What Makes For A Great Love Song?

by Kevin Burton

   For better and for worse, love songs are everywhere and they are here to stay.  So what makes for a good one? What makes for a clunker?

   It’s Valentine’s week and love is in the air. Music is always in the air.  Those two are bound to interact every now and then.

   Sometimes that makes for soft summer breezes. Sometimes that makes for sudden tornados, great sonic swaths of carnage.

   Let’s hear from two songwriters on the craft or writing love songs. This is from a short video on www.grammy.com

   “It’s writing about something that everybody can relate to, but looking at it at a slightly different angle,” said author and songwriter Shelly Pieken.

   “A very important ingredient in a love song is pain,” said singer songwriter Gillian Welch, “cause even when love is good and true there’s part of it that’s painful, you know?”

    There is this from the website of Americana Music and Memories, “It must tell a story of its own, it must be believable, and it must touch a life or two.”

   “It must remind us of a wonderful life victory or a tragic life loss that is covered with romanticism and believability.”

   That’s asking for a lot. Many songwriters are just not equal to the task.

   Maybe these things are better left unexamined. Maybe if you take a love song apart and poke around inside, all the magic leaks out.

   Nevertheless I read with interest the article on www.udiscovermusic.com,

“Deconstructing the love song: how and why love songs work.”

   Quoted there Bruce Springsteen said that to write any good song, let alone an authentic love song, “you have got to have something bothering you all the time, something that is truly coming up from inside.”

   “It’s a dirty old shame when all you get from love is a love song,” sang Karen Carpenter, “cause the best love songs were written with a broken heart.”

   Artists on the Grammy video talked about songs such as “At Last,” by Etta James and “I Will Always Love You,” the Dolly Parton or the Whitney Houston version as being their favorite love songs.

   I see why those would be mentioned, but to me they are off-putting. “At Last,” in particular I find unlistenable. 

   Once you move so deep into a vocal performance like that, you stop talking to the love object do you not? It becomes about vocal performance.

   If you’re actually addressing me, I’m listening for something like “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” by Mama Cass Elliott. 

   But then I love “Baby I’m Yours,” by Barbara Lewis. Is that a contradiction? I love what the background singers do with the harmony behind Lewis.

   I have said “Maybe I’m Amazed,” by Paul McCartney is the best love song ever written. But I’m not sure it’s useful to look for one love song to declare as best.

   What I am saying is that instead of the millionth song about a woman’s eyes, or sweet kisses, McCartney wrote about the gravitation pull of a woman on a man’s life.  I have a ton of respect for that. 

   I do understand though that a woman might be looking for something with a little different feel to it on Valentine’s Day. 

   But how to get there without sounding trite? Once you move past the obvious (yes to good melody, lyrics and arrangement, no to clichés, monotony and lazy rhymes) you still need that something extra.

   Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen described it as “the search for exactly the right language to describe interior landscape.”

    “There is something that doesn’t change about love and the feelings we have for people,” Cohen said. “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.”

   Indestructible perhaps, quantifiable, maybe not. When a song hits you it hits you hard, right in that sweet spot.  But we don’t always know why.

    The day we humans figure out romantic love will be the day we figure out the love song.  Good luck with that.

Join the Conversation


  1. I guess the real issue is, does the love song speak to a need in you or does it speak to the heart of the one you love. At Last is a beautiful love song, but when all is said and done, she’s saying he meets a deep need in her. Then the question becomes, does she meet a deep need in him or is this going to be a one-way deal? A broken heart is something that most everyone has experienced, or will, so I can see why those are so popular. Love that truly gives and takes and works both ways, maybe to varying degrees at different times, is truly rare and just sitting here, I don’t know if I can think of a love song that really addresses that.


    Liked by 1 person

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