Music is extremely powerful, evoking intense emotion, history, memory, and physical movement in a way that fiction and most other types of communication cannot. Many writers used that emotional and historical element by mentioning music titles and song lyrics as a short hand for those emotions.
But here’s the problem. Music has copyright protectors who are beyond zealots. Copyright fair use and proper attribution which are both perfectly legal don’t matter to them, and they, usually ASCAP, will go after a writer for even the slightest mention. They have the lawyers and the money so they win almost every time.
If an author does go through ASCAP, the band’s legal people, or a brand like Disney to license a few lines, the costs are ridiculous. An acquaintance tried, and using two lines of a lyric from an obscure band would have cost her more than she’d make for the life of the book.
So, what’s a writer to do? Some write their own song lyrics. Others work very carefully around the ridiculous copyright landmines.
Here, in two scenes from my unpublished novel, THE LAUGHING GOD’S KISS, which involved a hero with a fondness for music. Cautiously treading around those copyright landmines, I use a song title, a few words of the lyrics, or some careful editing to evoke those emotions. They also reflect emotional moments for two people who are already falling in love but refuse to admit it, even to themselves.
Storm bent over his guitar and started "Yesterday."
Gazing around at all the rapt faces in the living room, Victoria realized this was a virgin audience for the song. These isolated people had never even heard of the Beatles.
Storm sang, his voice catching with melancholy at the loss of a great and true love. His face, for the first time, was vulnerable and open with emotion.
Victoria's heart twisted with his pain as she wondered whom he'd loved so much and why he'd lost her.
Across the pasture, a familiar baritone voice sang softly. Victoria caught the words "corn" and "elephant's eye." Intrigued, she moved closer.
His back to her, Storm brushed briskly on the black gelding as he sang. The black's ears were cocked back to hear him. His other three horses watched him, their ears forward. None of them had a rope or line on, each held by his voice and presence.
Equally entranced, Victoria sat down in the shade of a nearby tree.
Storm sang "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" with the feeling and skill worthy of Broadway, his black velvet voice soaring.
As his voice faded at the end of the song, the horses began to fidget.
Storm began "If I Loved You.“
Victoria closed her eyes to savor the music. The song was about love unadmitted yet so tenderly expressed. It had moved her when she'd seen Carousel.
If a voice could make love to a woman, then Storm Morgan had that voice. Victoria let the song take her where it would.
No, I’m not saying copyright is wrong, or you should ignore it. Those who have followed me for years know that I’m a strong proponent of copyright, I write informative articles about it, and I’ve fought piracy for many years. However, ASCAP and friends are using their money and clout to stop even fair use which is not okay. As usual this disclaimer, I’m not a lawyer and can’t offer legal advice. My examples are how I would avoid being sued by ASCAP. You must decide for yourself whether to risk a lawsuit or nastygram from some lawyers.