top of page

Music and Literature

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

When it comes to music, it is not uncommon to encounter songs that get inspiration from other works of art or artists. Literature, in particular, has always been a powerful influence. There are many reasons for this, some of which being that the poetic value of certain stories attract dramatic minds, or maybe because many books have fascinating themes that can seem particularly relevant, or perhaps merely because chances are, the love for writing lyrics stems from a love of reading. Whichever way, there is no denying that no matter the genre, no category of music has gone untouched by the classics.

When it comes to musicians utilizing the drama of old stories, Kate Bush is no stranger to the concept. In fact, her very first hit single “Wuthering Heights”  was named after and inspired by the 19th Century gothic novel by Emily Bronte about two lovers on the English Moors. While it could be considered a romance novel, it’s really a story about obsession and torment with some ghosts thrown in. Kate loved this and was inspired to write the song when she saw some of the BBC mini series on tv. Because she wanted to be faithful to the book, however, she didn’t let herself write the song until she had read the book. (Rivieccio)The result? A pleasantly weird masterpiece that one must admit (regardless of how they feel about Kate’s high pitched voice) captures the over the top emotion of the classic.

Another one of her songs inspired by literature, “Sensual World” takes from James Joyce’s stream of consciousness novel Ulysses. Infamous for being impossible to finish, Uylesses is about a man named Leopold Bloom’s journey home to his wife who is about to have an affair. While the book covers a lot of ground, “Sensual World” specifically takes on the last chapter which is from his wife Molly’s point of view. Like the chapter, it is written in a stream of consciousness style and uses vivid imagery (often the same phrases used in the book) (Rivieccio). Though having anything to do with Ulysses is a challenge, the song succeeds both as a reimagining and on its own. No doubt about it, Kate Bush is a talented songwriter, and her unusual style works very well with certain works of literature.

One of the most influential branches of literature is Greek mythology, in particular, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. From young Eurydice dying on her wedding day, Orpheus’ bold decision to go down to the underworld to retrieve her, their trek up to the surface, to the bitter ending where Orpheus turns around right at the doorway and his wife just barely slips through his fingers -- it’s a thoroughly haunting tale that was destined to inspire countless retellings. Arcade Fire’s two tracks “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) ” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” chronicle the tale traditionally and completely. “Awful Sound” is a melancholy ballad covering the initial grief of Eurydice’s death and Orpheus plotting how to get her back; whereas “It’s Never Over” is a beautiful juxtaposition of optimism and almost paranoia that follows their trip to the surface.

Nick Cave’s take on the story, however, is far less traditional. His song the “Lyre of Orpheus” imagines if it was Orpheus who caused the death of Eurydice, and instead of going down to the underworld to retrieve her, he joins her there. The most ambitious adaptation of the work, however, is not just one song but an entire musical: Anais Mitchell’s Tony award winning “Hadestown”. Like Nick Cave’s interpretation, it changes some things, such as Hades himself seducing Eurydice and Orpheus inciting a worker’s riot. The spirit of the myth, though, is well captured in a series of different genres whether it be American folk for their wedding song or Jazz for the underworld. All in all, there’s no denying that the great music inspired by Orpheus and Eurydice almost makes the tragedy of the ending forgivable -- almost.

Another musician who loved books was David Bowie, so much so that there’s even a book devoted to all his favorites called Bowie’s Bookshelf . The books mentioned can be separated into two categories, the ones with a direct influence on his work and the ones with an indirect influence on his work. The most obvious out of the direct influences is, by far, 1984 by George Orwell (O’Connell 77). 1984 is about a young man named Winston who lives in the totalitarian region of Oceania, run by the seemingly omnipotent Big Brother. The songs by Bowie that were inspired by the novel include “1984” and  “Big Brother”, but he said that his album “Diamond Dogs” was originally supposed to be a 1984 musical before Sonia Orwell refused to grant permission. Regardless, with lines such as “They’ll split your pretty cranium, and fill it full of air” and “Please savior, savior show us. Hear me, I’m graphically yours”; Bowie manages to convey the nervous, gritty tone of the novel.

Out of the books that indirectly inspired Bowie’s work, however, is Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (O’Connell 1), a book about a disturbed teenager named Alex who leads his gang of “Droogs'' in acts of horrific violence. Bowie incorporates other elements of the book in his character, Ziggy Stardust, giving Ziggy a similar manic personality as Alex. More interesting still, is the way he killed off Ziggy; he had the Spiders of Mars (Ziggy’s band) betray their leader, much like Burgess had the Droogs turn on Alex . Whether Bowie was taking right from a source, or simply letting his characters follow in the footsteps of other ones; he always did it in such a way that no matter what he did, the end product was still unmistakably his own. 

The Alice in Wonderland books by Lewis Caroll have had countless adaptations in every single medium posible, so it is no wonder that quite a few artists have felt compelled to write music about it. The plot is simple, a young girl falls down a rabbit hole into a world where logic operates by an entirely different set of rules and anything is possible. Because of the bizarre imagery, such as rabbits in waistcoats and babies turning into pigs, many approaches to the piece of literature have utilized a trippier sound. In an interview, John Lennon of the Beatles describes their psychedelic song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” being inspired by the second book in the series, where Alice floats down a river in a boat with a sheep. He also talks about getting inspiration from “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (a poem in the book) for the song “I am the Walrus,” though he didn’t realize the poem was actually commentary about capitalism and the walrus was actually the “bad guy in the story” (Haigha).

Jefferson Airplane was more directly inspired, as their song “White Rabbit” describes the scenes in the books pretty closely. It not only manages to convey the aesthetic of the book but also captures the spirit of the 60’s, when the song was written. A more modern song that is influenced by Alice in Wonderland is Lady Gaga’s song “Alice.” Rather than focusing on the surreal aspect, however, she expands on the feeling of being lost and bewildered. Even if her song takes a different approach, it shows that people will continue to be inspired by Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece for years to come.

With technology playing as big of a role in society as it does, it is a common fear that books will be obsolete. However, with literature playing as big a role in music and the arts as it does, it appears that this fear is irrational. Not only is a lot of music from the 60’s and 70’s inspired by classic novels, but current music is as well. The dramatic characters, enduring themes, enriched language and emotional factor continue to captivate as much as they have in years before. What’s more, the music inspired by it helps the legacies of these books to live on, and will continue to do so for a long time. 

Works Cited

Haigha Heather. “John Lennon and Alice and Wonderland.” Alice is Everywhere.

O’Connell John. Bowie’s Bookshelf. New York: Galley Books.2019.

Rivieccio Gena. “Kate Bush's Indispensable Role as Literary Guide through Music.” The Opiate.  30, July, 2018.


bottom of page