Love: a timeless inspiration for singers and songwriters

By Chris Chipello

“When someone tells us they love us, we may have our doubts. When they sing it, all our doubts seem to melt away.”

– Daniel Levitin, The World in Six Songs.

In his 2008 book The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin argues that music isn’t a mere pastime, but a deeply rooted activity that paved the way for more complex human behaviours such as language, large-scale cooperation and the passing down of important information from one generation to the next.

There are six types of songs that do all that, Levitin posits: songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love.

Among those categories, love songs are the most common and memorable – at least in pop music. From Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender to Adele’s Grammy-winning bittersweet ballads about love lost, there’s no doubting the emotional tug and broad appeal of songs about romance.

Ditties and dopamine

Research has pointed to the release of such hormones as oxytocin and dopamine to help explain the giddy high associated with the first blush of romance – a feeling captured in the soaring lyrics and melodies of many memorable tunes. (Think of Tony Bennett singing Fly Me to the Moon.)

But is that kind of innocent romance getting lost amid the thumping electronics and rawer lyrics of today’s hit music?

David Brackett of the Schulich School of Music, who has studied 20th and 21st century musical genres, says the kinds of music popular with young people have changed in recent decades.

While singers-songwriters “expressing their feelings in a kind of sensitive way” were prominent in the ‘60s and ‘70s, kids today are more tuned into electronic dance music and R&B. “Each genre has its own conventions, in terms of the subject of the lyrics and what lyrics are acceptable.”

“The thing that strikes me is the dominance of electronically produced sound. That extends to the way vocals are recorded and presented, where there are often layers of electronic processing,” he says. These techniques impart “a robotic, disembodied quality” to the music that “doesn’t lend itself to traditional notions of love ballads.” (Think of Black Eyed Peas’ album Dirty Bit.)

Still some pop artists evoke older ways of conveying emotions, Brackett says. British singer Adele’s 2011 album, 21, was a hit, yet “she sounds like she could have recorded 40 years ago.”

Sometimes it hurts instead

If a frisson swept through the audience as Adele belted out “Rolling through the Deep” at the Grammy Awards ceremony last Sunday, research conducted by Robert Zatorre and his team at The Neuro may explain why. Their study, published last year in the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that even the anticipation of pleasurable music induces dopamine release – as is the case with food, drug and sex cues. The findings suggested why music, which has no obvious survival value, is so significant across human society. Dopamine is known to play a pivotal role in establishing and maintaining behavior that is biologically necessary.

“These findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry in the brain,” Zatorre explained.

Unfortunately, the neurochemical high of romantic love doesn’t last forever, Levitin notes in The World in Six Songs. “Perhaps the second most common song in pop music, after the romantic love song, is the breakup song, or the song of love lost,” he observes.

Or, as Adele puts it in Someone Like You, “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”