Quotation and allusion

Why am I learning this?
Quotation and allusion speak to what Alfred Schnittke calls “the ‘polyphonization’ of human consciousness” in an ever-more interconnected world. Learning about them helps develop this consciousness.

Quotation and allusion are ways of drawing on other music to refer to it. Additional ways of drawing on other music include arrangement, borrowing, covers, mash-ups, plagiarism, remixes, and theme and variations.


The first prominent use of quotation was the so-called parody mass and paraphrase mass in the sixteenth century, which wove melodies from popular songs and sacred pieces respectively into the texture. In the nineteenth century, composers drew more extensively on folk elements. They also began to use allusion to express their newly acquired sense of occupying a particular historical position. In the twentieth century, with the rise of the gramophone, the radio, and exposure to various kinds of music, quotation and allusion became rampant and have remained so.

The distinction of quotation and allusion comes from composer Alfred Schnittke.


Quotation is using another piece in spots.

Example: Charles Ives, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” (1914): The refrain quotes the hymn “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”

Example: Alban Berg, Violin Concerto (1935), III: The movement begins by quoting J. S. Bach’s harmonization of “Es ist genug” (It is enough) (1723).

Example: Eddie Money, “Take Me Home Tonight,” from Can’t Hold Back (1986): The chorus quotes the chorus of Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, and Phil Spector, “Be My Baby” (1963), recorded by the Ronettes.

If a recording is quoted, it is called sampling.

Example: Kanye West, “Stronger,” from Graduation (2007) samples Daft Punk, “Harder, Better, Faster,” from Discovery (2001)


Allusion is using elements of other pieces or styles to refer to them. Allusion to other pieces is also called paraphrase.

Example: Johannes Brahms, Symphony no. 1 (1854–1876), IV: The last movement allegedly quotes a shepherd’s tune (30:52) and alludes to the “Ode to Joy” (32:51) from Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 9 (1824), IV (3:02).

Example: Lennon–McCartney, “Your Mother Should Know,” from Magical Mystery Tour (1967): The melody and harmony resemble that of songs like Cole Porter, “Anything Goes” (1934), which “was a hit before your mother was born.” (The Beatles may have had this song in particular in mind, which ironically deals with the notion that “times have changed.”)

Additional categories

Arrangement is giving a piece a different setting (harmony and/or texture). If only the instrumentation is changed, it is a transcription.

Example: Leif Inge, 9 Beet Stretch (2004), performed by Stretch, is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (1824), stretched to 24 hours. The texture is transformed from homophony to sound mass.

Example: J. S. Bach, Orchestral Suite no. 3 in D major, II, Air (on the G String) (1730), arranged by Kuimonoya Ryo Musician’s Club (2011)

Borrowing is using elements of other pieces or styles without referring to them.

Example: Tears for Fear, “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” from The Seeds of Love (1989): The verse borrows from the verse of Lennon–McCartney, “I Am the Walrus,” from Magical Mystery Tour (1967).

Example: Sam Smith, “Stay with Me,” from In the Lonely Hour (2014): The chorus borrows from the verse of Tom Petty, “I Won’t Back Down,” from Full Moon Fever (1989). Petty was given partial song-writing credit.

Plagiarism is quoting or borrowing too closely without permission or without giving credit. In the absence of credit, the line between quotation and borrowing on the one hand and plagiarism on the other is not always easy to draw, and the matter often winds up in court or in arbitration.

Example: George Harrison, “My Sweet Lord,” from All Things Must Pass (1970), was found to have plagiarized Ronnie Mack, “He’s So Fine” (1962), recorded by the Chiffons.

Example: The Verve, “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” from Urban Hymns (1996) samples a recording of Andrew Oldham’s arrangement (1966) of The Rolling Stones, “The Last Time” (1965), which borrows from The Staple Singers, “This May Be the Last Time” (1958), which is itself an arrangement of a traditional song. Although the Verve obtained a license to use the recording, The Rolling Stones sued The Verve for overusing their composition. The Rolling Stones won the case.

Here is an example of a group that was accused of plagiarism but won in court:

Example: The Beastie Boys, “Pass the Mic,” from Check Your Head (1992) samples a recording of James Newton, “Choir.” Although the Beastie Boys obtained a license to use the recording, Newton sued the Beastie Boys for improper use of the composition. Newton lost the case.

A cover is a recording a piece first recorded by someone else. A cover often involves an arrangement.

Example: The Velvet Underground, “Jesus,” from The Velvet Underground (1969), covered by Swervedriver on from Reel to Real (1991).

A mash-up is a simultaneous combination of two pieces. Mash-ups typically use recordings, but they can also use performances.

Example: Sara Bareilles, “Brave,” from The Blessed Unrest (2013), and Katy Perry, “Roar,” from Prism (2013), performed by Jaclyn and Megan Davies.

Old-school mash-ups typically rely on shared harmonic features. More recent mashups use audio processing to combine wholly dissimilar sounding songs.

Example: Greg Camp, “‘All Star’ but It’s Frozen (2017)

A remix is a kind of arrangement where the main changes are in the production.

Example: Nirvana, “Something in the Way” (1991), remixed by Illenium (2022).

Theme and variations is a form where the variations change aspects of the theme. The theme can be new or old.

Example: Ludwig van Beethoven, Diabelli Variations (1819–1823): The theme is a 32-bar waltz composed by Anton Diabelli. The variations generally retain a variant of the opening motive and the form while drastically altering the melody and harmony.

Example: Paul Hindemith, The Four Temperaments (1940): The original theme is unusually extensive, an entire movement, and the succeeding four movements vary it to represent the classical temperaments: melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, and choleric. The pitches of the melody are often retained but not the rhythm.

Ostinato variation sets, which includes passacaglias and chaconnes, feature a repeated bass line, typically with repeated harmony as well. Although the term variation set is not used in this way, it could apply to many popular songs that repeat a bass line throughout. Indeed, ostinato variation sets can be given pop arrangements.

Example: Handel, Passacaglia, arr. Edwin Choy (2009).

Further reading

  • Miguel Roig-Francoli, Understanding Post-Tonal Music, Chapter 5
  • Stefan Kostka, Materials and Techniques of Post-Tonal Music, Chapter 8

External links

Wikipedia has a short article on musical quotation that has a good list of examples, and it has a pretty good article on sampling. Soundsjustlike.com has tons of examples of borrowing and possibly plagiarism in sound-alike songs.


Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Music Copyright © by Matthew Arndt. All Rights Reserved.

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