From books to song sheets: The influence of literature in popular music

February 10, 2020

Literature and music are inseparable. Some of the oldest pieces of literature have endured to the present day only through the medium of music. Homer’s epic poems The Odyssey and The Iliad, for instance, have made it through around 4,000 years – carried on a strong oral storytelling tradition and the notes of an ancient instrument, the lyre. The relationship between literature and music is just as strong today, with each exerting an influence on the other. So, how can literature be heard in more contemporary music? Let’s take a look at some examples.

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien’s Middle Earth has been plundered extensively for musical inspiration over the years. Its expansive landscape of mythical creatures, magic, and epic battles has proven particularly fertile ground for metal bands since the 1970s. Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath admitted that the lyrics of The Wizard, released on their debut album in 1970, were based on Gandalf. Perhaps more famously, Led Zeppelin were also known to be avid fans of Tolkien’s fantasy world of hobbits, orcs, and elves – The Battle of Evermore, Ramble On, and even Stairway to Heaven (at a push) all contain allusions to Middle Earth and its inhabitants. More recently, the second-wave Norwegian black metal boom of the 90s saw the likes of Burzum, Gorgoroth and Isengard all taking their names from the world of Middle Earth. While Summoning based their entire back catalogue on Tolkien’s works.

Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray

With themes touching on hedonism, sin, and self-representation, Oscar Wilde’s only novel has provided inspiration for many musicians. The Libertine’s 2004 single Narcissist – which pokes fun at the adoration bestowed on them by their own fans – includes the line ‘…Well wouldn’t it be nice to be Dorian Gray? Just for a day…’. Five years later Alt-J released the single Portrait which borrowed heavily from Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece. One line reads, ‘I wanna be seen in a hundred years as you see me now’, recalling Dorian Gray’s desire to never grow old and lose his beauty.

George Orwell – 1984

David Bowie was one of the most eclectic artists of the 20th century, taking creative inspiration from a bewildering range of sources. One of these was George Orwell’s dystopian’s novel, 1984. Speaking about his hometown of Bromley he once said, “You always felt you were in 1984. That’s the kind of gloom and immovable society that a lot of us felt we grew up in…It was a terribly inhibiting place”. Needless to say, this impacted his music. In 1973, he released the deliberately named Big Brother, which reflects the ending of Orwell’s novel in which the brainwashing of the protagonist, Winston Smith, is made complete by his fascist overlords. “Please saviour, saviour, show us…Hear me, I’m graphically yours”, Bowie exclaims.

Aldous Huxley – Brave New World

There must be something about dystopian literature as it just keeps on popping up in music. Huxley’s Brave New World, which envisions a society based on the intellectual ability of a genetically-modified human race, can be traced in the lyrics of various songs. The fictitious drug, ‘soma’, used in the story to repress feelings of discomfort, embarrassment, and sadness, has received specific attention in the music world. The Strokes, the Smashing Pumpkins, and even deadmau5 have all released tracks based on this imaginary negativity depressant.

Ernest Hemingway – For Whom The Bell Tolls

Hemingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was, unsurprisingly, the inspiration behind Metallica’s track of the same name. The inspiration however didn’t come from the main protagonist, an American volunteer heroically fighting in the Spanish civil war, but rather from a group of lowly secondary characters. In the story, these figures were five Spanish partisans that had accepted their imminent death in battle on the side of a hill, and were ready to go down in a blaze of bloody glory. Metallica’s lyrics read, ‘Take a look to the sky just before you die, it is the last time you will, Blackened roar massive roar fills the crumbling sky, shattered goal fills his soul…’/

Literature and music have always been intertwined. Some of the earliest stories we know about have only made it to the present through the medium of music. Today, however, we’re more likely to hear the odd reference to literature in our tracks – whether it’s Norwegian Black Metal, Punk Rock, or Alternative, listen out and try to pick out a mention of your favourite written story. If you’re feeling inspired to record some music based on literature, get in contact with Kore Studios. Our state of the art equipment paired with the experience of our sound engineers will ensure your literary references are heard through the years.