Lyrics is one of the most effective tools in an essay to express certain feelings, thoughts and ideas. You may decide to cite lyrics if you see that the author of a song has created a great line which expresses your point perfectly.

It is like when you walk around, have a bunch of thoughts in your head but have no idea how to express them on paper. And then all of a sudden… buzzzzz… You hear a song which says it all! In just one or two sentences. You know the feeling, right? Well, this is exactly what you feel when you put song lyrics in an essay. The words which are written and sung in a song may be exactly what you need to add some flavor to the whole academic text.

However, you must follow the copyright and not use the whole song in your text. The good news is that there are no any legal requirements about how many words you may use not to be convicted of plagiarism. Whenever you use some part of a song in your paper, do not forget to include in-text citations, a list of all citations or a reference page. And you may sleep calmly – no one will ever say that you stole their words.

How to quote song lyrics in an essay: simple rules

There are different formats (MLA, APA, Harvard) and each one has its own peculiarities. Although, each one requires a parenthetical citation (in-text) and a note in the reference list. Also, the way you cite lyrics in your paper may be different and depends on how you listen to a particular song as well as the amount of information you put in your text. For example, if you cite a song from a CD you listened to, you may refer to the song in the following way:

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“The show must go on,” Queen sings in the self-titled song.

To quote the lyrics in MLA format, mention the artist’s name in parenthesis. For example, “In the lyrics to “The show must go on” (Queen), it states that…” This is all you need to do.

However, when you use APA or Harvard format, there are slight differences. You must write the name of the singer, date and track number in parenthesis, like this: (Queen, 1991, track 12).

As you see, when you integrate short citations into your text, you must use quotation marks. Longer quotations (could be several lines) must be written in a block quote. Don’t forget to indent the citation from the paragraph above it.

How to quote lyrics in a reference list

After in-text quotations, you must make a note in the reference list for the album which contains the song you used in your academic text. If you choose to stick to the MLA requirements, write the name of a performer first, then mention the name of the album, the publisher, and the date. You may also want to list the format:

Queen. Innuendo. Metropolis Studios, 1991. CD.

If you use lyrics from a booklet which goes together with the CD, include this information in the “Title of source” and the album’s name:

Queen. Booklet. Innuendo, Metropolis Studios, 1991.

How to quote a song if you pick it up on a website? It is also simple. Mention this in place of the title. Then give the name of the website, information of the publication for this site, and its URL:

Queen. Lyrics to “The show must go on”. Genius, 2018,

Quoting the song in APA and Harvard format will be a little bit different and you must provide the copyright date:

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Queen. (1991). Innuendo. [CD]. London: Metropolis Studios (Recorded 1990).

Quotation marks or Italics?

When you include lines from songs in your paper, you may ask Do you italicize song lyrics in an essay? Or you may be curious about how to write a song title in an essay. Well, there are simple rules to remember: titles of songs must be always surrounded by quotation marks while CD and album titles are always italicized. See the examples above.

Also, note that if the title of a song ends with a question mark or exclamation point, they should go inside of the quotation marks since they are a part of that title. If the punctuation is not a part of the song title, it should go beyond the quotation marks.

Things to consider

There are several unwritten rules you must follow when you are quoting song lyrics in your paper.

  • Stay away from clichés. These are “I hope you had the time of your life”, “We don’t need no education”, “You’ve got a friend in me”, “All you need is love” and so on.
  • Paraphrase. Don’t you dare to include the whole song in your essay. Your professor might remember his best years reading 10,000 lines of Paradise Lost but most likely he will not understand why you decided to make him nostalgic. Pick several lines which describe your point the best and cite it.
  • Appeal to the reader’s imagination. Any song is a melodic poem and therefore it should create some scenes in the readers’ heads. Cannot do that? Well, do not write lyrics in an essay and better think of another way of describing your ideas. Using lyrics in your papers is not your strength.

Using wording from songs in your academic essay is a wonderful idea. However, make sure you cite them properly to make your paper professional.