I should be spending time with classics. Maybe I should ditch the book in hand for a Dickens tome.

If your character is a reader, note, “Amanda shut her textbook/Bible/novel to focus on the task at hand.”

As you read my blog post, did my mentions of other works cause your mind to wander? If so, perhaps you see what I mean.


Your turn:

Do you like to see song lyrics in books?

What is the best use of lyrics you’ve seen in a book? The worst?

Do you like movie soundtracks?

97 Responses to Should I Use Song Lyrics in My Writing?

  1. Brennan McPherson July 13, 2017 at 3:22 am #

    I agree with this post 100%. I’m sure there’s been a time when using a song lyric was a good and necessary idea, but I haven’t come across a great example yet. And when writers mention certain brand names/modern products, I always cringe. I remember in Ted Dekker’s Boneman’s Daughters, every other page seemed to talk about Noxzema lotion. As much as I like Ted, it made me want to scream about a third of the way through the book. Even the first time he mentioned Noxzema, I was pressed to look up the brand name, and wondered if it was actually Ted’s favorite lotion, not the serial killer’s. Hah! Specificity is not always a good thing.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 4:02 am #

      Too funny, Brennan! Well, Noxema DOES have a special aroma all its own, so perhaps that was also a way of adding an, er, pungent…and memorable, detail. Just a thought!

      Now I’m going to have to look for that book…

    • Laura July 13, 2017 at 4:35 am #

      That book put me off of Dekker’s books, and I haven’t picked one up since. It also ruined shopping for facial care products. ??

      • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 4:39 am #

        These comments have turned out to be such a hoot! I love starting the day with chuckles!

        • Robin E. Mason July 13, 2017 at 10:25 am #

          annnnddd…. now i’m remembering that unique aroma… loved me some Noxzema back in the day! ha!

    • Sharon Elliott July 13, 2017 at 5:31 pm #

      Song lyrics do not bother me. They give me another chance to relate to the character.

  2. Janine Rosche July 13, 2017 at 3:45 am #

    Well, shoot. In one of my stories, a character bonds with her grandfather by watching classic movies. Not sure how to smooth over those mentions.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 4:22 am #

      Thanks for asking. In the context of this discussion, I think movies are a bit different from songs. I doubt someone would stop reading a book to watch a movie instead, if for no other reason, because the mediums are so different. The reader has already chosen to read instead of watching a film. And thinking about a two-hour movie is different from getting distracted by a song that keeps running through your head. (I’ll refrain from naming a catchy tune right now…)

      And you can talk about Westerns in other ways. For instance, her grandfather could buy her an inexpensive “cowgirl” hat (I had one when I was little). I loved it! In fact, my grandfather bought it for me.

      I would think you could say they loved watching the John Wayne movie on TV that day, etc. His name alone evokes enough of an image that the reader doesn’t have to linger there to get the idea. This isn’t the same as citing a specific movie and scene, forcing the reader to try to remember seeing it. (And maybe going crazy trying to remember the name of the other actors in the scene!)

      I don’t want this blog to be a place of discouragement for you, so I hope this clarification has helped. The exception proves the rule. Your story could be one time where mentioning each movie actually works best. I recommend getting opinions from a critique group and/or friends who love to read before you submit to editors and agents. Go with what makes your story shine!

      • Janine rosche July 13, 2017 at 5:43 am #

        Thanks for the examples! Your posts are educational for me and spur me on to better writing! I’m not discouraged.

  3. Laura July 13, 2017 at 4:32 am #

    Another thing to consider is song lyrics cost money to use. The music industry has lawyers at the ready if you don’t pay for permission first. Unless you’re using all public domain songs, song lyrics might not be worth it.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 4:34 am #

      Agreed, Laura. I knew an artist who used songs from the 1960s as background for a video and he had to pay $100 a song. That was years ago. I don’t know what the fee would be now.

      • Laura July 13, 2017 at 4:40 am #

        I have a novel I’m planning where using lyrics is necessary to the plot, and based on some google research, the more famous the song is, the more expensive it is to use it. I really want to use a few Beatles songs, but I have a feeling a publishing house might not want to pay for them. We’ll see. That book is just in the planning stages, so it will change!

        • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 4:42 am #

          I hope it works out!

        • Brennan McPherson July 13, 2017 at 1:04 pm #

          All songs published in the US before 1923 are in the public domain. Any IP in the public domain is free game. For works created after January 1st of 1978, copyright lasts for the entire lifetime of the creator plus an additional 70 years. In between those time periods, it’s a little murky. But none of the Beatles’ songs are in public domain.

          You COULD contact the publisher (not the artist–artists, unless they are completely independent, almost never owned their own compositions times past–and for song lyrics, we’re talking about the composition) and simply offer to purchase the non-exclusive right to use the lyric, or a portion of the lyric, in a novel, and it can generally be done for a low amount. (one-time fee) Then, if you offer it to a publisher, you can present them with the license, say it’s already taken care of, and your publisher will not make you excise it.

          • parysprose July 13, 2017 at 1:50 pm #

            Heard “happy birthday” was now copyrighted. Sad.

            • Brennan McPherson July 13, 2017 at 2:09 pm #

              Actually, in 2015 a federal judge ruled that the claim by Warner/Chappell that the Happy Birthday song was their copyrighted material was an invalid claim, saying that their copyright extended only to a particular piano arrangement, not to the lyric and melody. In 2016, Warner/Chappell settled for 14 million dollars and the court declared the song in the public domain. Meaning they paid 14 million dollars in a class action lawsuit, because prior to the court case they’d been generating 2 million in royalty revenues per year on a false copyright claim.

  4. April Kidwell July 13, 2017 at 5:15 am #

    Two other considerations when writing lyrics (or references to other books, songs, TV) is alienating your reader and current relevance.

    Alienation: If the song, lyrics, or even a specific artist you refer to is one that your reader despises you may lose him! You don’t want to cause the reader to put your book down.

    Relevance: I have a story I wrote quite a few years ago in which an older gentleman is obsessed with watching “The Price is Right” everyday. He loves watching Bob Barker and is oblivious to any questions about his character. While there is relevant character development in the scenes I wrote, a modern reader may not even know who Bob Barker is, and perhaps by the time this story sees the light of day, the game show will be a distant memory.

    • Janine Rosche July 13, 2017 at 5:37 am #

      Not a song, but a pop culture reference example to back up your point about alienation. When I read Gone Girl (don’t judge me!) I didn’t get the reference to some famous puppets from pop culture (punch and Judy, or something). Because of that, I missed “the big twist.”

      • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 5:47 am #

        I know Punch and Judy by name and have little idea about who they are beyond that. I would have been right there with you, Janine!

        • parysprose July 13, 2017 at 1:53 pm #

          Here in New Bern we have a former colonial governor’s palace and they have “Punch & Judy” puppet shows occasionally. They seem to amuse the children and yell and fight. Most of the children laugh.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 5:46 am #

      Excellent points, April! Not only might an author lose the reader for a current book with a controversial reference, but a fan will be lost for future books as well.

      My husband and I hear references all the time that are shorthand for our generation. We’ll look at each other and say, “You have to be at least our age to get that joke.” Meanwhile, our 23-year-old doesn’t understand it at all and the whole point is lost on her.

  5. Louise M. Gouge July 13, 2017 at 5:27 am #

    Tamela, I hope you’ll forgive my friendly, dissenting opinion here. 🙂 I sometimes use public domain hymn lyrics to touch a character’s emotions. In my own life, I sometimes have to stop singing because the lyrics touch me so deeply that I’m almost in tears. I leave church knowing Jesus has touched me through both the music and the lyrics. Since it’s a real, human experience many of us go through, so I hope my readers can relate to it.

    I’ve also used classic novels to parallel my story and show lessons my characters learn as they relate to the classic’s characters…or learn how to avoid the problems those classic characters faced.

    What I don’t do is randomly throw in songs or classic novels titles. Maybe that’s what you’re referring to? Please don’t throw cabbage or tomatoes at me. LOL!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 5:49 am #

      I’m glad you shared your opinion, Louise! You make an excellent point. If the storyline needs to have those references, they make sense for the plot, and offer valuable takeaway, then it makes sense to go with it. You are also right that I’m referring to much less useful and meaningful references that detract rather than add to the story. Thanks for sharing!

    • Cathy July 13, 2017 at 6:22 am #

      I agree. Not that I am writing anything with lyrics, but I frequently read books which reference hymns in particular. The hymns, “minisermons set to music” often express the thoughts and struggles of the main character better than exposition.

  6. Damon J. Gray July 13, 2017 at 5:31 am #

    The challenge (and I believe the attempt) is to evoke the same emotional response within the reader as we find in the singer, or listener. A speaker can stand before a crowd and utter a meaningful, and even clever phrase. Or an author can write that same clever and meaningful phrase, and we, as consumers, read or hear that phrase, capture its meaning, and nod knowingly and approvingly. That very same phrase, however, set to music, can move an audience to tears. The exact same phrase, word for word…

    The power is in the music. It’s just the way God wired us up. I’ve learned the hard way that it just doesn’t translate well from one medium to another.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 5:52 am #

      Exactly! I am not proud to say that I can still sing the “Pringles New Fangled Potato Chips” jingle from long ago but have no idea what their slogan is now. Why? Because commercial jingles are pretty much nonexistent today. Music does speak to the heart and mind.

  7. Diana Harkness July 13, 2017 at 5:32 am #

    When reading, I don’t mind if a few lines of lyrics, a poem, or a quote is put in the chapter title area as an intro to the theme for the chapter. If those interest me sufficiently I will make a note to read (or listen to) the source. (NOTE: I read Bleak House once in law school or shortly thereafter and a reference to it in any book will take me back to my own reading of it–not necessarily a bad thing.) In non-fiction, a reference may take me to other authors which will enhance my study of the subject. I cannot think of particular books, but I do remember one which led me to another which led me to commentaries by Keil and Delitzsch. And Shakespeare quotes have led me back to his sonnets or plays. Public domain lyrics would the safest to use. Current song lyrics may be soon dated.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 5:55 am #

      Another point about current song lyrics: with listening habits being so splintered now, there’s no guarantee anyone but a few people will know the song unless you go with a mega artist. Then your point would be lost anyway.

  8. Renee Garrick July 13, 2017 at 5:48 am #

    My nearly finished novel includes the lyrics of a long – popular song that a main character sings to his great granddaughter in one chapter. The song, significant in their relationship and symbolic in the story, is woven into the plot. Removing it would be difficult . . . and I haven’t checked the cost yet. Sounds as if I’ve got some research ahead.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 5:56 am #

      I’m glad you read this blog and realized now rather than later to be prepared for this issue. I hope your research goes well and your book is a great success!

  9. Kristi Woods July 13, 2017 at 5:51 am #

    So true! Mentioning a song changes the cadence to a story. I hadn’t thought of it until reading your post. I recently picked up a fiction read that noted several artists and their songs. When I think back to it, I paused with every song mentioned. Oh, how the mind operates. Thanks for offering this insight, Tamela.

  10. Janine Rosche July 13, 2017 at 5:57 am #

    In another story of mine, a budding singer writes a song for the girl he loves. You know what is fun? Pretending you can write a hit song when you are not musical at all. My hope is that my song-writing friends will throw me a bone if the story has a chance at getting picked up.

  11. Rachel McDaniel July 13, 2017 at 6:20 am #

    Thank you for this post, Tamela! I know of an author who used lyrics from a song from the 1940s and had a difficult time tracking the correct people for permission. She said she will NEVER do that again! I wrote song lyrics in my story but I made them up since the main character was a nightclub singer. I’m curious what you’re take on that is??

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 6:29 am #

      Thanks for asking! I think making up your own lyrics is likely the easiest way to go. And fun, too, am I right?

  12. Melissa Ferguson July 13, 2017 at 6:23 am #

    Thanks for this!
    What do you think about times there is an italicized quote just after the chapter but before the actual story? I’ve seen it done after every single chapter in some books and thought it was perhaps too much, but in most instances I’ve enjoyed a quote here or there and it intrigued me in wondering how it was about to set the tone for the scenes to come (and yes, sometimes make a note to find that book next!).

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 6:31 am #

      I think using quotes can add enjoyment for some readers and others will just skip over them. Everyone’s different!

  13. Bryan Mitchell July 13, 2017 at 6:24 am #

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been removed from stories in order to research artwork that was included or referenced in a story, especially with Stephen King’s writing. When he does that, I either get it and continue or feel a need to research, which takes me away from the story. Also, I never told anyone this, but I used to skip over songs in Tolkien’s work just to get back to the story.

    I believe it is necessary at times though. Music is a part of life and to some it’s a part of who they are. Still, I can see where too much or unnecessary inclusion of lyrics could dilute a story. If they are used as a reference or an allusion, or however else, it should be sparingly. For instance, Jesus made his point when he shouted, or sang, the first and last line of Psalm 22.

    I’m writing my first novel, so I’ve never considered the consequences of using lyrics. There are a few of occasions when my characters break out into song, so I’ll take some time to consider it when I read over it next month. If it’s to merely set a mood, maybe there is better way. Thinking back, I do believe I included lyrics just to set the mood, and I have to be honest with myself and admit that’s a bit lazy. I really appreciate this article; without it, I may have jumped over my lyrical inclusion and not even considered the consequence.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 6:35 am #

      You are so welcome. I can relate to your compulsion to research artwork (or other references) while reading. And yes, thanks for admitting that using lyrics can be a shortcut! Like all shortcuts, it can work or, as you pointed out, take you down a totally wrong path.

      As you revise, enjoy the journey — literally!

  14. Ruth Freeburg July 13, 2017 at 6:27 am #

    Worst use? Reference to “How Great Thou Art” in a novel with setting prior to song’s origin and translation. I couldn’t even bring myself to finish the book!

  15. Loretta Eidson July 13, 2017 at 6:28 am #

    After reading this post I went back to my first manuscript and deleted the 10 words of a children’s song I’d used. I certainly don’t want nor need any backlash on a legal standpoint. The scene works just fine without it. I only changed one sentence. Simple. In my third manuscript, I referenced a particular perfume and brand name. What are your thoughts on brand names? Maybe you could do a blog on this subject as well. Thank you, Tamela!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 6:37 am #

      Sounds like a good revision, Loretta! And yes, I think I’ll write that blog post on brand names!

      • Robyn Hook July 14, 2017 at 10:56 am #

        I’ll be looking for the brand name post, too. I’ve received mixed reactions in contests about the references. This post was very helpful as I revise my WIP as I’ve written my own lyrics AND referenced Christian songs in several places. Thanks!

  16. Jennifer July 13, 2017 at 6:28 am #

    I have read previously (on this very blog) that quoting lyrics can be problematic. My current novel has a strong music theme and because of this blog, I knew not to quote the songs themselves but I can use the artist name and title of the song.

    Since music is central to the story, I’ve had to get creative in tying this element into the plot. Thanks for the tips along the way. I have saved so much time and energy and it is one less thing to edit.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 6:38 am #

      I’m always happy to learn when our blog has been a help. Thank you!

      • Janine rosche July 13, 2017 at 6:44 am #

        What about using an artist/title that is very secular? For instance, Aerosmith. Is that frowned upon in the Christian genres?

        • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 7:03 am #

          Good question! It’s hard to walk into a store, gym, or restaurant without hearing secular music, so most Christians may well understand the reference. But I think people are reading Christian books in part to steep themselves in literature written from a Christian worldview. A secular song reference might seem jarring.

          But I’d like to emphasize that in my view, shying away from using secular songs is not a matter of readers and publishers passing judgment, but about the purpose of the book.

        • Cathy July 13, 2017 at 7:05 am #

          As a reader, I don’t mind, but some people might. I’ve read two very good Christian books recently that referenced pop culture artists, even the songs, one of whom I believe is represented by this agency. 🙂

        • Stacy A July 13, 2017 at 9:34 am #

          I don’t think it’s a problem if it’s true to the character. You can’t have totally sanitized characters in novels, and Real Life people, even Christians, listen to secular music. In fact, mentioning a band name can tell you a lot about a character, so I think that’s a win.

          • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 3:21 pm #

            Cathy and Stacy, I see what you both mean, though I was attempting to address the question of a “very” secular reference. There’s a huge difference between “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along” and a profanity-laden rap song. 🙂

  17. Nan Snipes July 13, 2017 at 6:29 am #

    According to “Author Law A-Z,” by attorney Sallie Randolph, there are four factors to take into consideration when using lyrics or anything else copyrighted: 1) Purpose and Character of Use, 2) Nature of the Work, 3) Market Value, and 4)Amount Infringed. This factor–Amount Infringed– “is the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.”

    In lyrics, as well as poetry, it is easy to infringe because they are short. But because they are short, it’s advisable to seek permission of the author before quoting even a small portion. I can’t find it now, but somewhere in copyright law, it says how using even a small portion of lyrics can bring copyright infringement.

  18. Martha Whiteman Rogers July 13, 2017 at 6:43 am #

    I agree totally with brand names. I read a book where products were mentioned by name every time one was used from the kind of car to the kind of coffee for breakfast, even tissues. Made me dislike the book.

    I used a few lines from Amazing Grace in my historical, Autumn Song. The heroine, who is a soloist with her church choir, begins singing the son while she and the hero are horseback riding in the fall with the gorgeous colors turning all around. She sings Amazing Grace and as the hero thinks about the words, he sees things in a new perspective. It’s been one of the favorite scenes in the book.

    If I see a song title, and know the song, I may see the words in my mind, but it doesn’t take me away from the story. I love seeing the titles of Gospels songs and even the newer worship songs mentioned . The context in which it’s written can give more insight into the character speaking. I’m talking about one or two references, not chapter after chapter.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 6:58 am #

      Martha, I’m so glad you have added to this discussion. You are so right in that there is a huge difference between overkill and when a lyric adds depth and meaning to the story. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Cathy July 13, 2017 at 6:59 am #

    I can see your point, but I personally have very rarely found it distracting. Perhaps it is because I grew up reading Tolkien and the Little House books. Referencing a song doesn’t phase me, unless it is poorly done. Sometimes it does slow me down a bit with the tune running through my head, but it was the tune that was intended (like when an author quotes Amazing Grace). I tend to read historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and romances. I think that in a good number of such books there will be things I don’t already know, and while it’s fun to have that ah-ha moment when I identify a possibly obscure reference, only when it is over the top does it slow me down. A time traveler, for example must know things about a previous era that the modern reader doesn’t know. A snarky fantasy MC who has lived decades longer than s/he should have lived ought to reference, say, Barbasol (or Pringles jingles!), at least once. 😉

    I can see your point, though, in the responses I received to a short piece of literary fiction I sold this year. I mentioned a famous classical piece in the beginning, and I think that lost a few readers. (Reviews ranged from 1-5 out of 5. Averaged out around 3.8, last I looked.) One reader did go look up the canon and listen to it as he read the story again. Afterwards, he commented it changed the way he read it, that it made the story richer, but he cautioned me against making the reader feel stupid. The people who knew the piece, in general, loved the story. The people who didn’t, ignored it. Of course, the vast majority of people don’t want/like literary fiction anyway…

    So it doesn’t slow down all readers. It doesn’t slow me down. If music, say, hymns, were vital to community life in the 1870s in Kansas, it ruins the verisimilitude of the story to leave them out. A heroine who is a romantic and an avid reader who does not reference Bronte or Austen at least once in not believable. A long list of trendy things from 1920 will slow me down much faster than a song or a book ever will. Point is, does it truly fit? I think adding some references can build and reinforce a common cultural thread that can strengthen the work when it is done well.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 7:05 am #

      Good points! Thank you for sharing. Your comments are very helpful and I appreciate your insights about your experience.

  20. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 13, 2017 at 7:27 am #

    Personally, I like the addition of music (lyrics in a book, the real thing in a film). It doesn’t drop me out of the flow unless the major work is terrible; in a good combination it provides atmosphere.

    Andrew Greeley used the old hymn “Lord Of The Dance” in his novel of the same name, and the redemptive quality of the song exactly matched the book’s message.

    In film, “Black Hawk Down” used Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” beautifully.

  21. Deb Santefort July 13, 2017 at 8:26 am #

    I have read that if a song was written before 1923, it is okay to use the lyrics. Is that true? In my manuscript, two characters sing “It Is Well With My Soul” by a gravestone. I also use song titles in dialogue but to me it is organic because the main characters are singers. Thanks Tamela for this information, I will consider revising.

    • Carol Ashby July 13, 2017 at 8:39 am #

      US copyright law sets a limit of 90 years, assuming the copyright wasn’t renewed (which it very well may have been, especially on early 1900’s work). Different countries have different laws and expiration dates.

      • Steve Laube July 13, 2017 at 12:38 pm #


        Actually, the copyright law changed in 1978. So the renewal mechanism is no longer applicable.

        For music lyrics here are the parameters:
        Musical Works (meaning the lyrics) published with a valid Copyright Notice of 1922 or Earlier are in the public domain in the United States.

        Essentially all SOUND Recordings are under copyright protection until 2067 in the United States.

        Copyright protection outside the USA is determined by the laws of the country where you wish to use a work. Copyright protection may be 50 to 70 years after the death of the last surviving author, 95 years from publication date, or other copyright protection term.

        If anyone wants to read a comprehensive article on whether song lyrics are under copyright please find this one at

        • Carol Ashby July 13, 2017 at 12:47 pm #

          Many thanks for the updated info, Steve!

        • Carol Ashby July 13, 2017 at 12:50 pm #

          Question: if a copyright was renewed before the law change in 1978, say in 1975, when would that copyright expire?

        • Christine Henderson July 14, 2017 at 1:32 pm #

          That 1922 date does not always hold. I’ve been doing a lot of research on old hymns and I’ve found some dated earlier that are copyrighted. I use CCLI to confirm it’s in the public domain.

          Sometimes the lyrics are public domain, but the tune is copyrighted.

  22. Carol Ashby July 13, 2017 at 8:34 am #

    While I don’t find either lyrics or book titles distracting, they easily could be for my readers who live outside the US and Canada. Once a book is for sale digitally (trad pub as well as indie), you’ll probably have international readers. On the order of 10% of my sales are international now, and a person in Hungary or Nigeria may never have heard a song that’s well known in the US.

    I must confess that I have referred to a specific book in my latest release. I did report that my heroine consulted scroll VII of Celsus, published during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, on battle wounds and scroll VIII on how to treat a broken skull when she was treating the ax wound to the male protagonist’s head. I have the English translation, so I consulted it, too, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t going to distract most readers into thinking they ought to be reading that book instead of mine. However, if you’d find the instructions for cataract surgery the way the Romans did it entertaining, you might want to read Aulus Cornelius Celsus sometime. It’s fascinating stuff, and I’m planning several articles for my Roman history website based on what Celsus teaches.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 3:23 pm #

      Carol, I do think you’ve chosen a book that’s not distracting! Thanks for the info.

  23. Janetta Messmer July 13, 2017 at 8:36 am #

    I agree with you. I’ve been distracted while reading for the reasons you mentioned. That’s why when I wrote Early Birds, I was tentitive on using lyrics in it. I did use lyrics to On the Road Again by Willie Nelson in my novel (permission asked for and granted) and I’m SO glad I did. Yes it cost a chunk of change, but worth every bit. My novel is Christian comedy and I felt the song fit well and didn’t stop the movement of the story.

  24. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D July 13, 2017 at 9:33 am #

    Tamela, I agree with you that song lyrics really interrupt my reading when enjoying a novel. If they are in the book, I end up unable to get the lyrics out of my mind……that can be a real pain in the ….neck. I enjoy having a soundtrack in a movie and have come to expect it (think Runaway Bride here, and all the popular songs that took up from one scene to another), but it is merely a distraction in a book.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 3:48 pm #

      Agreed, Sheri! I’ll admit that if I see a movie and hear a song in the background, I expect a soundtrack. Movie soundtracks can sometimes offer the best of the best in music.

  25. Stacy A July 13, 2017 at 9:48 am #

    I don’t find these kinds of mentions and references distracting, for the most part. Human beings are cultural creatures — we react and respond to the cultural influences of our time. Even Christians who “never” listen to secular music will know about things from the culture around us (unless they live under a rock). I will often stop reading to google a location or piece of artwork or some other reference that I don’t know about, and it doesn’t hurt my reading, but often enhances it. Maybe that’s just a different way of reading than we’re used to. I think a lot of the issue may be with how the author does it. If the references are constant and intrusive, yeah, that’s not good. But woven in tactfully cultural references can really add to a story.

    Another issues is this: Are we as readers going to limit ourselves to reading about only those cultural experiences we are familiar with? I hope not! Reading can expand our horizons, can teach us about places and times and peoples we’re not familiar with. I love reading books set in other countries than the U.S., and I’m disappointed when they “Americanize” the local characters for fear of U.S. readers not understanding. Now, if you’re writing a YA novel and you have your teenager reference something that was huge when YOU were a teen, rather than something more current, that’s a problem. But in general, the wider the range of cultural references, the more we learn about our world.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 3:26 pm #

      Stacy, I agree it’s good to broaden your horizons through reading. As readers wanting to glorify and not to offend the Lord, we must discern which books to choose! That not only applies to negative influences, but to the quality of story and prose as well. Thanks for making an excellent point.

  26. Robin E. Mason July 13, 2017 at 10:34 am #

    Perhaps i need to rein it in some because i do get specific in naming a story or book a character might be reading. most recently i named the musical piece my character played – banged out – as she flailed herself at the keyboard (Chopin Polonaise in A minor, op 40, no 1, “Military”) for those who are familiar or want to look it up, they can hear (as i did in writing) Ava’s mood

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

      I imagine a lot of your readers will search YouTube to find that song since not everyone will immediately be able to bring it to mind. However, the “Military” reference in the title will help show her mood, so that title is a good choice!

  27. Elena Corey July 13, 2017 at 10:45 am #

    Dear Tamela,
    I read your blog w/ mixed feelings–agreeing w/ you about much, but thinking sadly of my small series of novels ( and a stage play) about a singer-songwriter-bandleader, in which the characters frequently converse w/ each other via quotes from well known songs. e.g. When Norma has a new contract & goes into Katie’s house to tell her the news, she starts out, “Blue skies, smilin’ at me; nothin’ but blue skies do I see.”
    Katie responds, “The sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday.” Then a third person in the room adds a third quote–and so on thru that scene & others.
    I know there will need to be many permissions sought–but the crux of the plot relies on these folks viewing their world thru the lens of song lyrics.
    The plot turns are reflected in these lyrics.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 3:29 pm #

      Sounds as though you have a unique set of characters to me. I’m sure you’ll find a publisher who’ll be happy to work with you to see this project come to fruition. 🙂

  28. Shulamit July 13, 2017 at 10:54 am #

    I’m laughing…yes, I was distracted by thinking about the time I was in a Tom Stoppard play, and there was a reference to a lyric. This was before the internet, and no one was sure what the reference meant, or quite how it should sound (was I to sing it?) in that scene.

    Using known lyrics to set a mood, risks the reader not knowing the lyric and getting bent out of shape.

    Other times I’ve read passages where the author “cites” “published” material that the author created for the novel. This always drives me to distraction if the author hasn’t put a note in the front or back alerting the reader that the citations are part of the universe in the novel, not extant in our world.

    Oh, I’ve wasted time trying to find a “book” that an author made up for their novel, and I guess thought it was more authentic to not mention it was all made up for the novel.

    Titles of songs are not copyrighted, so can be used, but what about when the title is the same as some of the lyrics? I love the line, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.” Referring to it that way, in a comment, probably falls into fair use. Using it to set a scene in a book, probably not.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 3:45 pm #

      Excellent point about the confines of a book’s universe. I can see how that can be frustrating!

      The Rolling Stones never pretend to be proverbial choir boys but I imagine most readers will know that reference!

  29. Shannon McDermott July 13, 2017 at 11:44 am #

    I know a short story that made brilliant use of a song lyric. The story revolved around an astronaut who flew experimental rockets, and he kept humming part of a popular song: “I had a true wife but I left her.” You would have to read it to understand, but thematically, emotionally, it was powerful.

    Now, this was pulp sci-fi, from the ’50s/’60s. I have never heard the song, and I tried to find it on Google. I’m not even sure it’s real. But it proved a marvelous way to introduce that idea – “I had a true wife but I left her” – and create natural repetition (song stuck in your head).

  30. Angela Carlisle July 13, 2017 at 12:20 pm #

    Personally, if I don’t know the tune to a section that quotes more than a couple lines of lyrics, I skip the whole quote. It ends up being wasted space to this reader. If I do know the tune, it still slows me down.

  31. Amanda Wen July 13, 2017 at 2:38 pm #

    As a musician, I’ve always got an ear/eye out for musical references. I’ve found that in books that focus on classical music (Tamera Alexander’s “A Note Yet Unsung” being just one recent example), the references add to the book for those of us who know the pieces. For those who don’t, the mention neither helps nor hinders the reader’s understanding. But I think with contemporary songs, be they sacred or secular, I find mentions of groups, song titles, or even lyrics distracting, plus they can date a story very quickly.

    As I write, I develop a soundtrack for each project, and I find certain songs corresponding to certain scenes, but I can only draw my soundtrack from songs I’ve heard and am familiar with. Readers do the same, and I like to let them have the freedom to use their mental musical database to come up with the songs they feel fit the scenes. Or none at all. Their choice.

  32. Felicia Bridges July 13, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

    I have to agree. I really, really wanted to use a quote from To Kill a Mockingbird – the character who was to quote it was a bibliophile who was constantly reading beyond her age level and quoting what she read, but especially in light of Harper Lee’s passing and all the questions about how to even get permission to use it, I decided to cut it and just make reference to her quoting her favorite authors without specifying.

    I also had a scene where a particular praise song was so perfect…I really wanted them to sing it…but settled for a reference that the reader may interpret as whatever song comes to their mind when the beauty of God’s creation overwhelms them.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray July 13, 2017 at 3:56 pm #

      I think I would have made the same decisions, Felicia. Appreciate you for sharing.

  33. Justin Swanton July 14, 2017 at 11:32 am #

    In my own Science Fiction MS the main character remembers quite long bits from Rodriguez’s songs. I’ll be cheeky and reproduce a short extract here:

    It was the following morning. The rover moved slowly over the dusty russet ground at a steady eight kilometres an hour. Behind it the second rover was attached with the towing bar which had been included for just this purpose, in the event of one rover breaking down away from the Hab.

    As I sat, eyes scanning the ground for rocks that might damage its wheels, my mind gradually drifted into a quiet space between thought and will, where the heart moved where it would and brief flickers of old half-forgotten memories surfaced and faded. Childhood memories from a time when joy was a birthright and sorrow a passing mood. How had Fitzgerald put it? So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past. Old faces, old games, old reassurances, old tunes.

    I never knew why
    My dreams had to die,
    At the end of the street
    Where I first met you now
    Let it go.

    Can’t bring back the past,
    Why it didn’t last
    Is one of those questions
    The answer I’ll never know.

    I’ll just bury the day
    And be on my way,
    The past’s in the past
    Only one thing to do,
    Let it go.

    Poor man’s wisdom, written when Rodriguez was young and thirty years of failure lay ahead of him, but wisdom nonetheless. When the answer is that there is no answer, one can do nothing but bow one’s head and accept what cannot be changed, what is written in stone, in rock, twenty miles of it. I looked up at the yellow sky. Ganymed would fly past Mars in twenty days, so close the planet’s gravity would alter its trajectory, sending it like a slingshot straight towards the Earth. The god of war would live up to his name in a way the myths could never have imagined.

    Quoting three verses like that would get my pants sued off – if Rodriguez had actually written them. Fortunately I made them up myself, imitating his style.

    There’s also the one-liner from Fitzgerald, but that falls under fair use. I’m covered. 🙂

  34. sherri stewart July 14, 2017 at 4:01 pm #

    I enjoy song lyrics and movie titles when I’m reading a period piece because it helps me understand the times better.

  35. ann sheehan July 21, 2017 at 7:25 am #

    All this was most relevant to what I’m working on right now so it was good to read. But I don’t understand — why do other people get hung up on things so easily? If an author goes off on an historical event that glazes my eyes I skip it and if there’s a poem insert that I don’t like I skip it. As the reader that’s my prerogative and the author’s is to offer what she/he believes contributes to the story. If readers use something like song lyrics to justify putting a book down or “lose the story” I don’t think they cared about it to begin with.

  36. James Moser January 22, 2021 at 6:36 am #

    I’ve taken to simply composing my own melodies. It’s very fun, really, significantly more fun than legitimate difficulty!

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