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The Surprising, Nomadic History of Love Songs

love songs

Summer is a time for love, and with that, comes a whole new chance to woo the guy or girl of our dreams. Enter: the love song. It’s that wonderful, time-honored tradition that would-be Romeos have been using to swoop a lady-love off her feet for hundreds of years. Or in my case make her laugh and thus hopefully have a chance to strike up a conversation.

But the love song is a serious endeavor. Love songs have arguably been the most popular type of song in the Western world for at least the past 1,000 years, if not longer, and appear in pretty much every genre of music. So far this year, four of the five number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 charts have been love songs (by my own admittedly crude classification system). And according to the Economist, 40% of pop song lyrics are specifically about “romance, sexual relationships, and sexual behavior.”

Known at least in part for her liberal sexual attitudes and for giving the Isle of Lesbos a certain reputation, Sappho was basically the first singer-songwriter

Love songs are a deep part of our musical traditions as a culture — and even as a species. But if you’re hoping to write the next “I Will Always Love You” or “Lovin’ You” or even the next “Bump n’ Grind”, shouldn’t you know where this tradition came from? Luckily, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a quick review of love songs and their role in history, in case you decide to draw upon some of these traditions for your own masterpiece. Read on, start tuning your lyre or sitar, and then go sign up for Oli Rockberger’s songwriting course to start stringing together the notes of your next great ballad.

Love Songs, Evolutionarily Speaking

Charles Darwin was the first notable scientist to put forth the argument that the capacity for music evolved in humans precisely for the purpose of writing love songs — like a very elaborate, harmonic peacock tail. In observing the songs of various songbirds, he decided that we’re doing the same thing, basically showing off to get a mate. For many years, this theory was not taken seriously. First of all, monkeys don’t really sing much. They prefer howling, which is decidedly un-romantic. And second, most early musical traditions we know about are group-based, rather than couple-based (think drum circles or chanting), so music probably had more to do with group cohesion than romantic love.

The songs of the troubadours likely have their roots in the love songs of slave women from the Middle East — proving that love songs are truly a global tradition.

In recent years, Darwin’s theory received a bit of a bump from genetics studies. Scientists have discovered that music triggers certain hormones that are indeed linked with sexual arousal and activity. One study in 2001 even showed that listening to Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier Sonata” lowered the social inhibitions of young chicks. As love song historian Ted Gioia puts it, “survival of the fittest is, at least to some extent, survival of the most melodic.” In other words, we’re all hard-wired to write love songs — the better we do at it, the more likely we are to get the girl.

Ancient Love Songs

There’s a ton of evidence of love songs throughout antiquity — although unfortunately we don’t really have much sense of what the music sounded like (iPhone Voice Memos didn’t yet exist). What we do have is clear references to it as well as some of the lyrics and poetry, much of which was religious in nature. One of the earliest known love song writers was a high priestess in ancient Mesopotamia back in 2250 BC named Enheduanna, who wrote sexually charged love songs to her Sumerian gods, like this evocative line that sounds a bit like a modern rap lyric:

“I will lay out mighty love clothes
I know how exactly
I will look so fine
I will make you feel like a king”

The Classical Age

A couple thousand years later, you started to see popular love songs appear. The first pop superstar was the famed Sappho of Ancient Greece, who is thought to have lived around 600 BCE. Known at least in part for her liberal sexual attitudes and for giving the Isle of Lesbos a certain reputation, Sappho was basically the first singer-songwriter, performing her poems while accompanying herself on the cithara (an early guitar). Here’s one of my favorite verses, written to the lucky Gongyla:

“Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight,
You, my rose, with your Lydian lyre.
There hovers forever around you delight:
A beauty desired.Even your garment plunders my eyes.
I am enchanted: I who once
Complained to the Cyprus-born goddess,
Whom I now beseechNever to let this lose me grace
But rather bring you back to me:
Amongst all mortal women the one
I most wish to see.”

If one wanted to write a love song in the classical or ancient style today, you’d probably want to focus on the poetry first and foremost, and then recite or chant it because we don’t really know what the melodies sounded like. If you want to get fancy, you could accompany yourself with a lyre or cithara, and then of course, extra points if you do it in Latin, ancient Greek or Sumerian.

Medieval & Renaissance Love Songs

Today, we tend to think of most modern love songs as having their roots in the courtly love songs of the troubadours of the Medieval and Rennaissance Eras. This was the age of chivalry and gallant knights courting damsels in distress, of wandering minstrels and bawdy ballads sung by the hearth. Interestingly, Gioia (whose book Love Songs: A Hidden History is the exhaustive text on this subject) has recently uncovered evidence that the songs of the troubadours likely have their roots in the love songs of slave women from the Middle East brought to Europe during the Muslim invasions — proving that love songs are truly a global tradition.

In India, the word raga refers to the “act of colouring”, which is a metaphor for the creation of love, desire and passion in the listeners.

Regardless of the origins though, love songs became a “thing” during this time. Medieval love songs were famously monophonic — meaning there was just one melodic line and they either sang it alone or repeated it on their instrument (most likely a lute or viol). It can sound a little bland to the modern ear, but it’s wonderfully simple, especially for songwriters without much music theory.

In the Renaissance, things became more complicated, and polyphonic music became more common — music with multiple competing melodic lines often without a central one. An obvious example is a round or a canon, where multiple voices sing the same melody at different times. To write a Renaissance love song, you might want to try three to five different melodic lines, whether sung by your best buds or played on an instrument (this is a great chance to bust out your harpsichord). Remember: no chords allowed — just competing melody lines.

Check out these old school hits for some examples: “O Rosa Bella” (o lovely rose) and “Trionfo di Bacco” (the triumph of Bacchus).

“O Rosa Bella”


“Trionfo di Bacco”


Other Traditions of Love Songs

There are tons of other traditions of love songs from all over the world, many of which I’d personally love to know more about. In India, the word raga, which is a well-known form of Indian classical music, refers to the “act of colouring”, which is a metaphor for the creation of love, desire and passion in the listeners. In China, love songs appeared in the Shijing, the body of ancient folk songs and poems compiled by Confucius in around 500 BCE. In the Middle Ages, the Middle East saw a deep tradition of female slaves singing love songs to their masters, which would eventually influence European music in a big way. And then of course, you have Bollywood, which has some of my personal favorite love songs of all time:

And then we get to modern times. Today, we see love songs in every style of music we experience. From the tragic romances of the opera to the crooning ballads of Frank Sinatra, the melancholic longing of folk singers to the soulful sexiness of R&B, the last 150 years have seen an explosion in love songs going hand-in-hand with the explosion of recorded music. What’s abundantly clear is that we as humans need love songs in our lives. If you’re looking to write your own, you don’t need to look far for inspiration.

There’s a love song for every style and a love song for every lover. How will you keep the tradition alive? Share your favorite love songs in the comments below.

And finally, enjoy this rundown of the past 60 years in love songs brought to you by the music makers Collective Cadenza:

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Ian Temple

Ian is a pianist, entrepreneur and professional musician. He started Soundfly to help people really find what gets them most excited musically and pursue it. He's toured all over the world with his experimental trio Sontag Shogun. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrtemple.