Poetry and Music in Books

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jan 21 2010

I have a question for the blog. How do agents, editors, publishers, etc. feel about poetry and songs in the body of the manuscript? We’re all literary types, we’re bound to write songs and poems, maybe even our characters are poets and singers, too. Bilbo Baggins is walking along, having a lovely adventure in prose when he suddenly stops for a few pages to sing a song about his adventures or recite a poem from memory. Is this a strict no-no, is there a way of handling it delicately, or does it simply depend on the circumstances?

When I started reading your question my first thought was no, absolutely not. Copyright issues for music is so tricky that I usually advise authors to avoid using music or lyrics as much as possible.

And then I understood that you would be writing the poetry and/or song lyrics and they would be original, and I thought, okay, that works, go ahead and do it.

And then I read your example, and while I know it was rough, I cringed. You’re writing a book, not a musical, and I just don’t know if breaking the action by adding a musical scene would really work for readers.

But then in the end I came to the same answer I so often give to writers. You have to do what works for you. There are no cut-and-dried rules in this business and the best books are so often those that surprise us by breaking the so-called rules. So, it would really depend on the circumstances.


31 responses to “Poetry and Music in Books”

  1. I think the questioner is referring to Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbitt" right? It really DOES work in that book!

  2. Avatar Megan says:

    If a lyric summed up everything so perfectly, for say a preface or something, is it really hard/impossible to get rights? Would agents even attempt or just give up and advise to write something else?

  3. Avatar Philangelus says:

    Question: the TITLES of songs aren't copyrighted, correct? So one could have a character humming I Want To Know What Love Is and no one would have to cut Foreigner a royalty check…although the author might have to apologize to the readership. 🙂

    (This is a test. This is only a test. No actual songs were hummed during the writing of this comment.)

  4. Avatar jbstanley says:

    I added song lyrics to my recent release, Stirring Up Strife. Because the book's characters take a Bible study together, I wanted one of them to pen praise songs. For this book, it worked, so I think Jessica's advice on following your gut is sound. Add the poems or the songs if they're our own and add another's work if you're certain the copyrights can be secured. For an example of a modern writer who does this, check out Louise Penny. Her books are filled with poetry and she's acquired the permission to reprint all the poems. Good luck!

  5. Good point about the copyright issue. I had included parts of lyrics to an Aerosmith song in my story because they were creepy– and perfect. The mc experiences a flashback because of the song. But after I found out how difficult and expensive it would be to get permission to use them, I wrote my own lyrics instead (after studying numerous books on songwriting). My lyrics are way creepier than the ones from the Aerosmith song and worked even better. Plus, I was able to link it to part of my story's concept. What more could I want? 😀

  6. Avatar Falen says:

    I know as a reader, it generally drives me crazy when i have to read the lyrics to a song. Unless i can hear the music, i just don't want to deal with it. Even with some of my favorite authors.
    But that's just me. It won't make me put down the book

  7. Avatar Watery Tart says:

    I think as a reader it depends so much on the HOW and WHY. I think Bilbo's songs show some character and are fun, and could be cut to about 10% of the length that they're used.

    I can see though, a special song or poem that binds a couple, or makes somebody rethink something or remember something. Needs to be relevant to the story though, and not just filler or fluff, or if it is about character, keep it to a low volume.

    *waits for answer on song title* (I have a couple mentions too… only by title)

  8. I started reading a book a while ago and in the first two chapters alone, the main character was listening to a U2 song, or whatever. I found the repeated references to be annoying and it really dated the book. In the end it took me out of the story so much that I didn't finish it. You have to be really careful when referencing music and artists…but used properly it can enhance a character. That's just my opinion though 🙂

  9. Philangelus, you can mention the title of songs without fear of copyright violation.

    You can even reuse a title for your own song. There are at least two different songs entitled "Time after Time," for example.

  10. Avatar Kayeleen says:

    I read a lot of Mercedes Lackey and the way she handled it seems good to me. She writes her own songs, but doesn't include the lyrics. She just mentions that the character sings _______ song and includes the lyrics in an appendix for anyone who wants to know what it was.

  11. Avatar Steven Till says:

    The lyrical poems and songs worked well in the Lord of the Rings, though there were times I thought Tolkien could have skipped these parts and the books wouldn't have lost anything. Following Lord of the Rings — at least in the fantasy genre — many authors have employed similar techniques in their writing. Personally, I've seen it so much in fantasy that I've grown tired of seeing it. I'm not sure about genres, as I mostly tend to read historical fiction and fantasy. You don't get a lot of sing-song pieces in historical fiction. My preference is to not have any songs like this.

  12. Avatar Stephanie says:

    My book has a song in it…my MC's ex is a musician and it is a song he sings at a show….it's about her so it's meaningful to the story….shows his feelings for her. I think if a song is there, it has to have a purpose.

    I had a scene in this same book where the MC turns on her radio and dances around singing "Hey Mickey". I had a couple lines of the song but my editor suggested I take them out. In that scene it really didn't change anything…instead of saying "I belted out "Oh Mickey you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind…" I changed it to "I belted out the lyrics to my favorite 80's song as I danced around the room."

  13. No issues with using song titles if used in the correct context like an iPod,TV,or car. I either know them of I don't. If I know the song, it does most times add to the experience. Using lyrics and quotes of songs, I find really annoying, especially before the start of the chapter.

  14. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Similar Question-

    The characters in my current WIP love the movies. There are several references to characters, titles, but no direct quotes at least once in nearly every chapter. One collects action figures and the other creates costumes inspired by their favorite movies.

    Anyone, preferably also the Bookends ladies if they have time, know the 'rules' on something like that?

  15. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    On a similar note, I read a lot of paranormals which often include witchcraft, and I absolutely hate it when the authors reproduce long, involved spells that appear to be included merely to showcase their knowledge of witchcraft–when I recently did a novella for an anthology with a heroine who is a witch, I kept her spells REAL short. They had to be included, but the last thing I wanted to do was break the rhythm of the prose and irritate a reader the way I get irritated. I think it's the same with songs (your own) or poetry–remember the importance of pacing.

  16. Avatar Fawn Neun says:

    I think this is one of those things that are either loved or hated. Personally, I hate poems and lyrics in fiction, unless they're very, very short and obviously relevant. (Say, the Donald Justice poems from Irving's "Hotel New Hampshire", which were just lovely, brief flourishes.) I even stuck four whole lines of poetry in my own WIP, when the MC buys a book and reads one poem, because it's short and it's foreshadowing.

    The high fantasy trogs through verse after verse of backstory? No thank you. I'll skip it. I'd rather not know.

    Yet there are fen-singers galore at conventions and meetups who actually love that sort of thing.

  17. Avatar Kristen says:

    Just my two cents as a reader…

    I cringe whenever I see poetry/lyrics in novels, I then read the first line, and 99% of the time I skip to where it ends and prose returns.

    I have yet to discover whether this is because most novelists write really bad poetry or because I just dislike reading it. Either way, it's a frustrating experience for me and makes me far less likely to return to the author.

    So please, PLEASE make sure the poem/lyrics is both outstanding and necessary before forcing it on unsuspecting readers. We pick up your novel for the story, remember?

  18. Judging from the comments just ahead of mine, looks like you'll need to start administering comments. Too bad one person has to ruin things for everyone else.

    Anyway–about music. I agree that if I'm reading a book and there's a song being sung, original or not, if I don't know the music, I don't even bother reading the passage. As a writer, I find this tricky, though. My Muse is a wannabe rock star, so it's really hard for me not to write the songs that mean so much to me as I'm writing a scene into the text.

    I'm finishing up "speed revisions" for my editor, who is rushing my YA novel to production for a September release, and one of her requests was that I pull most of the music. Some songs spark dialogue and couldn't be pulled without rewriting entire chapters, so they stayed. But the rest are gone. I know this is a good thing for my future readers, but my Muse is in tears. 🙁

  19. Avatar jfaust says:

    As many of you know I believe strongly that everyone has the right to their opinion and has the right to use this blog as a forum to discuss those opinions. However, I do delete comments that are spam, liable, direct attacks on others, or simple advertisements for other blogs.

    The comments deleted today had nothing to do with the blog post I made.

    thanks for understanding


  20. Avatar Laurel says:

    A. S. Byatt's Possesion is a great example of original poetry being integrated into a novel. It's also an amazing book. If you haven't read it already you might want to just to see the treatment of it in the story. It really worked well, I thought.

  21. Avatar Laurel says:

    A. S. Byatt's Possesion is a great example of original poetry being integrated into a novel. It's also an amazing book. If you haven't read it already you might want to just to see the treatment of it in the story. It really worked well, I thought.

  22. Avatar mkcbunny says:

    How would one know whether rights could be secured without an agent to help them find out? Investigating rights seems like something an author would require an agent do. So if the writer is unpublished and unagented, it seems tricky to pursue.

    I have one character reading a piece of a poem to another, as well as a scene in which two characters are watching a movie and what's said by the characters on-screen is relevant to the characters in the novel. It'd be fairly easy to find out if the movie has slipped into public domain (it's a classic), but I don't even know where to start with the poem.

    What about quoting an author who's made a statement? Do you have to get permission to quote someone in a novel. I'm thinking about a chapter lead-in, a quotation to set apart a section of the book.

  23. Avatar D. Antone says:

    Interesting subject. On a similar note, I made the decision to add illustration to my YA novel. The main character in the novel does a lot of referencing to an atlas. I though it would be nice if the reader got to read from the atlas along with the character.

    Music? I wouldn't attempt it. Then again, I'm an artist not a musician.

  24. Avatar Livia says:

    Yeah, I think this is more acceptable in fantasy, thanks to Lord of the Rings.

  25. Avatar Johan says:

    i agree with you on that question, how do authors and agent feel about writing or publishing songs?

  26. In library school, we were taught (nay, forcefed) copyright, copyright, copyright.

    And…since Rock & Roll plays a big role in my WIP, I've thought a lot about this very topic.

    Bottom line:
    Quoting someone else's lyrics or poetry in your work without permission IS a copyright violation. (Unless it's a work within the public domain).

    Therefore, use your own original lyrics or just reference the title of the song or poem.

    From copyright.gov:

    "Copyright does not protect names, titles, slogans, or short phrases." (except for trademarked logos, etc.)

    So…don't write, "There must be some kind of way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief."

    Instead, write "ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER."

    Or take it out completely.

  27. Avatar Donna Hole says:

    Thanks for clarifying this issue so ambiguously Jessica 🙂

    I have certain portions of my novel where the characters are listening to some music, and it just fits the mood, and so I cite the Artist and song and insert a line or two or lyrics.

    Hmm, I wonder if that's the wrong approach to take. But, it does feel right in the moment, and it's not like I go on and on. Mostly, my intent is to plant the song in your head, so you absolutely have to U-tube it or play it in whatever format you've saved, and thus my scene stays in your mind for days and days.

    You ever get a song stuck in your head and can't get it out until you find a way to listen to it? Yeah, I'm that kind of writer. Well, I'm the type at work to walk by, tap you in the middle of your back – right between your shoulder blades actually – and walk away after planting an itch you can't scratch.


  28. Avatar Rick Daley says:

    In THE STAND by Stephen King one of the characters is a rock start and he frequently hums / sings one of his hit songs. It's restrained though…a chorus here, snippet of a verse there. Plus it totally fits the character.

  29. The only actual full poems inside a novel that I enjoyed reading were the ones in Roald Dahl's works. That's because the poems are not only great in their own right, but they are great commentary on the situation in the story.

    Other wise, I don't mind a couple of lines here and there – but it's got to be relevant and worth every word you use.

  30. Avatar steeleweed says:

    I have included some of my own poems when the context called for it – a character giving a poetry reading – or as a lead-in to a chapter. Since it's all mine, the copyright issue does not arise, just the issue of does-it-work.

  31. […] did a blog post a while back about using poetry and music in your work. In that blog a lot of people had questions about how you go about getting permission and whether […]