Why Not Non-Fiction Lyrics?

Debenhams Bans Retouching of Its Lingerie Models (more)

We expect news photos to be unretouched, but art gallery photos are fair game. Lingerie ads are in between – some think retouching is fraud, others don’t care. We also formally distinguish between fiction and non-fiction in books, and put them in clearly different sections in libraries, and we similarly formally distinguish documentaries from fiction movies. People get upset when they see fiction presented as if it were non-fiction.

I think the idea is while we know that all these things can persuade us via their styles and associations, non-fiction makes an additional bid to persuade us via its explicit reasoning or evidence. This added bid makes it a valid target for criticism; the non-fiction label tells us to hold it to this higher standard, complaining more loudly if it fails, and believing and celebrating it more if it succeeds.

We do not usually explicitly distinguish sculpture and paintings as fiction vs. not, though some of those are seen as “realistic” in the sense that they should be criticized more if found to be unrealistic. Yet for music, not only do we not explicitly distinguish fiction from non-fiction lyrics, there aren’t even some kinds of song whose lyrics are expected to be more realistic.

Why don’t we bother with the fiction vs. not-fiction distinction for music? That is, why isn’t there a distinguished subset of music which we hold to a higher persuasion standard, to be criticized more if it fails that standard, but accepted more if it meets the standard, as with books and movies?

One theory would be that we don’t think people can critically evaluate arguments in lyrics when the unreasonable persuasive powers of music are involved, so we just give up on that. But documentary movies add both music and images, which would seem to offer even more unreasonable persuasive powers; why do we think people can critically evaluate them? Another theory would be that songs are too short to encompass persuasive arguments. But many news stories are shorter than songs, yet are still explicitly distinguished as non-fiction.

I’m just puzzled.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • Stephen Bachelor

    I was trying to think of non-fiction songs. The only two that came immediately to mind were When The War Came, by The Decemberists–the story of Vavilov’s seed bank during the siege of Leningrad–and Why Does The Sun Shine, by They Might Be Giants.

    It could be that nonfiction music is just too rare to deserve its own category.

    • Anonymous

      Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”. Wait – there must be a Wikipedia list already… There it is:


      • Will

        I’m pretty sure “Hurricane” qualifies as fiction. That is, the story told is not true, Hurricane actually killed the guy (and when Bob Dylan became convinced of this, he stopped performing the song live)

      • AspiringRationalist

        That’s a good example of the higher standard that non-fiction is held to. It’s presented as fact, so when Bob Dylan no longer believed it to be factually true, he stopped performing it.

    • Paul Crowley

      “Why Does The Sun Shine?” is a cover of a song by Hy Zaret. It is the only non-fiction song I know of for which a correction has been issued in the form of a further non-fiction song, “Why Does The Sun Really Shine?”, by TMBG.

    • Bill

      “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” It was composed from news accounts immediately after the wreck itself. It was intended to be accurate and is reasonably so. There are web pages analyzing its accuracy.

      There are also some largely dead genres of popular music which were non-fiction. It used to be very common to teach primary and secondary school using poems, chants, and songs which were explicitly designed to make it easier to learn material by rote. These were expected to be accurate. News was once reported in poems and ballads printed on broadsheets—the form made it easier for illiterates to retain long enough to pass along once someone read or sang the news to them. Others have mentioned epic poetry, but I’m not so sure that was meant to be taken as literal documentary truth in the way that the OP meant.

  • Eric Hammer

    The timing is probably an issue too. While news stories are often short, they are generally very relevant only in the short term. Songs generally take a while to compose, and so probably would miss the point where being new is good enough to make them relevant. (I am assuming here that short news articles only matter to us because the little bit of information they contain is new. I am basing this on how poorly written the articles generally are, and how little people seem interested in yesterday’s paper.)

    The other problem is probably that songs are pretty strictly auditory, and like most oral traditions are not great at transmitting precise data over repetitions, especially between users. However, the advent of recording would imply that that issue would go away.

    I can think of two non-fiction songs from Animaniacs (naming the presidents and the states I think) as well as the entirety of School House Rock, so it really must just come down to the fact that songs have not been reliable enough to use as reference material. There are songs used as mnemonics and the like, but by and large people are not expecting songs to be non-fiction. Then again, I wonder what the ratio of fiction to non-fiction is for books…

    • Don Geddis

      I second this. Schoolhouse Rock is a great example of music used explicitly for teaching. Which could be rightly criticized for any mistakes in its description of reality.

      Songs that are inspired by real events can also be criticized, but then it’s usually of the weaker form: someone has an opinion about the event, and the critic may think the opinion is ignorant or wrong in some way. But an erroneous opinion isn’t quite the same as a factual error in a documentary.

  • gjm

    It doesn’t seem to me to be true that non-fictional movies, books, etc., are celebrated more than fictional ones. They’re regarded differently, that’s all. (Which is celebrated more, “Romeo and Juliet” or the Feynman lectures on physics? “2001” or a David Attenborough documentary about nature?)

    So: why non-fiction categories for books and movies and photographs, but not for songs and sculptures and paintings? An obvious and straightforward answer seems to be available: books and movies and photographs are effective tools for non-fiction; songs and sculptures and paintings, not so much. Suppose you are considering making an oil painting to disseminate some information. There’s no obvious reason why a diagram or photograph wouldn’t do it about as effectively, and quicker+cheaper+easier. But suppose you’re considering making a movie; a book would miss important information, an animation would likely actually be more work, etc.

  • czr80

    Non-fiction songs are often used as teaching aids for young children (e.g, learning the letters of the alphabet).

  • Dave Orr

    That is indeed puzzling.

    As other commenters have noted, there are in fact nonfiction songs, but they are quite few in number, and the fact of their being nonfiction is not very salient, so it’s hard to come up with them.

    It seems to me that lyrics are generally a version of poetry, which similarly does not have a nonfiction section. On possibility is that poetry is metaphorical in nature, so perhaps it’s just too hard to classify it as nonfiction versus fiction.

    • free_agent

      In the ancient world, non-fiction works were sometimes presented as poetry. E.g., Lucretius and Hesiod.

      • IMASBA

        Yes, exactly, but modern technology has made poetry obsolete for non-fiction purposes, although I think serious rap music is a modern descendant, see my post below.

      • but modern technology has made poetry obsolete for non-fiction purposes

        How do you figure it’s because of technology?

        [Added.] I see you addressed this earlier: you relate it to alternative means of information storage.

        But being more memorable is a good thing for persuasive writing, even if we don’t need to remember literally, dute to storing information on media. So, I don’t think the technology of storage is the complete explanation.

    • Douglas Knight

      Non-fiction songs are quite common and often explicitly propaganda. eg, Alice’s Restaurant.

      • Dave Orr

        That’s true, though as others have noted the line can be pretty blurry. Alice’s Restaurant itself definitely blurs the line — somehow “we was both jumping up and down yelling ‘Kill, Kill, Kill!'” doesn’t strike me as likely to be an accurate representation of events.

        Nicely memorable, though.

  • Will

    In hip-hop, there may be a fiction/non-fiction distinction in that listeners are often disappointed or offended by untrue claims. Example: Rick Ross in the late 2000’s was criticized when it was revealed that he was formerly a prison guard (contradicting his rap persona as a gangsta).

  • Siddharth

    A perhaps related question that I’ve always wondered about is: why in almost all of popular music, the lyricist is typically just the singer or some other musician. Why not have a full-time lyricist? Lyrics don’t seem to merit that amount of effort.

    • lemmycaution

      Showtunes traditionally had lyricists. Brill building pop and motown also had lyricists.

      the “grateful dead” had a non-performing lyricist:


      My guess is that the royalty money is too good/ authenticity issues.

    • Ronfar

      There are some people that are most famous for their lyrics, but I think most people who write lyrics are frequently composers or performers as well.

    • Guest

      One possible reason is that performers don’t get paid for radio plays, while composers (including lyricists) do.

  • Siddharth

    One explanation could be that no one can actually listen to, understand and interpret the lyrics of a song in real time. In the case of a documentary with music, the narrative itself isn’t musical; but the music supports the narrative. Indeed, a radio documentary can be thought of as non-fiction music.

    • Why doesn’t that apply to documentaries too?


    I think it’s a bit of a false dichotomy. You can’t really divide written into fiction and non-fiction. Written art is fiction. Non-fiction books just happen to resemble written art because putting words on paper was an efficient way to store and transfer information. The same goes for filmed art vs. documentaries. Musical and sculpted art don’t have such closely related non-fiction partners, though like Siddharth said a radio documentary can be seen as a distantly related non-fiction partner to music.

    Having said that, there was a time where poetry was a relatively efficient way of storing and transferring information and non-fiction poetry, often brought in the form of music was used for religious and historic purposes. In the modern world there still exists a descendant of this musical non-fiction poetry: serious rap music (the kind that’s about social commentary) and its listeners are as adamant in separating it from other forms of rap music (about cars and titties) as libraries are in separating non-fiction books from fiction books.

    • rrb

      I concede that comparing novels to textbooks might be a bit like comparing Green Day to recordings of lectures. They happen to have the same medium, but aren’t the same kind of thing.

      However, we do distinguish novels from memoirs, and it’s weird that there isn’t such a clear distinction in music. Maybe serious vs other rap music is it, I wouldn’t know.

  • Anon

    why isn’t there a distinguished subset of music which we hold to a higher persuasion standard, to be criticized more if it fails that standard, but accepted more if it meets the standard, as with books and movies?

    As pervasive as it is now, it is difficult to remember that within my lifetime popular music (ie rock) became something that could be discussed academically, and one generation before the same for folk. Before that, there was classical music and there was music that wasn’t worth debating or documenting.

  • Matt

    Many songs contain arguments. Punk music makes lots of claims about government, capitalism, and consumerism. Many pockets of hip-hop make claims about the nature of the drug war, what life is like in an urban ghetto, or whether policing in cities is fair, that are meant to be persusasive. Green Day writes songs about how George Bush is mean and evil; they are famous, and played on the radio. Bob Marley made arguments about the legitimacy of Jamaica’s marijuana laws in his songs.

    • Accordingly, punk rock (of which I’m a great fan), hip-hop, and reggae are (relatively) near-mode art forms: melody is far; rhythm is near.

    • My claim isn’t that lyrics don’t make claims, or that none of those claims are true. My claim is that we don’t explicitly distinguish a category of such songs, in the way we do for books and movies.

      • The two issues are related inasmuch, as commenters have said, one reasonable explanation for why there’s no category of nonfiction music is that there’s not very much (although there’s some) that literally fits the bill.

        But to focus more directly on your question of categories, perhaps it should first be approached in far-mode: what kind of categorization systems, in general, do we apply to music. For prose, fiction versus nonfiction is not only applied but is the most fundamental division (in libraries and book stores). There is no comparable exhaustive, mutually exclusive categorization for music. What kinds of prose exist: fiction and nonfiction, period. What kinds of music exist: there’s jazz, classical, pop, rock … the list has no real end.

        This again appears related to construal level. Music is far, so we organize it in terms of abstract categories; prose is near, so we organize it in logical categories. ( http://tinyurl.com/mopet68 )

      • Ronfar

        There is no comparable exhaustive, mutually exclusive categorization for music.

        My middle school teacher said that “religious” and “secular” was such a categorization…

      • Christian Kleineidam

        Lies for students…

        There definately music that get’s sung in some church choirs that also get’s played in secular contexts.

      • Axa

        Robin, you are such a party pooper. People does not make a distinction between fiction and non-fiction music because it is a unpleasant act. If you start to care about this you will find all your “knowledge” about love and relationships that comes from music is just shit. If you ever mention this topic in a polite conversation, you’re going to be pointed as a cold-heart monster. The people who dare to make the distinction between fiction and non-fiction music either: a) Are not that fond of music, b) Love instrumental music, c) Recognize all the fiction in music but just play along everybody else, what’s more important? The sex that dancing to that music is going to get you or the truth? Why there’s fiction and non-fictions books? Because books are consumed by almost every kind of person from introverts and intellectuals to people just looking for some porn or romance. In contrast, music with lyrics is not a universal product, it is meant for people looking for romance.

      • This argument also seems to apply to all the places we do make the distinction – why isn’t it party pooping to invoke the distinction there as well?

  • Philip Goetz

    Religious songs are sometimes held to the standard of nonfiction. Some worshipers care very much whether a hymn conforms to their doctrine or not. Some obviously don’t; the lyrics to “That old-time religion” are shockingly blasphemous (“It was good for my father and it’s good enough for me”).

    But in general, writing songs is not an easy way to communicate factual information. Songs that were written to communicate information would be criticized for inaccuracy, such as if “The elements” omitted an element, or “50 Nifty United States” mentioned Manitoba.

  • Music is far (it’s the most protypically far thing); true facts are near. Opposed mindsets are dissonant.

    • komponisto

      Music is far

      Not for musicians it isn’t! Speaking as one, I basically regard laypeople’s almost-exclusive use of far mode to construe music as a kind of pathology. “Music appreciation”, to a first approximation, consists in learning to view it in near mode.

      By the way, the very identification of “music” with “text of vocal music” evidenced in the post is symptomatic of this far-mode monopoly.(Music is assumed to be “about” extramusical messages.)

      • Well, here’s the reason I would have said music is far, not only for us laypeople but even for musicians. (I’m not questioning there are near-mode skills a musician must require, but I’m trying to deal with which mode is involved in attaining the highest level of performance.) The reason (which I have to put in the crudest near-mode terms) is that composing music is the one and only thing ordinary people like me simply cannot do. Not just do well, but do at all. I don’t have the slightest inkling of how to go about inventing music. I haven’t tried, but I doubt music-appreciation training would teach me that skill. In other words, musical composition (and, I’d guess, performing music at the highest levels) is pure intuition. There’s no conscious algorithm that you can follow, as usually with near-mode skills (even though you come to do them subconsciously).

        Final thought, I don’t see how treating music as referential is typical of far mode; referential thought is near-mode. (Perhaps you disagree.)

      • Ari

        Ordinary people can compose music. High quality composing though would require you to have started when you were a kid.

        In fact performance is about creating the aural image of the music you are trying to perform (eg. Art of Piano Playing, George Kochevitsky). Its just not about technical exercise of notes and whatever.

        Think about your life’s emotional highs and lows. Those are times you would probably be able to compose your best music. Ex post is possible obviously if you can go back to those feelings.

        There’s a lot of very good art that isn’t necessarily technically magnificent but is still relatively high quality. There’s a lot of subtle but beautiful music, take Erik Satie for example.

        Your ability to perform music pretty much correlates with your ability to compose it. In fact I think improvisation is kind of a pitfall when you want to get better at an instrument. It is easy to get lured by it before you have enough skill to produce something decent.

      • In fact performance is about creating the aural image of the music you are trying to perform (eg. Art of Piano Playing, George Kochevitsky). Its just not about technical exercise of notes and whatever.

        This is indeed the far (aural image) near (technical exercise) distinction.

        An interesting tidbit about the essential far-mode character of music: not only is music lateralized to the right, but musical instruments are apparently the only manufactured objects whose simple recognition is predominantly right lateralized.

      • Ronfar

        Your ability to perform music pretty much correlates with your ability to compose it.

        Really? I can’t compose at all, but I can play well (for an amateur)…

      • komponisto

        I couldn’t have asked for a better demonstration of my point. Magical thinking is a hallmark of far-mode cognition — and, I think it’s fair to say, pathological, given the distorted picture of reality it leaves you with. Musical composition may seem mysterious to you, but that just reflects the fact that you don’t know how to do it. Whereas I do, and it isn’t mysterious to me at all. The statement that “there’s no conscious algorithm that you can follow” is 100% false.

        (Seriously, doesn’t it set off alarm bells when you find yourself saying that you don’t know how to do something, and haven’t tried to figure out how to do it, but you nevertheless know that there’s no conscious algorithm by which it can be done?)

        On the final point: it’s not the treating music as “referential” that is typical of far mode, it’s the placing of it into a social/interpersonal context, as opposed to an analytical /intrapersonal one.

      • You simply have any idea of what far-mode and near-mode are.

      • komponisto

        Right back at you. Quoting from Psychlopedia’s entry on “Construal level theory” (apparently I can’t post a link without the comment being sent to purgatory) :

        “The key premise of this theory is that distant objects, events, or individuals are classified or represented as abstract, intangible, unobservable, and broad concepts. In contrast, close objects, events, or individuals are represented with concrete, specific, observable, or discrete features.”

        See also the distinction made by Michael Vassar in his Edge essay between “physical” (near) and “social” (far) modes of cognition. (If that isn’t the near/far distinction, then as far as I’m concerned it supersedes it.)

        You evidently think of musical composition as intangible and unobservable, whereas I think of it as concrete, observable, and discrete. I wish that people would think of music more as a complex system of moving parts (near) and less as a medium for signaling values and affiliations (far).

        Your model is broken. “Aural images” are not irreducible, and they are not the opposite of “technical exercises”. Technical exercises can build up aural images from nonexistent to primitive to vivid.

        Indeed, the problem with most “music appreciation training” (in quotes, as opposed to actual music appreciation training) is that it fails at this. It tends to replace the layman’s far-mode vocabulary with the music historian’s far-mode vocabulary (instead of the composer’s near-mode vocabulary). This is probably why you don’t think music appreciation training will help you learn to compose, because as it’s often practiced, it won’t. The problem, however, is too few technical exercises, not too many.

        Most Wikipedia articles on music (particularly pieces of music, and historical developments) are terrible; they’re written in the music historian’s (or music critic’s) style, in far mode.

      • See also the distinction made by Michael Vassar in his Edge essay between “physical” (near) and “social” (far) modes of cognition. (If that isn’t the near/far distinction, then as far as I’m concerned it supersedes it.)

        Which was my point: you are using a distinction that bears no direct relationship to CLT. As far a you’re concerned, it’s the same distinction–of course. I haven’t read Vassar (btw, I don’t experience any delays in posting links), but it’s plain to anyone who knows anything about CLT that many prototypical forms of social cognition are near and many forms of physical cognition are far. (The best evolutionary account of near-far is that far’s origin lies in detecting physical threats at a distance.)

        If you think the Psychlopedia’s definition is the same as the one you attribute to Vassar, you’re simply wrong. If you think the (alleged) Vassar version supersedes CLT, then you haven’t shown sufficient understanding of CLT to take your claim seriously.

        My essays dealing with CLT are at:




        I don’t know enough about musical composition (or production or appreciation) to contest you at the level of opinion rather than belief. (http://tinyurl.com/77ob2m3) But the other musician commenting, Ari, seems to disagree with you. I’m persuaded mainly by the lateralization studies concerning music and by my own (and others’) utter inability to compose anything. (You thought this should “set off alarms,” but its unlike any other activity in this regard. (Of course, the lateralization evidence is stronger.)

        Perhaps we could make some assessment of your credibility this way: could you link to one of your musical compositions? If composition is teachable, and you’re aware of the methods, surely you’ve experienced the benefits. If not that, perhaps a link to your musical resume, since you offer these comments partly on the authority of being a musician.

      • komponisto

        1. The reason I can’t post links is presumably because I’m posting as a “Guest”. (I also can’t edit comments after posting them, which you appear to be able to do.)

        2. When I google “michael vassar edge”, the first result is a Less Wrong post about the essay that links to the essay. The relevant paragraph of the essay is the fourth (beginning “Some of those programs allocate attention…”). Note that the claim that Vassar’s distinction supersedes CLT is mine, not his.

        3. Our (interesting) disagreement here is not about what CLT is, it’s about the mental processes involved in musical composition. You are under the impression that that musical composition cannot be done via a “conscious algorithm”, and I pointed out that this is neither true nor a reasonable inference from the data you have (namely that it seems mysterious to you).

        4. If you’re not willing to take my word for it that personal experience with musical composition is what is generating my thoughts here (what else do you think is?), then you are free to continue believing that music is created by magic (or “intuition” or “parallel processing” or whatever substitute-word you prefer).

        5. Edge (dot org) does not, to my knowledge, have anything particular to do with video games.

      • If you’re not willing to take my word for it that personal experience with musical composition is what is generating my thoughts here (what else do you think is?), then you are free to continue believing that music is created by magic (or “intuition” or “parallel processing” or whatever substitute-word you prefer).

        Our disagreement isn’t about music; it doesn’t get that far. You think parallel processing, intuition, etc. (that is, far mode) are equivalent to magic. That’s because you don’t understand what far mode is according to CLT. (Or you reject CLT, but you don’t seem to.)

        Am I misunderstanding you? You think all skilled cognitive processes can be conveyed by an explicit algorithm? (I recall Vassar embraces tacit knowledge.) Music is only an extreme case, in that I don’t think most people have an inkling of how to compose it. But all skills contain tacit components (some of which are far-mode).

      • Marc Geddes

        >See also the distinction made by Michael Vassar in his Edge essay between “physical” (near) and “social” (far) modes of cognition.

        I know what near/far are, in fact they are encoded in my fundamental 27 universal categories of cognition. Hanson and construal level theory are definitely on the right track, but the theory as it stands is not complete. But Hanson is close.

        Strictly speaking there are three categories:

        very near, near and far

        ‘very near’ mode is thought about the compositional elements of things (how things are put together),

        ‘near mode’ is thought about the functional elements of things (what things do)

        ‘far mode’ is thought about the representational elements of things (how things are presented)

        Physical/Social is different distinction which has nothing to do with this.

        Music contains all of very near, near and far components.

  • urstoff

    I wouldn’t mind a technical death metal concept album explaining NGDP targeting.

  • Ari

    Honestly the words don’t really matter. Take “War Pigs” for example. Highly political song, but the truth is Ozzy originally sang about his aunt or something just to remember the melody. Lyrics about war were added later.

    I’m not interested in lyrics in music. How many songs are there about love and break-ups? There’s nothing interesting the lyrics themselves. Music is language of emotions first and foremost.

    But yeah we probably don’t care about lyrics for the same reason we don’t really care about truth value of most political statements if they make a good motto / song / whatever. And those rock starts are just too likable. Just like economic way of thinking is in conflict with our common sense morality, art is usually in big conflict with reality.

    Great art is an expression of nature and the best art is usually about some symmetrical relationship in nature that is probably function of some mathematical formula (fractals etc). I think there was a book called “Gödel, Escher, Bach” about relationships between important symmetry, mathematics and art.

    Reality isn’t really that dramatic. Art adds drama to reality to elicit an emotional response. I think it just shows perspective (eg. humor). Maybe you could call that signal modulation. If you wanted to send a message about something, the *fact* that you can elicit an emotional response means you really want to say that message. The higher the quality of the art, the harder it is to fake. Obviously it also signals fitness, genes etc.

    When you play an instrument, the will to create the aural image of the music drives the performance. This is from George Kochevitsky’s book.

  • Furslid

    My first thought is that in music there are more important differences. Both fiction and non fiction works present important events and developed characters to form a coherent narrative. They both use prose. Because of this they are similar that based on true events vs based on made up events is a major distinction.

    Genres of music have other differences that are more important to audiences, there isn’t a list of similarities to all music like there is for prose. Preferences between genres are almost more like the difference between prose, poetry, and comic books. This is a more fundamental distinction, and it’s one we make without thinking in literature. We see a novel as being closer to a non-fiction book than to a graphic novel. Similarly we see country songs about crime as closer to country songs about god than to gangster rap.

  • Darius Bacon

    A classical example of nonfiction poetry meant to persuade was Lucretius’s *The Nature of Things*; it’s one of the main surviving sources on Epicurean philosophy. (It’s still pretty fun to read, too.)

    There used to be more didactic poetry. I don’t know how much was persuasion vs. instruction of a captive audience (Lucretius was definitely the former), and I don’t know if any was set to music.

  • Michael Caton

    I’ve had similar thoughts RE documentary films. I’ve mostly stopped
    watching them. Film is not a good medium for actual arguments, as
    opposed to letting music and faces sway your audience while you (at
    best) imply a position they should be taking. (Making an explicit
    assertion gives away the persuasion game.) In contrast, for the most
    part music is not a medium where people have even pretended to make
    arguments. Lyrics are filled with commands, but I don’t know if I can think of a single “therefore”.

  • jyotiraturi

    artist songs lyrics
    Findsearched provides english songs lyrics, hindi songs lyrics, punjabi songs lyrics. You search songs by alphabets and search by Artist.

  • Jon Reznick

    Robin, let me know what your fiction/non-fiction assessment of this song (by Jasiri X) is. I know X, I’m proud to have worked with him on a few occasions, which raises the question: how relevant is it whether the artist and/or performer is available for follow-up inquiry?


  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Forged By Status()