Citing and Referencing Music Lyrics in APA

Here at APU, music classes use both 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 course style guide. In the previous blog in this series, we talked about principles for citing music lyrics in CMOS.

If, however, you are taking music education courses or writing your master’s thesis in music education, then APA will govern most of your style and documentation. This blog post examines conventions for citing music lyrics in APA.The tricky thing about citing musical works in APA is that no section of the APA manual strictly examines citing musical sources. Instead, you have to consider the format or medium of the source (e.g. book, recording, etc.) and apply the principles of APA to citing and referencing that kind of work. This blog post will walk you through some APA principles that you can apply to citing music sources.

In-text Citations

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.

Your in-text, parenthetical citation in APA for lyrics will have the same components as other in-text citations: (Who, When, Where). Additionally, you should follow the same APA guidelines for paraphrasing and quoting lyrics and other information related to music as you would any other information.

Because we are dealing with lyrics, our in-text citation should consist of the songwriter’s last name (Who), the date the recording or printed music was originally released (When), and the track number for recorded music or line number or pamphlet page number for printed lyrics (Where). Run-in citations for these songs could look like this:

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, that 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” (Gershwin & Gershwin, 1926/1995, vol. 3, track 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” (Gershwin & Gershwin, 1926/2000, track 6), but these lyrics may make the suitor appear narcissistic.

Because the copyright date and recording date are different in these cases, we used both dates in the in-text citation. Also, because this citation references recorded music, we use the track number instead of verse or stanza number: (Gershwin & Gershwin, 1926/2000, track 6).

If you are quoting several lines of song lyrics (such as an entire verse), format it as a block quote, using standard APA formatting. Drop the parenthetical citation a line below the lyrics in order not to interfere with the text.

I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood
I know I could always be good
To one who’ll watch over me
(Gershwin & Gershwin, 1926, stanza 6)

If you are quoting lyrics from a booklet, replace the track number with the booklet page number (as the words contained in CD booklets do not always correspond to what is sung on an album):

Janey, a letter came today
And a picture of you.
Your expression so like your father’s
Brought back all the years.
(Larsen, 2004, p. 13)

Reference Entries

Your reference entries for musical sources will have the same four components as other APA reference entries: Who. (When). What. Where.

The information in your in text citations should match the information included in the citation in your reference list. This means that if several different artists have recorded a song, you need to designate in your reference list whose rendition you are working with, and use that same information in your in-text citations. In other words, be sure to cite and reference the work(s) that you are actually using.

For example, here are the two reference listings for George and Ira Gershwin’s song “Someone to Watch Over Me” cited in the section above:

Gershwin, I. (Lyricist), & Gershwin, G. (Composer). (1926). Someone to watch over me [Recorded by Ella Fitzgerald]. On Ella: The legendary Decca recordings [CD, 4 vol]. Santa Monica, CA: The Verve Music Group. (1995)

Gershwin, I. (Lyricist), & Gershwin, G. (Composer). (1926). Someone to watch over me [Recorded by Frank Sinatra]. On Classic Sinatra: His great performances 1953-1960 [CD]. Los Angeles, CA: Capital Records, Inc. (2000)

In these references, both the lyricist (Ira Gershwin) and composer (George Gershwin) are listed because the recording’s liner notes list both. The date the song was originally released is different than the date the song was released as part of the listed album. Both dates are included in the citation. The information in square brackets lets readers know who sang the song, and in what medium you accessed the song.

If the first recording did not list either the composer or lyricist, it would look like this:

Someone to watch over me [Recorded by Ella Fitzgerald]. (1926). On Ella: The legendary Decca recordings [CD, 4 vol]. Santa Monica, CA: The Verve Music Group. (1995)

Here’s a reference listing for a songwriter who has recorded their own song:

Loeb, L. (1997). I do. On Firecracker [CD]. New York, NY: Geffen Records.

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

Griner, J. (Librettist), & Gawthrop, D.E. (Composer). (1997). Behold this mystery. Stafford, VA: Dunstan House.

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

Griner, J. (Librettist), & Gawthrop, D.E. (Composer). (1997). Behold this mystery [SATB score]. Stafford, VA: Dunstan House.

Further Troubleshooting

See section 7.07 of the APA Publication Manual for instructions on citing and referencing recorded music and other audiovisual formats. If you have additional questions about citing and referencing music lyrics in APA, you can go to the APA Style Blog and use the search bar to look for blog posts that address your question. You can also make an appointment with a coach at the Writing Center and bring your work and questions to your session. We look forward to seeing you!


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.