The Allusion and Intertextuality in Music

One of the best ways to think about the relationship between pop music and postmodernism is historically. In most accounts, the moment of postmodernism begins in the late 1950s — the same period as the emergence of pop music. Therefore, in terms of periodization, pop music and postmodernism are more or less simultaneous.

As Frith and Home (1987, p.5) point out, “Pop songs are the soundtrack of postmodern daily life, inescapable in lifts and airports, pubs and restaurants, streets and shopping centres and sports grounds”. Postmodernism is related to such features as the undermining of faith in religion or historical meta-narratives, a celebration of difference and its eclectic mixing of high and low. More specifically, these features are expressed through typical aesthetic devices, particularly pastiche, self-referentiality and intertextuality (Manuel, 1995).

Building upon the ideas of French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, the term “intertextuality” was coined by French semiotician Julia Kristeva (1986) in her writings of the late 1960s. This quickly became one of the more influential idea’s in literary criticism during the 1970s and early 1980s. Intertextuality refers to the interconnection that occurs naturally or purposefully in works of art. It reveals the ways in which texts depend on other texts by recycling and linking to former utterances. Herein lies the way works of art are related and influence each other.

The Relationship Between Texts

This brings us then to the notion of intertextuality within music, a concept that has become quite attractive for musicologists and music theorists over the past two decades (Spicer, Frith & Home, Bartesaghi, Kostka & de Castro). Drawing from ideas in literary criticism, the central premise behind musical intertextuality is that compositions acquire meaning not in and of themselves, but through their relationship to an infinite universe of other works.

Spicer (2009) suggests that intertextuality in music operates on two essential levels: stylistic and strategic. Stylistic intertextuality occurs when a composer adopts distinctive features of an earlier style without reference to any specific work in that style, like the Baroque devices employed in The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby (1966). Strategic intertextuality is more pointed, occurring when a composer makes deliberate reference to a particular earlier work or works. In his article, Spicer goes onto to offer a close analyses of three of John Lennon’s late Beatles songs — All You Need is Love, Glass Onion and Because — as a means of demonstrating how strategic intertextuality can work to enrich a pop-rock song’s overall message.

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music…Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic…And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it” (Jarmusch, 2004).

Although in this quote Jim Jarmusch was referring to films, he could easily have been talking about the fuzzy, overlapping barriers that define intertextuality in music. Songwriter Annie Clarke agrees in her masterclass series on creativity (2020). She says to learn as many songs as you can and then incorporate that into your own work. “Learn it all, and grab it, and use it”. She goes onto to add that the vocal melody from Heart- Shaped Box by Nirvana (2013) could be a Cole Porter melody from the mid 19th century. Because the Nirvana song has “guitar chords that add menace to it, suddenly this beautiful, fluid melody is gripping and recontextualized” (Clarke, 2020).

If you’re a fan of classic rock, you might be aware that Led Zeppelin included a lot of references to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy in their music. The song ‘’Ramble On’’ includes a verse in which singer Robert Plant meets a beautiful girl in the dark kingdom of Mordor who is ultimately stolen away by the villainous Gollum (Greene, 2012). Other references to The Lord of the Rings include “The Wizard” by Black Sabbath, “Rivendell” by Rush and “The Gnome” by Pink Floyd.

Intertextuality involves a diverse set of devices and techniques that have been consciously developed and applied by many composers in the pursuit of various artistic and aesthetic goals. Intertextual techniques have borne a wide range of results, such as parody, paraphrase, collage and dialogues with and between the past and present (Kostka & de Castro, 2021).

Another such technique is allusion. An allusion is a brief and sometimes indirect reference to another work of art and a very common form of deliberate intertextuality. For example, in the opening lines of his classic hip hop song Gangsta’s Paradise (1995), Coolio raps, “[a]s I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”. The line is a reference to Psalm 23 in the Bible. The song itself is based on a sample from the 1973 Stevie Wonder song Pastime Paradise and even includes some of Stevie’s original lyrics, altered to have a new meaning.

Other notable examples of these techniques could include Will Smith’s hit Wild Wild West (1999), composed around a sample from Stevie Wonder’s funk classic I Wish (1976) and Eminem’s hit Like Toy Soldiers (2005), which imports not only the title but a sample of the entire chorus from Martika’s bubblegum smash Toy Soldiers (1989).

In the age of sampling and remix culture, the very notion of intertextuality seems to have gained increased momentum and visibility, even though the principle of creating new music on the basis of pre-existing music has a long history both inside and outside of Western tradition.

Some of the musical examples mentioned in this blog.


Bartesaghi, M. (2015). Intertextuality. The International Encyclopedia of Language and Social Interaction, 1–6.

Clarke, A. (2020). St Vincent teaches creativity and songwriting. [video] Retrieved from

Frith, S., & Horne, H. (1987). Art into pop. London: Methuen.

Greene, A. (2021). Ramble On: Rockers Who Love ‘The Lord of the Rings. Retrieved from

Jarmusch, J. (2013). Things I’ve Learned: Jim Jarmusch. Retrieved from

Kostka, V., de Castro, P. F., & Everett, W. A. (Eds.). (2021). Intertextuality in Music: Dialogic Composition. Routledge.

Kristeva, J. (1986). word, Dialogue and Novel. The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Manuel, P. (1995). Music as Symbol, Music as Simulacrum: Postmodern, Pre-Modern, and Modern Aesthetics in Subcultural Popular Musics. Popular Music, 14(2), 227–239.

Spicer, M. (2009). Strategic Intertextuality in Three of John Lennon’s Late Beatles Songs. Gamut: Online Journal of the Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlantic, 2(1) , Article 11.



Music producer, Pianist, Father. Currently studying Masters of Creative Industry with SAE. Based in Brisbane, Australia.

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The Chass Lounge

Music producer, Pianist, Father. Currently studying Masters of Creative Industry with SAE. Based in Brisbane, Australia.