What makes a perfect love song? Is it slow and sad, like “My Funny Valentine”?
Or upbeat and poppy, like “Uptown Girl”?
Or maybe it’s sultry and bluesy (“Let’s Get It On!”)?
It’s not an idle question; more people listen to music at Valentine’s Day than any other time except Christmas.
As the editorial director of the music service Spotify, Sulinna Ong is in a perfect position to observe the latest trends in love songs. “Over 105 million users create their own playlists every Valentine’s Day,” she said. “One of the main themes is vintage sound. So, it’s the real appetite for ’50s and ’60s music.
“And the other trend that we see is what we call anti-Valentine,” said Ong, “ranging from, ‘God, I can’t believe I went out with that person,’ to ‘I’m happy being single and living my best life.'”
Nate Sloan, who teaches musicology at USC’s Thornton School of Music, says that 70% of all hit songs are about love and relationships. Sloan’s specialty is the history of pop and jazz, and when it comes to love songs, there’s a lot of history.
USC’s Baroque Sinfonia performed, for “Sunday Morning,” a Spanish song that is 500 years old, in which the singer says he’s in love with three different girls. “Very little has changed,” said Sloan. “These are very universal and sort of timeless emotions that people tap into for a love song.”
You might think that the Elvis hit “Can’t Help Falling in Love” was written in the 1960s:
It actually dates back to 1784! “It’s a French love song called ‘Plaisir D’Amour,’ that Elvis and his collaborators reworked into the pop standard we know today,” said Sloan.
So, what are some golden rules for creating the perfect love song?
Golden Rule 1: Say something fresh.
“I think it’s imperative that songwriters come up with a new way to say, ‘I love you’ in every song,” said Sloan.
Few songwriters have found more fresh ways to say “I love you” than Grammy-winner and 14-time Oscar-nominee Diane Warren. Thirty of her songs have hit the Top 10, and 29 of them are about love and relationships.
“Who knew?” Warren laughed. “Since I know nothing about them!”
“Are you saying that you write these songs not really having experienced much of what you’re writing about?” asked Pogue.
“Not to the extent of some of my songs,” she replied. “You know, I can write, ‘I could stay awake just to hear you breathing,’ but I don’t want anybody to stay awake hearing me breathe!”
Over the years, Warren has written thousands of songs. So, can you run out of ways to talk about love? “No. I don’t think there’s any exhaustion point,” she said. “There’s only so many notes, right? And so many words. But you can mix ’em up a million different ways and make something great.
“I love coming up with cool ways of saying something, you know, in a different way, and just tryin’ to write the best song I can write.
“People will always fall in love,” said Warren, “and they’ll always have their heart broken. And if you can say it in a cool way that no one’s said it before, that’s always the best!”
Golden Rule #2: The music supports the lyrics.
Ong said, “It doesn’t have to be the big, slow ballad. You have love songs in metal. You have love songs in rap.”
Sloan said, “Whatever the lyrics are saying, think about how the music can support that message.”
Consider the megahit “I Will Always Love You,” written by Dolly Parton, and launched to the heavens by Whitney Houston.
Would the song be more, or less, successful if it was up-tempo? “I will always love you!!”
“I don’t know that it would connect in the same way with an audience,” Sloan said. “The idea is that, ‘I will always love you,’ and that’s painted musically by holding out that long, ‘I,’ over three measures of music. It’s literally the singer saying, I’m gonna hold this note to show you how dedicated I am.“
Or in a minor key? “Now it’s a little menacing,” Sloan laughed. “It’s like, ‘I will always love you, because I’ve trapped you in a cell!'”
Golden Rule 3: Sing your heart out.
“When you perform the song, you have to leave it all on the floor,” Sloan said, “because that’s what we’re trying to get from a love song, is trying to get someone reaching their emotional peak. An incredible performer can turn a mediocre love song into a great one.”
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Joseph Frandino.