Cracking the Love Song Code
Songs about love have dominated the charts across every genre and decade. Perhaps you tap your fingers to the classic Beatles hit “In My Life,” or sway along to Glenn Miller's “Moonlight Serenade,” croon with Frank Sinatra to “I've Got You Under My Skin,” or open your arms wide as you belt out the high notes of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Whatever your genre de jour is, we can all agree that a love song can’t be beaten.
Love songs and their powerful and identifiable themes have stood the test of time and crossed genres. There has to be something more than a catchy melody or a witty simile comparing love to a rose that has listeners returning time and again to their favorite love songs. Intrigued by the idea of the “science” behind a love song, we did some digging to see what we could find to explain the phenomena behind our love for love songs.
"Most of the lasting love songs are about heartbreak because people feel things deeper when they suffer the pain in love"
"Pining for unattainable love makes for more interesting situations and more interesting characters. That’s why a love song like ‘Stormy Weather’ works."
"Most people can’t express their feelings, so a good love song has to make them say, ‘Oh my God, that’s just the way I feel.'"
"At almost every stage in history, we have turned to outsiders – usually from the poorest classes of society – to teach us new ways of singing about love."
“People change and their bodies decay and die, but there is something that doesn’t change about love. Love never dies. When there is an emotion strong enough to gather a song around it, there is something about that emotion that is indestructible."
Some scientists suspect that the driving factor is biological According to researchers from the University of Chicago, male zebra finches are known for singing complex songs to help attract the attention of potential mates. They even attempt to produce the same series of complex notes, all within the same timing and scientists are theorizing that female zebra finches judge potential mates by their ability to create and recreate these precise songs. Professor Dan Margoliash (University of Chicago) and Arij Daou (American University of Beirut) have recently completed a new study (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-14738-7) that expands on these principles. Past research has shown that “neurons have a variety of channels and proteins embedded in their cell membranes that open and close in complex ways depending on how much current is flowing in or out.” The duo has used this concept to record currents flowing through cells in the birds to devise a mathematical approach to determine, biologically, how well two birds are suited for each other. Even more incredible, birds who were mathematically suited for each other, also mirrored similar songs.
While our modern love songs are far off from nature’s bird calls, it is easy to draw conclusions from Margoliash and Daou’s recent developments. If you still doubt the science behind love songs, NPR has created a simple love song music video explaining the biological reaction we go through when we experience “love.” While NPR is no Al Green, the song provides even more evidence connecting the feeling of love and biology.
A study conducted in the 1990s by psychologist Professor Adrian North (Curtin University) asked participants to describe “romantic music” that they would like to hear in a variety of settings. As would be expected, most described “quieter, slower music, with soothing tones.” Sounds like a majority of love songs, doesn’t it? Since the initial 1990s study, Dr. Sandra Garrido has conducted further research on the matter and noticed a wider variety of “love songs,” with participants choosing songs from across genres, including hard rock and metal. She notes, “So the trick in a dating situation is – if you’re trying to set the mood – you’ve got to make sure that the person you’re [with] has similar musical tastes.”
Even with evidence suggesting a biological tie to love and the songs it inspires, there is something to say about a song that transports you back to a time of great love, heartbreak, a song that evokes the greatest emotion from a particular time in your life regardless of how much time has passed. So, what does all of this mean for the love song segment of music? Nothing. Love songs will continue to be written because we identify with them. It truly doesn’t matter what you call a “love song,” as long as you, and perhaps your partner, love it.