Why writers should rarely name songs in their fiction

Cue the music.

I'm a young boy again, reading a fun novel named Spellsinger by Alan Dean Foster. I'm loving the novel because Foster is a compelling author and knows how to create wacky worlds and spin tons of adventure. But one thing keeps puzzling me.

The music, man. All the references to music from the 1960s and 70s.

The main character, Jon-Tom, is a wizard who creates magic by playing music. Specifically songs like AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" and the Beach Boy's "Sloop John B." Which made fun reading for anyone who knew these songs, but when I first read the novel I was continually puzzled by musical references I knew nothing about.

Fortunately, Foster is a strong enough writer that you can enjoy Spellsinger without knowing all the referenced songs. But ever since I've been wary of song titles in fiction, a trait I carry over into my own stories.

Most writers already know the legal pitfalls of using copyrighted lyrics in their fiction. In short, it's expensive to secure reprint rights to current popular songs. In addition, most book publishers are reluctant to allow authors to use "fair use" as a way to include copyrighted lyrics in their stories. All this means that if an author includes copyrighted lyrics in their fiction, that story may have a hard time finding a publisher.

To get around this issue, many authors simply reference the titles of songs in their stories, thus avoiding any legal hassles while still bringing the desired music into the story. The problem with this, though, is each person reacts to music in a different way. A song title which evokes love and happiness in the author may evoke disgust in some readers and anger in others. Or the song title may cause puzzlement in readers who aren't familiar with the song, as happened to me when I read Spellsinger at a young age.

And then there are the authors who dump a laundry list of song titles into their stories. Instead of evoking different emotions, these endless song titles evoke nothing but irritation from readers, who often feel as if the author is merely name-checking large numbers of pop culture artifacts instead of telling a story.

In my opinion, a better way for authors to bring songs into their story is to let the readers fill in the music with their own minds. Be vague about the songs you mention. Instead of mentioning "The Sound of Silence," describe how your character hears a faint folk song which echoes like silence through her ears. Instead of saying a character heard "Rapper's Delight," mention him feeling nostalgic upon hearing an old hip hop song his father played over and over after a hard day at work.

Doing this both avoids bringing in a song which your readers may not have the same reaction to as you and also allows the character's reaction to the music to emerge in the readers' minds.

There are, of course, exceptions to this advice. Foster's Spellsinger is actually a great example of how to incorporate song titles into a story. After all, when I read the story as a kid I didn't know the referenced song titles, but the story still worked. That's because Foster provided enough background and details for me fill in the gaps to my song knowledge.

Another book I recently read which does a great job melding song references with the story is Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Signal to Noise.  Moreno-Garcia does a similar creative job as Foster by using her characters and world-building and prose to show the reader the songs even when the reader doesn't know them.

But authors should know both of these novels are the exceptions which prove the rule. In addition, these novels are specifically about music, suggesting readers may have a different tolerance to musical references in these tales than they would in a non-musical story.

So my advice is for authors to generally be vague with your musical references. Let readers fill in the musical spaces you create.

Otherwise readers might believe you created something "bad" when you're really wanting them to see your story as "Bad."