It seems that artistic types often draw inspiration from one another. Writers use music to inspire their writing, and it turns out, many singers and musicians also draw influence from literary themes. This post was born out of a simple quest to see how many songs are inspired by literature.
There are thousands of songs that reference books and literary subjects (I found), but I’ve only include my favorites in the list below (either favorite songs or favorite books).
“1984” – David Bowie
This song is, quite obviously, a tribute to the novel 1984 by George Orwell. According to Internet music legend (and we all know how accurate that is), this song and much of the album Diamond Dogs was intended for a musical version of 1984 that never was produced (thank God, is all I can say about that).
The best line: “They’ll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of air.”
“Brave New World” – Iron Maiden
As the title suggests, this song was inspired by classic dystopian novel Brave New World. The song references the book with lines like, “Close this mind dull this brain” and “Mother love is no more.”
The best line: “You are planned and you are damned in this brave new world.”(Tweet this)
“Ender Will Save Us All” – Dashboard Confessional
According to Internet music legend, this song has two meanings. Firstly, it is a reference to Ender’s Game, where Ender is supposedly saving the world by wiping out an entire species. Secondly, Ender is the middle name of one of the band members, which gives the song a tongue-in-cheek feel.
The song lyrics mostly interpret the feeling Ender has while struggling with saving the world while being completely rejected by it. Like many of the songs on this list, the song doesn’t necessarily reference the plot of the story, but rather, one feeling from the story.
The best line: “A hopeful look draped in despise.”
In Like a Lion- Always Winter – Relient K
This song is a somewhat obvious interpretation of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The most obvious reference is the line which says, “It’s always winter but never Christmas, it seems this curse just can’t be lifted.” The first part of this quote is a direct quote from the faun Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia. The second half refers to the curse the witch placed over the world. The whole song refers to the plot of the story from the wintery curse to the eventual thawing and redemption from Aslan’s death.
The best line: “And everything it changed overnight, this dying world you brought it back to life.”
“Yertle The Turtle” – The Red Hot Chili Peppers
This song references the Dr. Seuss story of the same name. In the story, Yertle is dissatisfied with his position, so he instructs the other turtles to make themselves into his throne so he can see better. This hurts the other turtles, but Yertle doesn’t care. Eventually, a bottom turtle gets tired of getting squished and throws Yertle off the throne, making him the “king of mud.”
The song follows the plot of the book exactly.
The best line: “Oh marvelous me, for I am ruler of all that I see.”(Tweet this)
42 – Coldplay
Any fan of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy knows that 42 is the answer to life, the universe, and everything. This song by Coldplay isn’t so much a retelling of the book’s plot as a nod to the concept of what the meaning of life might be and whether or not there is anything after death.
The best line: “You didn’t get to heaven, but you made it close.”
You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid- The Offspring
This song is heavily influenced by The Lord of the Flies. One of the lines even directly mentioned the title, “Clever alibis, Lord of the flies,” but other lines reference the events in the book as well. “And turning all against the one” could be a reference to all of the kids turning against Piggy and Simon. This line, “With a thousand lies and a good disguise, hit ‘em right between the eyes is a vague reference to the entire plot, since the boys spend a good portion of the story inventing stories but refusing to see what was actually happening.
The best line: And now you’ll lead the way, show the light of day. Nice work you did, you’re gonna go far, kid.”
Wuthering Heights – Kate Bush
If Wuthering Heights were a musical, this would be Cathy’s theme song. It’s that direct of a reference. In fact, if you’ve never read the book, and never wanted to, just read the lyrics to this song and you’ll have the entire gist of the plot within 60 seconds.
Best line: “You had a temper like my jealousy.”
Mumford and Sons
Mumford and Sons sticks literary references in many of their songs- both to fiction and religious texts. According to interviews, Mumford included a direct quote from Wold Hall Wolf by Hilary Mantel in one of the songs from the Babel album, but I couldn’t identify which line it was or which song. If someone is more familiar with the book, maybe you can find it?
Mumford has four songs that are heavily inspired by books, listed below:
This book is inspired by East of Eden, which explores the Cain and Abel story in a new way. Timshel means “thou mayest,” according to the book. The discovery of the meaning of the word is one of the main themes in the East of Eden story. References to the book in the song are numerous, and include lines such as, “you have your choices and these are what make man great” and “As brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand.”
The best line: “And death is at your doorstep and it will steal your innocence, but it will not steal your substance.”
Dust Bowl Dance
This song references Grapes of Wrath, which is a novel about the depression in the great plains dust bowl during the 1930s. In the novel, the Joad family is forced to deal with first living there, then eventually fleeing to go live in California to escape starvation. Song lyrics referencing the book include “This dusty barren land had given all it could yield,” “I’ve been kicked off my land at the age of sixteen” and much of the rest of the song.
According to an American Songwriter interview with the band, the chorus is meant to capture the feeling of the novel:
“Seal my heart and break my pride
I’ve nowhere to stand and now nowhere to hide
Align my heart, my body, my mind
To face what I’ve done and do my time.”
The best line: “So collect your courage and collect your horse, and pray you never feel this same kind of remorse.”
Roll Away Your Stone and Sigh No More
Both of these songs contain references to Shakespeare plays (Macbeth and Much Ado about Nothing, respectively). Some musical enthusiasts speculate that the entire Sigh No More album is meant to interpret the themes of Shakespeare plays, but that rumor has never been officially confirmed. However, it does seem plausible.
The main reference to Macbeth in Roll Away Your Stone is “Stars hide your fires, for these here are my desires,” which is a modified version of this quote from Macbeth, “for in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.” Other parts of the song could be alluding to the mental illness of Lady Macbeth, like this entire verse:
“’Cause you told me that I would find a hole
Within the fragile substance of my soul
And I have filled this void with things unreal
And all the while my character it steals.”
The best line: “Don’t leave me alone at this time. For I am afraid of what I will discover inside.”
Sign No More references Much Ado About Nothing right in the song title, and several of the lyrics reference the play, including “sigh no more, no more, one foot in sea, one on shore,” “man is a giddy thing,” and “serve God, love me, and mend.”
The best line: “One foot in sea, one on shore. My heart was never pure.” (Tweet this)
Literature and Music- An Epic Combo
I appreciate it when a musician draws inspiration from literature. I think it gives a richness to the song that might otherwise be lacking. Literature contains all themes of love, power, betrayal, happiness, hatred, kindness, and every possible emotion. Music, as another emotional medium, is the perfect representation of literature themes.
What are your favorite songs inspired by literature?