Exploring Music As Literature

Special thanks to Nisa Lee for helping out with this article.

Check out her poetry zine Dreams, Delusions and Made Decisions on Goodreads.


“I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world..I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.”

Woody Guthrie


What Is Actually Literature?


Nisa :

Whenever the word ‘literature’  is mentioned, an image that could come to mind is of  old, fancy books, filled with words that are too complicated to understand, strewn across mahogany tables in a dimly-lit library. As archaic as they might seem, books still remain of great importance to society, being the most common medium in which literature is written down.

However, it is important to note the distinction between books and literature. Books may contain literature, but all literature is not necessarily contained in books. Literature itself is a stand-alone concept.

The term ‘literature’ in its broadest definition refers to a collection of written works. The journey to finding the best definition for the word is hardly a road untraveled. Even so, it is a path that can appear to have never-ending possibilities stretching ahead of it.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines literature as “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” However, this is a contentious definition because of the ambiguity it holds. For example, not everything expressed in words, even when organized systematically, can and should be counted as literature – some may even consider spoken material as literature.

Literature may also sometimes be seen as a form of elitism but contrary to popular belief, one does not actually have to be of a higher intellect to enjoy reading literature. Intellectual insecurity is a pervasive problem in the literary world. Some people argue that the art of reading in itself is a pastime for folks of the higher brow. The root of this misconception might stem from a teacher, a parent or a friend, who has made them feel ashamed over a book or genre of books they admire. Notwithstanding the existence of a group of people who view themselves as superior based on their own personal literary perspectives, literature is a vast study meant to broaden horizons instead of creating division. It demands curiosity, empathy and eradication of prejudice as it tells us stories from all walks of life. In return, the same curiosity, empathy, and open-mindedness is given and paid back in kind to the reader.

Literature is a field that not only reflects the layers of society as a whole, but also explores the human condition on a universal scale — because who truly gets to decide which piece of writing is better than the other?

So, what is literature?

It is a question that has been widely discussed amongst scholars and the general public alike. If so, why hasn’t someone found a worthy and satisfactory enough answer yet?

Well, the definition of literature remains to be elusive and obscure simply because literature is ever-changing.

There is no clear-cut answer as to what is truly literature and what isn’t.

Although the term has inspired much debate, a common consensus can be made. The classification of literature establishes four major types of genres according to their content, namely poetry, fiction, non-fiction and drama. In essence, literature foregrounds language as an artistic medium of self-expression. It provokes thought about ourselves as individuals and our society as well as allows us to indulge in the beauty of language itself.

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

F.Scott Fitzgerald


Can Music Be Considered As Literature?



“If parents want to love their kids they should be aware of their music. Music has so much to do with what is happening today. People have to realize that. It’s better than politics. They look up to us quicker than they’ll look up to what the president says. That’s why you had a lot of people at Woodstock.”

Jimi Hendrix


In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, opening up the many debates on whether Dylan’s music — Or music at all, is really literature.

He spent two weeks in silence before he finally decided to accept the award, because just as the general public had never thought of his music as literature, neither had he.

Literary critic Terry Eagleton wrote in his essay “What is Literature?” that “One can think of literature, less as some inherent quality or set of qualities displayed by certain kinds of writing — From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf — Than as a number of ways in which people relate themselves to writing.”

In other words, literature, he says, is less a category of writing than our feeling towards written things. It’s how we relate ourselves to the things that people write, from which come analysis and interpretation.

He also wrote, “(Literature) tells us about what we do, not about the fixed being of things”. In his essay, he dismisses the notion that there’s a common essence shared by literature. Instead, he believes that as time and humanity progress, anything can become literature just as anything can cease to become literature. So yes, literature doesn’t have to only be books. While the vehicles of art may change, art is still pointed in the same cardinal direction — To inspire.

Let’s examine what another literary critic has to say.

Roman Jakobson wrote, “Literary fiction constitutes an organized violence on ordinary speech” — In simpler terms, he was trying to say that literature talks fancy — Literature is about wielding language with great skill.

Words are powerful, and they draw attention to themselves as everyone has a certain degree of receptivity towards the beauty of language — So maybe that’s the essence of literature.

But what about books like All Quiet on The Western Front, Ernest Hemingway’s novels that are known to never set you off looking for a dictionary, and even Bob Dylan lyrics — The kind of works that are plain and straightforwardly spoken, but still deemed as literature?

Now you see the gist of why it’s such an endless debate. All of these things said by the critics are true to certain extents.

But there is one thing that we could possibly agree on — Literature is meant to produce a defamiliarizing effect on us. It’s meant to force us out of our stale and banal responses to life, even if they are written in the simplest forms of language.

Literature can be difficult, especially for someone who doesn’t like to think. The changing perspectives, the ambiguous outcomes are meant to disrupt our routine and rigid methods of thinking.

We struggle with the words, the devices, the imagery and syntax to make sense of what they could mean. But through that struggle, we develop a more intimate connection with the world around us — In that we refuse to see only what is on the surface.

So, based on that argument, I do believe that music can be considered as literature, as there are plenty of great songs that have affected us in that respect.

But is all music literature? — No, of course not. Not all books out there can be deemed as literature, and the same goes to music.

Deeming something as literature gives it an enormous value, because it’s worthwhile, because it’s important and valuable to society.

Before we go further, I realize that this article is in fact a very tough one to expand on, as it is limited both by my own knowledge and by the music that I listen to. Therefore, I hope that you, the reader will be able to meet me halfway by drawing on your own experiences and musical interests.



Exploring Music as Literature



“A musician, if he’s a messenger, is like a child who hasn’t been handled too many times by man, hasn’t had too many fingerprints across his brain. That’s why music is so much heavier than anything you ever felt.”

Jimi Hendrix


“They’re meant to be sung, not read,” said Bob Dylan in his Nobel Speech. And that’s what it means to explore music as literature — To treat and experience songs as songs, and not as how you’d read poems or novels.

Lyrics have meter and rhyme, but they’re inseparable from the music.

He said, “The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page.”

“I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard  : in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days,” he said as he ended his speech.

So now the question is, why would you want to listen to music as literature?

The thing is, at large, we’re at risk of becoming a society that doesn’t value truth and meaning in our lives, because more and more things in life are coming easy. Algorithms and computer languages are taking over. Softwares are replacing the craftsmanship needed in mastering musical instruments. We value shallow words that are popular on the radio. Biased, dishonest news are contaminating the airwaves.

We’re in danger of becoming a society that doesn’t think anymore.

Music doesn’t have to just be a source of entertainment, but a source of enlightenment — A one-of-a-kind platform for us to learn about life and the human condition.

I clearly remember having to do well in primary school because that was the condition that my parents set, after I begged them for my first guitar. I was 11 years old, and my young heart was palpitating with inspiration.

It was funny, learning the rhythm guitar parts to Metallica’s Master of Puppets album and belting out Red Hot Chili Peppers songs on a twelve-fret classical guitar. How could I not remember changing the guitar strings often.

But it was more than just the instrumentals that appealed to me — More than anything, it was the lyrics to these songs — How the lyrics were not separate from the music. There was a complete marriage between them, all conflated together to form an experience like no other.

As a child, I would let my imagination wander as I listened. Songs were quick portals for me to get to enchanting places. When I listened to Guns N’ Roses’s Civil War, I witnessed a world crumble in a battlefield — I saw dead bodies lying motionless in the mud, I saw wives and children crying, and terrified young men watching their brothers get shot and killed, as they too took the lives of others so that theirs couldn’t be taken. Only this war wasn’t between two sides of the same nation; it was a world war between many nations of the same shared humanity.

They were extremely vivid songs, and though I didn’t think of it at the time, they were timeless. Iron Maiden wrote their songs based on historical events to achieve this goal. Metallica even based their songs directly on literature — For starters, the song One is based on Johnny Got His Gun, For Whom the Bell Tolls is based on Hemingway’s novel of the same name, Welcome Home (Sanitarium) is based on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I knew these songs long before I ever got started on reading these books.


“I was playing for small crowds, sometimes no more than four or five people in a room or on a street corner. You had to have a wide repertoire, and you had to know what to play and when. Some songs were intimate, some you had to shout to be heard.

Bob Dylan,
The Nobel Lecture


Some songs are intimate : They remind us that everything’s alright — They’re the arm around our shoulder when we feel down, or our companion when we’re driving down the highway, living out a beautiful day. You can probably name at least a few of them.

And yet, some songs are restless : They need the thrust of angry instruments, they need its performer to shout it out for its message to be heard. Take anti-war songs for example —  Just as poetry built us a window into the mood of the First World War, songs such as Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones are our window into the mood of the 60s : They were songs that shook the public from their trance and made them think of how irrational war is — That while “War is a shot away, love is just a kiss away”.

These are some of the things that we listen for in music, just as Woody Guthrie, the great folk singer said of how music is there to “comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable”.

Let us just be reminded of how deeply songs can affect us.



Among The Wildflowers



“Things happen with good records. Maybe not right when they come out, maybe not for millions of listeners. But good records seem to get to the people who need them the most.”

Tom Petty


In his therapist’s office, Tom Petty sat across the table, thinking on getting the help he needed — His life was coming undone, or so he felt, as his long marriage with his wife was reaching its end. He sat, as his therapist listened to the opening title track to his most recently recorded album, Wildflowers.

After he heard his own voice singing,

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free

The therapist asked him, “Who is the singer addressing?”

“I’m not sure,” Petty responded. “I don’t know.”

“I know,” said the therapist, “That song is about you. That’s you singing to yourself what you needed to hear.”

“It kind of knocked me back,” Petty reflected, “But I realize he was right. It was me singing to me.”

Tom Petty’s songs are like life’s soundtracks. He had an indelible flair in his approach to songwriting, such that he has his way of making you feel that he’s singing about you, that he’s looking into your world, while he’s actually singing about himself. His lyrics are often simple, but very visual. They not only capture emotions, but time and place. In effect, the song becomes ours. We hear our own unique story in it. That’s what great songs do.

Just as T.S. Eliot remarked on what makes a great poet, we can say the same about Petty, that he transmutes his “personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, something universal and impersonal”.

Also, we don’t know whether Petty had ever read any of Hemingway’s writings during his lifetime, but his minimalistic approach in his works are for the most part akin to that of Hemingway’s, in light of Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory.

This theory basically states that in order for a story to be felt more deeply by the reader, the writer should purposefully omit certain details and structures of his writing. This way, the meaning of the story shines out more implicitly rather than in obvious ways, thereby engaging the reader to think and to relate using her own emotions and experiences. In Hemingway’s words, “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”

One great song for us to examine would be “Learning to Fly” from the album Into the Great Wide Open. In it, Petty sings,

Well some say life will beat you down
Break your heart, steal your crown
So I’ve started out, for God knows where
I guess I’ll know when I get there

In its plain lyrics, a general listener would hear a voice of comfort, telling her to not worry of her troubles, that he too, had been there — In fact, he’s still learning to fly above his own hardships. It’s a song specially sung for her.

But for a listener who knows, he hears a voice who has some form of relationship with the pain of his past. It is the voice of a man who had seen and survived a lot in his life, who is still there, writing songs, telling his stories, and helping others, because that’s what he’s best at.

The listener doesn’t picture her own stories, but sees those of a man whose life was full of challenges — Growing up with an abusive father, leaving home to chase his dreams, rising to fame and not being allowed to attend his mother’s funeral because if he did, the funeral would turn into a zoo, his house being burned down by an arsonist with no single suspect, and a heart-wrenching divorce. They were the words of a man who refused to back down, no matter how bad things were.

Hemingway said of his final novel The Old Man and The Sea, that he “tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea, a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.”

Adria Petty said of her father, “I always laugh, because he’ll say, ‘Oh I divine these songs. They’re not really about anyone or anything.’ He’ll try to deflect the sentiment that’s right there in the albums. But they’re very autobiographical. You can really tell, on beautiful albums, like Into the Great Wide Open and ‘Two Gunslingers’ or ‘King’s Highway’, that he’s struggling, constantly fighting, just to find a peaceful place.”


Final Thoughts



“I don’t know if an artist completely understands—Or needs to be reminded of sometimes—Of how deeply these songs affect people. (It’s) in such a way that when you hear the song, you remember where you were and even the feeling in your gut when you were 14 hearing that song.”

Eddie Vedder


“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall…It means something’s gonna happen,” introduced the 21 year-old singer as he strummed the beginning chords to his song, to the uproarious applause of the audience.

In every verse of the song, Bob Dylan described the spiritual death of his generation, how the narrator had been “ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard”, saw “a highway of diamonds with nobody on it”, heard “the song of a poet who died in the gutter”, and met “one man who was wounded in love” and “another man who was wounded in hatred”.

The song repeats itself again and again in its melody — It makes the message of the song overwhelming and powerful. We think he’s done singing, but there he goes again with another verse.

It’s a song that makes us lose all sense of where it ends. We lose sense of time, we’re confused of where we are. And that’s exactly the point of the song. We’re in a deluge of words and images, just as we are in life.

“Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters” — It was this verse that Dylan was referring to when he explained, “That means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers”.

The song can only get more relevant to our condition as time goes on.

But he ends the song in a positive note. He sings :

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’

After all the tragedies that have overtaken us, he hasn’t lost hope. Because that’s not what artists do. Those four lines tell us eloquently of the duty of an artist : To sing out against the darkness.

He even said in an interview that “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?”

So as we end this article, one message for you to carry home is to simply be inspired. Don’t be content with listening to songs as mere entertainment, as a pastime. Dig a little deeper, travel a little further down the rabbit hole. Read the lyrics, try your whole soul best to understand them. Read and listen to whatever material they’ve got related to the songs.

Be inspired to share the message contained within them, and most important thing of all, be inspired to see the change in yourself.


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