Citing and Referencing Music Lyrics in CMOS

Here at APU, music classes use both Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and APA. Generally, if you are in a music literature class, your professor will have CMOS or its student version, Turabian, listed on your course syllabus as the designated style guide. If you are writing your master’s thesis in music education, APA will govern most of your style and documentation. We’ll talk about principles for citing music lyrics in both styles. This first blog post examines conventions for citing music lyrics in CMOS.

While CMOS has several sections that address how to cite musical sources, these sections are not the only ones you will want to consult—you also need to consider the kind of source you are using as well as what aspects of that source you want to emphasize. For these reasons, there may be several acceptable ways to cite the same musical source in CMOS. If you look at the bibliographies in musicological works, you’ll find that CMOS citations can be quite complex. An author might want to demonstrate the publication history of a score, document how a recorded work was circulated, or emphasize a particular artist over a composer. Because the purpose for each of these citations is different, the citation for the same source may look different across bibliographies.

When you construct a citation, think about what makes the most sense for your purposes in using the source as well as provide enough information so that a reader can find the source you used.

Run-in Quotations or Block Quotes?

Quote and cite lyrics as you would poetry. For run-in quotations, separate line breaks with a forward slash, with a space on each side ( / ) and stanza breaks with two forward slashes ( // ). However, if at all possible, avoid stanza breaks in a run-in quote, as quotes that include stanza breaks are usually clearer as a block quotation.

If you are quoting an entire stanza, format it as a block quote. If you are citing several stanzas, then include a double return at the end of the line. Do not center the lyrics, even if they are centered in the original source. Instead, simply indent by half an inch.

Examples of run-in quotations and block quotes are in the following sections.

Notes or Parenthesis?

When using CMOS’ notes-bibliography citation system, sources for direct quotes of lyrics can be given in footnotes or endnotes like any other source material. Take the following paragraph as an example:

While George and Ira Gershwin originally composed the song “Someone to Watch Over Me” in 1926 for singer Gertrude Lawrence to perform in the musical Oh, Kay!, it is better known today as a jazz standard. Artists of both genders have performed the song, with lyrics amended to fit the soloist’s gender. However, amending the lyrics may not make the song’s gender bias any more palatable. Ella Fitzgerald sings the original lyrics, which express that it is acceptable, even preferable, for a woman not have high expectations of her suitor’s physical appearance: “although he may not be the man-some girls think of as handsome/ to my heart he carries the key.”1 Frank Sinatra also downplays a male suitor’s appearance when he sings, “although I may not be the man-some girls think of as handsome/ but to her heart I’ll carry the key,” 2 but these lyrics make the suitor appear narcissistic.

The footnotes in this paragraph are listed in the next section of the blog post.

If it makes the citation more readable, or if you are writing a short paper with no notes, the source information can be included in a parenthetical citation instead. For run-in citations, use the following format: (Author last name, “Title of Work,” verse/stanza/track number/etc.).

Because you are working with the lyrics and not the music, cite the lyricist as the author if they are different than the composer. You can amend this format if you name the author in a signal phrase. Consider the following examples:

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way / When sorrows like sea billows roll…” (Spafford, “It Is Well,” verse 1).

“…It is well, it is well with my soul. // And, Lord, haste the day…” (Spafford, “It Is Well,” chorus and verse 4).

Footnotes and Bibliographic Entries

If you are working with musical recordings, these are usually listed as a discography separately from the bibliography. If you include them in your bibliography, then designate these sources with an appropriate sub-heading. See CMOS 14.63 for additional information on dividing a bibliography into subcategories.

Here are footnote and bibliographic entries for the works cited in the above section:

Music Recordings


1Ella Fitzgerald, vocalist, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” 1926, by Ira Gershwin (lyricist) and George Gershwin (composer), vol 3, track 1, on Ella: the Legendary Decca Recordings (Santa Monica: The Verve Record Music Group), 1995, 4 compact discs.

2Frank Sinatra, vocalist, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” 1926, by Ira Gershwin (lyricist)    and George Gershwin (composer), track 6, on Classic Sinatra: His Great Performances 1953-1960 (Los Angeles: Capital Records, Inc.), 2000, compact disc.


Fitzgerald, Ella, vocalist. Ella: The Legendary Decca Recordings. Santa Monica: The Verve Music Group, 1995, 4 compact discs.

Sinatra, Frank, vocalist. Classic Sinatra: His Great Performances 1953-1960. Los Angeles: Capital Records, Inc., 2000, compact disc.


Footnotes and bibliographic entries for the hymn by Horatio Spafford would include the following additional information:

3 Horatio Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul,” 1876, in The Baptist Hymnal, ed. Wesley L. Forbes (Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1991), hymn 410.

Spafford, Horatio. “It Is Well with My Soul.” 1876. In The Baptist Hymnal, edited by Wesley L. Forbes, hymn 410. Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1991.

Lyricist or Composer?

Your entries can be formatted in two different ways depending on whether you are emphasizing a song’s lyricist or composer. Take the following stanzas from Patrick Galvin’s poem, “The Madwoman of Cork”:

Is the feast day of Saint Anne
Pray for me
I am the madwoman of Cork.

In Castle Street
I saw two goblins at my feet
I saw a horse without a head
Carrying the dead
To the graveyard
Near Turner’s cross.

I am the madwoman of Cork
No one talks to me.

(Galvin, “Madwoman of Cork,” stanzas 1 to 3)

While Galvin is the poet, or author of this text, singer-songwriter John Spillane sings Galvin’s poem on one of his albums. If you were emphasizing lyrics, or wanted to draw attention to the poet, then it would make the most sense for you to put Galvin name in the part of the citation for the author. For block quotations, you can drop the parenthetical citation a line below the lyrics in order not to interfere with the text.

Footnotes and bibliographies would likewise tell your reader whom you are emphasizing. If you were emphasizing the lyricist, your entries would look like the following:

4 Patrick Galvin, poet, “Madwoman of Cork,” 1973, sung by John Spillane on Hey Dreamer (UK: EMI Music), 2005, compact disc, track 10.

Galvin, Patrick, poet. “Madwoman of Cork.” 1973. On Hey Dreamer, John Spillane, composer/vocalist, track 10. UK: EMI Music, 2005, compact disc.

If, however, you were emphasizing the vocalist, then you might want to reflect that in your parenthetical citation, and write it like this: (Spillane, “The Madwoman of Cork,” stanzas 1 to 3). If the text is in reference to recorded music, “stanza” could be replaced with the track number or track time instead.Likewise, your footnote and bibliographic entries would put Spillane in the author’s section:

5John Spillane, composer/vocalist, “Madwoman of Cork,” on Hey Dreamer (UK: EMI Music), 2005, compact disc, track 10.

Spillane, John, composer/vocalist. “Madwoman of Cork.” Hey Dreamer, track 10. EMI Music, 2005, compact disc.

Both of these formats, whether they list they lyricist or the composer, are correct. Your choice tells your reader whom you are emphasizing in the text of your paper.


If you were citing the lyrics from a printed score and not a recording, you would reference the score as you would a book:

6 Daniel E. Gawthrop, “Come Unto the Lord,” in Behold this Mystery (Stafford, VA: Dunstan House, 1997), 8.

Gawthrop, Daniel E. Behold this Mystery. Stafford, VA: Dunstan House, 1997.

Sometimes it is helpful to know other contributors, such as librettists or which edition of the score you are working from (e.g. the full orchestral score, the piano reduction, or the choral arrangement):

7 Daniel E. Gawthrop (composer), and Jane Griner (librettist), “Come Unto the Lord,” in Behold this Mystery, SATB score (Stafford, VA: Dunstan House, 1997), 8.

Gawthrop, Daniel E. (composer), and Jane Griner (librettist). Behold this Mystery (SATB score). Stafford, VA: Dunstan House, 1997.

Additional Help

For more explanations of parenthetical quotes as a supplement to notes and bibliography and how to format those parenthetical citations, see CMOS 13.64, 13.71 and 13.72.For additional information on formatting and citing lyrics, take a look at the sections of CMOS 13.25-13.29, which specifically deals with poetry.

And of course, you can always come to the Writing Center!


Dr. Tori Dalzell holds a PhD in ethnomusicology (UC Riverside) and a BA in Music and English (Hollins University). She has worked with both undergraduate and graduate students in writing centers since 2012, and views writing as an integral part of professional development for any chosen field. Tori conducted her dissertation research in Nepal on a Fulbright IIE grant (2012-2013), and remains involved as an alumna in UC Riverside’s Latin American Music ensemble, which performs folk and popular music from the Andean region of South America.