This is based off of a recent meta debate. Although something being literature - or not being literature - does not automatically make something on or off topic, this is an interesting question that may shed some insight on the meta discussion.

Can music be considered as part of 'literature'? Has it been considered 'literature' by anyone in the past? What arguments are there for it being literature/not being literature?

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    Just a reminder that if you want to discuss this sites scope, dont do it here. No one other than us cares about our scope debates. Things people have said on meta are not reputable sources. Etcetera
    – user111
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 17:00
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    This question seems perfectly on-topic to me. It's undeniably about literature. There may be more than one answer, but that's the case with a lot of our questions. Vote on the well argued answer, not on the answer you agree with. I'm not sure why people are voting to close this.
    – user111
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 17:52

5 Answers 5

  • I would say Music should not be classified as Literature because to do so would cause much confusion in talking about work in two fundamentally distinct artistic mediums.

[See PephenKinD's answer for a good breakdown of the different qualities of the two mediums.]

Music deals with combinations frequencies/wavelengths, in terms of sequence of notes, and harmony/dissonance. It shares a common metric structure with most forms of poetry, and all literature if all language is regarded as having a metric structure. But music is non-linguistic.

By contrast, literature deals with concepts expressed in language. The field of Linguistics and Semiotics attempts to break down what this actually means, but in common language, it's all about combinations of words as opposed to frequencies.

This is the basic distinction. However

  • Lyrics are definitely a literary form

This can range from "light verse", as in Duke Ellington, to serious political and social commentary (Chuck D and Ice Cube.) The Billie Holiday classic Strange Fruit is an early example of lyrics used for social critique, but that tradition goes back much farther, with Irish Rebel Songs as an example. In fact, ballads were traditionally narratives set to music.

Nevertheless, the discussion of musical properties and construction are distinct from the discussion of literary properties and constructions, even though pure music may be narrative, as in the case of Peter and the Wolf.

The Nobel prize in literature awarded to Bob Dylan is a recognition of lyrics as serious literature. In this case, the musical framework for the poetry is corollary.

My underlying point is about the necessity of distinction between mediums, genres and fields. These distinctions exist to set clear boundaries and terminology for discussion of such subjects. Certainly one could call music literature, but I'm not it's a useful leap. The etymology of literature may help elucidate this point.


Generally, music and literature are two different genres of art, with the distinctions hinging on the medium used. The former is understood to be the organization and production of harmonious sounds, while the latter is the arrangement of written words on a visual display. There can be an occasional crossover between the two forms. For example, a lot of music today uses written words to complement the harmony and convey a message. And for its turn, poetry is a form of literature that can be described as having a musical quality. But these blurred lines are not fundamental to either art form, and the two can still be said to be distinct, even if one borrows aspects from the other.

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    Wikipedia is not a reputable source.
    – user111
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 17:00
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    I don't think Wikipedia is a problem, @Hamlet. What this answer could really benefit from is some examples. Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 0:25
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    Since this site on its own includes in its existing concept of "literature" oral traditions, written descriptions of declaimed performances, and illustrations collected in formats traditionally associated with the written word, a single pop definition is not by itself sufficient for this discussion. I've attended lectures on Yapese dance as literature, which is a good example of how common definitions can break down when used uncritically as terms of art.
    – BESW
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 3:20

Certainly there are those that consider music to be literature.

In fact, the organization PEN New England (a chapter of PEN America) which among other things

confers over $150,000 to writers in the fields of fiction, science writing, essays, sports writing, biography, children’s literature, translation, drama, or poetry.

is one of them, having in 2012 awarded their first-ever Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence to Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen.

Even further proof is that Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016.

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition".

When asked about the award Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy said;

"He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition".

It seems that the argument to be made is that songs are poetry.

In essence, songs tell a story and (once writing was thing) are generally written as text. It just so happens that text is meant to be performed. Continuing from the above interview

[Has the Swedish Academy widened the horizon of the Nobel Prize in Literature?]

Well, it may look that way, but really we haven't. In a way if you look back (far back) to two thousand five hundred years or so you discover Homer and [?], and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to. They were meant to be performed, often with instruments, and it the same way with Bob Dylan.

So my interpretation of that boils down to... We consider poems and plays to be literature, songs are just shorter more musical versions of that. An opinion piece I found sums it pretty nicely.

There is a common sense that poetry exists in a world of pure language, but a poem is, in fact, both the music and the words. Poetry’s sonic aspects—such as syllable sounds, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, dissonance, and meter—are meant to “accompany” the content, to set the mood, to refer to and elicit a sensory experience related to the emotions and images of the poem. They also refer back to the long history of language, echoing sounds and rhythms of the past, placing the poem in history, linking it to a timeless tradition.

Why Bob Dylan’s Songs Are Literature BY CRAIG MORGAN TEICHER October 14, 2016


Consider the negation of "can music be considered literature?" The negation is: "music cannot be considered literature." From a strictly logical perspective, that would mean that there is no music that is also literature - there's not even one example of it. In other words, from a strictly logical perspective, all you have to do is find a single example of music that's also literature to prove that music can be literature.

Consider, by way of analogy, how you'd prove that there are unicorns, or that Leprichons exist. The simplest way to do so would be to find one; if you do find them, then clearly Leprichons exist.

I recall singing "The Sea" as an undergraduate, which was set to a text by William Dean Howells. Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" was similarly based on a Friedrich Schiller text.

There are thousands of songs based on religious texts as well. Notably, Handel's Messiah is taken very directly from Biblical texts, as are some of his other songs. Johann S. Bach also set many Biblical texts to music, such as Matthew 26 and 27. In contemporary music, there's a band called Sons of Korah whose songs are set (usually very literally) to the New International Version translation of various Psalms. I personally sang or chanted numerous Biblical texts as part of the weekly liturgy (in fact, typically at least 1 - 2 per week) in choir while I was in college.

My point in mentioning that is that those don't magically cease to be literature simply by virtue of having been set to music. Handel's Messiah is just as much literature as the underlying Biblical texts that it's based on.

My criteria, then: if the underlying text is literature, the music is literature, too. Note that I'm being a little cagy on the issue of the exact definition of literature, which I think is a separate issue - my point is simply "if the lyrics are literature, the song is literature too."

I think that this reasoning applies equally to things that were published as music first and were either published as literature on its own later (or have never been published as literature at all). For example, "Hotel California" and some other Eagles songs are very poetic, as are many U2 songs; I think you'd have a hard time arguing that those aren't literature, even though they've never actually been published separately in any collections of literature.

A more obvious case is Bob Dylan, some of whose works have been published independently of the music as literature (in poetry collections) and have been the subject of academic literary study. Even though they were songs before they were published as poetry, that doesn't change the fact that the song lyrics are, in fact, poetry.

You can actually read Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize in Literature lecture here, which includes some interesting thoughts on the question of whether his works are poetry. (I actually think that it would be worth creating a separate Q&A to discuss his lecture, but I haven't had time to write a question on it yet). He makes an interesting analogy: yeah, music was meant to be sung, but by the same token, Shakespeare was meant to be performed. If we want to argue that music isn't literature, we'd have to make the same argument about Shakespeare, Ibsen, Arthur Miller, and a host of other playwrites.

That being said, if we don't have a problem with plays being literature, why do we have a problem with music being literature, too?


Literary theory does not treat music as part of literature. For example, the introductory chapter to Terry Eagleton's book Literary Theory: An Introduction (Blackwell, 1983, pages 1-16) discusses what literature is. This discussion focuses exclusively on texts (e.g. novels, poems and plays); even examples of what is usually not considered literature (e.g. Marx's writings) are texts. Music, video, visual arts don't even enter the discussion.

The same is true for Jonathan Culler's book Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1997). Chapter 2, "What is Literature and Does it Matter?", discusses the definition of literature based on the concept of text and language (i.e. language relying on the use of words). Music and the visual arts are not treated as part of literature. Note that Culler's book was published after "cultural studies" had become a major activity in the humanities. Culler discusses the between literature and cultural studies in the third chapter of his book; he does not conclude that the definition of literature has expanded to include, for example, music.

Culler and Eagleton come from English-speaking countries, so let's look at some other languages.

In Germany, Ralf Klausniter's Literaturwissenschaft. Begriffe - Verfahren - Arbeitstechniken (2nd edition, De Gruyter, 2012) contains an introductory chapter that discusses what a "literary text" is, thus implying that literature refers to certain types of texts, at the exclusion of music.

Maximilian Gröne and Frank Reiser's Französische Literaturwissenschaft. Eine Einführung ("Introduction to the Study of French Literature", 4th edition, Narr, 2017) also presents literature as based on text. Interestingly, this textbook also discusses the relationship between literature and other "sign systems" ("Zeichensysteme"), such as films, paintings and comics. 80% of the book focuses on the analysis of literary texts, while the last two chapters discuss other media. For example, comics is described as a genre that sits between graphics and literature (as opposed to being part of literature). The last chapter discusses film and TV because of the existence of film adaptations of literary works; such films are not considered as part of literature, however. The textbook does not discuss music, except in the context of film adaptations.

The Dutch textbook Algemene literatuurwetenschap: Een theoretische inleiding ("Literary studies: a theoretical introduction", Het Spectrum, 1993) by Barend van Heusden and Els Jongeneel discusses what literature is and what distinguishes it from other types of language. In other words, the concept of literature discussed in this book is exclusively based on text, thus excluding music.

PS: In the above discussion, I have interpreted music as "instrumental music"; lyrics are texts in the sense employed in the above introductions and textbooks.

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