Tag Archives: Love Songs

Genres and Lyrics (Review Essay)

The Lyric Book: Complete Lyrics for Over 1000 Songs from Tin Pan Alley to Today, New York: Hal Leonard, 2001. 384 pp.

Daniel J. Levitin, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, New York: Dutton, 2008. 354 pp.

Review Essay by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music scholarship in the twenty-first century has shined significant light on the indispensable roles of music in human life. In contrast to the dominant perception of music as entertainment—a view saturated with ethnocentrism and unsophistication—interdisciplinary allies have begun to see music’s ubiquity as a sign of its evolutionary necessity. The conclusions drawn by this group, made up of anthropologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, and others, are not uniform and not uniformly convincing. But the track they’re on seems to be the right one, even if absolute claims about music’s origins would require a time machine to verify.

An enthusiastic representative of this “music is fundamental” group is McGill neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin. In his 2008 bestseller, The World in Six Songs, Levitin argues that six types of songs—friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love—have played a central role in facilitating the development of the human brain and human society. In his analysis, based on a lively mixture of scientific research and anecdotal findings, these song-types comprise the “soundtrack of civilization.” In every age, they have provided a medium for sharing information, strengthening bonds, asserting identities, imparting wisdom, and facilitating a host of other actions and attitudes that aided our evolution and define who we are today.

Reviews of Levitin’s theory and its supporting data have been mixed. While most admire his ambitious claims and appreciate their logical basis, some of his extrapolations have been called overreaching, esoteric, and difficult to demonstrate. His reliance on musical examples from his own catalogue of favorites (read: Caucasian American baby boomer) has added to the criticism, as has his nonchalant placement of the same song in multiple categories (e.g., “I Walk the Line” as a friendship, knowledge, and love song). Even so, Levitin has articulated a remarkably sturdy taxonomy of songs.

The cross-cultural ubiquity of the six song-types seems clear. Virtually every song one can think of fits into (at least) one of the categories, usually with ease. To be sure, this is partly because descriptive approaches are also constructive: when equipped with a set of qualities, we tend to identify those qualities in the things we encounter. We are, after all, the possessors of pattern-seeking brains. Consequently, the sometimes-fuzzy lines between types are ignored to preserve a broader picture.

Levitin’s arguments could have benefitted from a multicultural expansion of musical examples and the toning-down of some assertions. Then again, the book’s biographical vignettes and energetic storytelling help the reader relate to what could have been a dry and jargon-heavy scientific tome. Levitin encourages us to substitute his scenarios with our own life situations and musical favorites, and asks us to imagine our ancient ancestors using music in similar ways, adjusted for their own time and place.

Weaknesses in the evolutionary argument and the song schema itself do not invalidate Levitin’s work. If The World in Six Songs is not wholly convincing, it is at least more accurate than it is wrong.

To test this point, I applied Levitin’s six songs to The Lyric Book, a collection of 1,015 American popular song lyrics from Tin Pan Alley to the date of publication (2001). It is basically a fake book without the music, and is presumably meant for people who are training for a karaoke competition or who wish to settle a bet. The lyrics are pulled from a range of material, including but not limited to blues, early rock ‘n’ roll, jazz standards, country and western, R & B, soul, hip hop, classic rock, Broadway, disco, and bubblegum pop. All of the lyrics satisfy at least one of Levitin’s types, proving both the adeptness of his research and the power of pre-determined categories to define what one is looking for. (My own assessment is that it was mostly the former, though a few songs did have to be pushed and shoved into a category.)

Some words about The Lyric Book before delving into my findings. First, the good: In addition to a table of contents, the book contains an artist index (listing by performers), a songwriter index (listing by songwriters), and an index of songs from musicals, films and television. The bad: Although the lyrics are drawn from mainstream material, there is no preface or introduction explaining the rationale for what was included and what was not. It is also a “company book”: no compiler(s) or editor(s) are credited. As a result, it gives the impression of having been randomly selected and mechanically assembled.

There are some predictable offerings from the likes of Burt Bacharach, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Lorenz Hart, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, and Richard Rogers. But there are just as many conspicuous absences. For example, of the artists included in LA Weekly’s list of “Top 20 Singer-Songwriters of All Time,” only six found their way into the book—and four of them with just a single song: David Bowie (“Space Oddity”), Johnny Cash (“I Walk the Line”), Bob Dylan (“Forever Young”), Willie Nelson (“Crazy”), Hank Williams (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and 2 others), and Stevie Wonder (“All in Love is Fair,” and 10 others). The missing singer-songwriters are Leonard Cohen, Robert Johnson, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, Prince, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Elliot Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits, and Neil Young.

Despite these and other flaws (unfortunate typos, uneven genre representation, inconsistent alphabetizing, etc.), the book’s unsystematic nature makes it an excellent testing ground for Levitin’s classification. The 1,015 songs did indeed fit into the six types: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love. Several dozen exhibited multiple themes (e.g., joy and religion, comfort and love, knowledge and friendship), but in each case one theme was deemed primary and the song was placed accordingly.

My examination of the 1,015 lyrics yielded the following:

24 are songs of friendship. These include battle/bonding songs (“We Will Rock You”), songs extolling friendship (“With a Little Help From My Friends”), and songs dedicated to friends (“You’re My Best Friend”).

67 are songs of joy. These comprise songs of carefree enjoyment (“I Get Around”), mindless dance songs (“Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”), joyful songs of home (“Deep in the Heart of Texas”), songs of life’s pleasures (“Sir Duke”), and “feel good” songs (“These Are the Best of Times”).

95 songs provide comfort. These are songs of perseverance (“Hit Me With Your Best Shot”), solace (“In My Room”), encouragement (“Pick Yourself Up”), and regrets (“Holding Back the Years”).

115 are knowledge songs, which consist of morality songs (“Colors of the Wind”), learning songs (“Do-Re-Mi”), story songs (“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”), and protest songs (“Power to the People”).

20 songs deal with religious themes, either with prayer (“God Bless the Child”), theological imagery (“Lost in the Stars”), biblical content (“Turn! Turn! Turn!”), or civil religion (“The Star Spangled Banner”).

694 are songs of love. Their topics include falling in love (“I Finally Found Someone”), staying in love (“Day by Day”), losing love (“I Fall to Pieces), never getting love (“I Can’t Make You Love Me”), the virtues of love (“All for Love”), and lust (“The Look of Love”).

The over-representation of love songs is not surprising given the content of The Lyric Book. The underrepresentation of friendship and religion songs is likewise understandable. If the book consisted of lyrics of another kind—say, folksongs or children’s songs—other categories would be more prominent. But, percentages aside, this exercise in organization highlights the validity of Levitin’s categories, both in addressing a wide assortment of songs, and in helping the cataloguer reduce songs to their basic themes. If American popular music is representative of music as a whole, then there really are six songs—six songs with many faces. And these songs resonate at the core of our species.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Romantic Reverberations

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Charles Darwin included this intriguing hypothesis in The Descent of Man (1871): “[I]t appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.” With this observation, Darwin grouped human beings with other animals whose songs apparently evolved as sexually selected courtship displays. Countless creatures, from spiders and crustaceans to seals and birds, innately distinguish musical mating calls from other noises. For Darwin, a trait so pervasive could not be accidental: “unless the females were able to appreciate such sounds and were excited or charmed by them, the persevering efforts of the males and the complex structures often possessed by them alone would be useless; and this it is impossible to believe.” Without the function of attracting mates, the instinct for music would not have arisen or persisted.

Of course, the forms and uses of music expanded as human cultures and capacities grew in complexity. Unlike most of the animals Darwin studied, human-made music has branched out far beyond mating. Still, it is hard to ignore the enormous quantity of love songs our species has produced. In most societies, songs of romance and sexual longing comprise the largest percentage of musical output. Roughly forty to fifty percent of popular songs recorded in the United States address the topic of romantic love. Like Darwin, many contemporary evolutionary biologists conclude that our unquenchable attraction to love songs—both saccharine-sweet and sorrowful—is a carry-over from the primal epoch when our musical ears perked up at the alluring sounds of potential mates.

Given the apparent sexual origins of music production in all animal species, including our own, it is not surprising that the oldest song scientists have discovered is a song of romance. In February of 2012, British scientists announced that they had reconstructed the simple mating call of a Jurassic-era cricket. Their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, detailed how they derived the sound from the cricket’s pristinely fossilized 72-centemeter wings. The song, which was performed 165 million year ago, was the insect’s way of attracting mates in a nighttime forest busy with waterfalls, streams, rustling leaves and scavenging dinosaurs. According to the study’s co-author Daniel Robert, an expert in the biomechanics of singing and hearing in insects, this type of tuneful chirping “advertises the presence, location and quality of the singer, a message that females choose to respond to—or not. Using a single tone, the male’s call carries further and better, and therefore is likely to serenade more females.”

Our ears are tuned to music in much the same way. We hear the melodious ice-cream truck over the roaring engines of a congested street. We notice the piped-in recording over the chatter and clanking dishes of a crowded restaurant. Even when music is incessantly played at a super market or shopping mall, a melodic line or rhythmic hook often catches our ear, inducing us to hum or tap our fingers. Like the calls of the prehistoric cricket and the modern-day songbird, human music pierces through the clamor and din of everyday life.

From an evolutionary perspective, our inborn ability to pick out these sounds stems from the distant days when our ancestors sang songs of courtship. In those long-ago times, hearing love songs through the clutter of nature helped ensure the perpetuation of our species. Though this function was minimized as our intellectual and emotional capacities progressed and diversified—and though we might be ashamed to admit it—we remain instinctively attracted to songs of love.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Loving Love Songs

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Roy Shuker, professor of popular music studies at Victoria University of Wellington, offers a wonderfully succinct explanation of “pop”: “[It] is defined by its general accessibility, its commercial orientation, an emphasis on memorable hooks or choruses, and a lyrical preoccupation with romantic love as a theme.” The last point should not be overlooked. A quick glance at popular song titles exposes a massively disproportionate number of love songs. This is so of ragtime, swing, rhythm and blues, country, disco and everything in between. Cross-culturally we find romance dominating song catalogues of the South Pacific, the Far East, the European continent and seemingly everywhere else.

The inescapable theme of romance on the radio amounts to a kind of sentimental ideology. As musical genius and world-class cynic Frank Zappa quipped, “Romantic love songs are a sham that perpetuate a lie on unsuspecting young kids. I think one of the causes of bad mental health in the United States is that people have been raised on love lyrics.” Zappa’s point is legitimate: these songs are unrealistic and overdone. Yet our rate of consumption suggests that most people desire them on a deep and basic level.

The perennial popularity of these songs must owe to something. Perhaps their ubiquity simply reflects the universal human longing for romantic partnership. It could also be that these songs articulate something to strive for, especially as a relationship ebbs and flows. Or maybe there is a biological reason, since our prehistoric ancestors evidently first used song in mating rituals. Whatever the source of their appeal, Shuker’s observation holds true: like all popular music, love songs are accessible and standardized.

This two-part character is even present in romantic songs of the ancient world. A good example is Psalm 45, the sole love song in the Psalter. It was composed for royal weddings and is stamped with the mark of convention, both lyrically and musically.

Beauty was associated with royalty in ancient Israel, a norm conveyed in the verse, “You are fairer than all men; your speech is endowed with grace . . .” (v. 3). In ancient Near Eastern cultures, wives—including queens and princess brides—were expected to leave their families, places of origin and religions of birth. That custom is reiterated thus: “forget your people and your father’s house, and let the king be aroused by your beauty; since he is your lord, bow to him” (vv. 11-12). The psalm also includes a perfectly generic description of the processional: “The royal princess, her dress embroidered with golden mountings, is led to the king, her maidens in her train, her companions, are presented to you” (vv. 14-15).

The psalm’s music was similarly standard. Its heading contains the designation al shoshanim, which many scholars agree specifies a tune to which the text was sung. Shoshanim is commonly translated “lilies” and is a stock erotic metaphor in the Song of Songs. In the context of Psalm 45, it is most likely the title of a popular love song, which we can imagine was as sugary to the ears of Israel as our love songs are to us.

It is logical to predict that audiences will lose interest in a subject that is rehashed, reshaped and restated again and again. Over time, one might assume, the topic will collapse under the weight of its popularity. Human nature is such that we constantly crave variety, and we are keenly aware when a theme or idea has run its course. But instead of meeting this fate, love songs constantly proliferate in every age and musical idiom. These songs reveal a fascinating truth about ourselves: even as we admit that they are, for the most part, mawkish and excessive, we cannot get enough of them. They constitute proof of sociologist Bryan S. Turner’s point: “Human beings are primarily sentimental creatures, not rational philosophers.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.