Intertextuality in Music: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Kelly Bryan

Kelly has taught English in four different countries, mostly recently at Dongguk University in South Korea. She has a master's degree in teaching English as a second language.

This lesson introduces some common examples of intertextuality and the ways they are employed by popular music artists. It includes descriptions of types of intertextuality and examples from 20th and 21st century pop music.


''Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination…. And don't bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it,'' says film director Jim Jarmusch. Although Jarmusch was talking about films, he could easily have been talking about the fuzzy, overlapping barriers that define intertextuality in music.

What is Intertextuality?

Intertextuality refers to the interconnection that occurs naturally or purposefully in works of art. Because no art is created in a vacuum, it is natural for writers, filmmakers, musicians, and other artists to include references to other people's art in their own art. It helps them create connections with their audience or to illustrate a larger point they are trying to make by creating a parallel to other art their audience is already familiar with. Sometimes intertextuality slips in without the creator directly noticing. Let us explore how this affects the music we listen to.

Deliberate Intertextuality

When a musician or other artist knowingly references another artist's work in their own, it is called deliberate intertextuality. 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. While it is not exactly true to the source material, no one ever said intertextuality had to be precise.

Latent Intertextuality

Latent intertextuality, on the other hand, involves outside influences that unconsciously affect an artist. Some argue that any art we consume influences us in some small way. It is common also to hear a song or see a movie, and then remember details but forget where they came from. Maybe you've had a guitar riff or a distinctive beat suddenly pop into your head but were unable to remember where you first heard it.

Returning to our Led Zeppelin example, latent intertextuality in the band's music could be described by its influences. The band combined rock and blues music to create its unique sound, so it can be assumed that the band members listened to a lot of both genres. For example, while blues legend Muddy Waters' singing influenced Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant's vocal style, both musicians have very different individual musical styles. Plant might not have been thinking of Waters while he was singing, but the influence is still there.


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,'' Coolio raps, ''As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,''. The line is a reference to Psalm 23 in the Bible. ''Gangsta's Paradise'' doesn't go on to explain this reference. It just leaves it there for listeners to understand or not. However, catching the reference can add a little depth to one's understanding of the lyrics.

Pastiche, Homage & Parody

A pastiche , like an homage, is a work of art that imitates the style of another artist or period of art. The difference between the two terms is in the artist's intention. An homage is a work in which an artist honors another work of art while still incorporating an original style, whereas a pastiche is only an imitation of a particular style. Think of a pastiche as a cookie cutter copy of a style rather than an adaptation.

Meghan Trainor's song ''All About That Bass'' could be considered an homage because it picks and chooses styles common in early 1960's pop, while addressing more modern topics like self-esteem in one's body image. On the other hand, Daft Punk's ''Get Lucky'' might be considered a pastiche because it is a throwback to 1970's disco since it imitates the rhythm and sound of that era without the modern twist. Of course, much of this has to do with an individual listener's opinion. Homage is generally neutral or complimentary, while pastiche is used to point out shallowness or unoriginality.

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