Can Music Be Seen As Literature?

music as literature

Image Credit: Flickr | Mechanical Curator’s Cuttings

In general, the definition of literature covers any artistically created written work. People tend to think of literature as books and poetry exclusively, though there are certainly arguments to be made for other entertainment mediums. Music, in particular, makes for an interesting study. After all, the vast majority of songs tell stories, complete with narrators and sometimes even different characters. Given the authorship and artistry that comes into play from lyricists, some might say that you could actually consider music an extension of literature in some way. Just how much water does the argument hold, however?

Some might say that the fact that songs are presented with musical accompaniment and performed mean they can not be considered literature. However, you have to consider drama, which traditionally means literature that was intended for performance. If actors can get up on stage and perform the words and have it all still be considered literature, it really isn’t that much different from what a singer is doing. While singing words in a melody aren’t going to convey their meaning in exactly the same way as acting them out explicitly, there are certain parallels there that can not be ignored.

If you look back in history, you’ll actually find examples of a combined form of storytelling and music all over the place. For example, just consider bards, whose job it was to entertain audiences with songs that conveyed specific stories and folklore. Books have never been the sole means of entertainment or storytelling. The fact that the earliest examples of stories were likely passed on orally, having them sung isn’t really that big of a leap.

You also have to consider the impact that traditional literature has had upon music. There’s so much of it that has been inspired by all kinds of stories that span countless generations. Modern high school literature classes sometimes include some of these as a means of teaching. Traditional nursery rhymes, epic poems, all manner of Shakespeare, and even Arthurian legend are all frequently alluded to or talked about explicitly throughout many forms of music. As such, you might say that literature and music go hand and hand. This isn’t a rule of course since many songs are more about originally derived introspective feelings and musings or less meaningful fare altogether, but the precedent is clear to see once you really start digging for it.

The many different forms of literature are also echoed in music. You have your spoken word variety, where any instrumentation is essentially provided as a backdrop for the narration of the vocalist. Some of the later works of Lou Reed are notable examples, as are innumerable hip-hop artists, believe it or not! Also, the orated nature of traditional folk music isn’t all that different in intention when you think about it. Then you have your long form epics and ballads which are – by definition – narrative verses that are simply set to music. Again, if literature includes works of drama meant to be performed on stage, all of these forms of music must be included under the same umbrella.

The most glaring example comes in the form of the opera, where musicians and singers come together to perform sprawling works of drama in a stage setting. Opera represents the perfect blend of the stage plays you think of when you think of performance driven literature and classically composed and live performed music. It’s easy to forget this since the opera isn’t exactly as prominent these days.

In the end, it’s fairly plain to see that literature and music fit quite cozily together. You can’t say that music should be considered literature across the board, as there are clear examples that don’t quite fit given the likes of instrumentals and experimental works where the aural experience is the only focus. There’s plenty to be argued when it comes to certain less meaningful songs that don’t seem to be about anything of particular artistic merit as well. In general, however, songs are just another form of artistic storytelling, and on those grounds alone, music should absolutely be considered a very close relative to literature if not exactly the same.