Shakespeare wrote, “If music be the food of love, play on.” A song — a truly great song — can deepen our emotions and speak to us in a way that is hard to put into words. And songs about love — the most profound feeling we humans can have — can touch us in places we didn’t know existed, reaching the very corners of our soul.
The best love songs express sentiments of romance, passion, and heartbreak, and do so effortlessly. When we hear one, we may be overcome with the urge to sing along and, if we’re really feeling the groove, move our bodies in seductive ways, hoping Marvin Gaye’s or Otis Redding’s ability to turn a phrase will set the mood. But what actually makes a good love song?
“You have to be drawn into the performance in such a way that [you feel like] you’re part of the story. It’s got to have that sincerity and emotional investment about something that’s intangible, like love.
Program director, WFAE
It’s more than just clever words, according to Eric Teel, program director at WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina. “There needs to be truth in the messaging [and] authenticity in the lyrics,” he says. The song also must encourage an emotional investment on the part of the listener. According to Teel, a great love song is more than sunshine and rainbows — it must convey what love really feels like. “It needs to be a true sharing of what love actually is. Love manifests in so many ways that simplifying it to ‘Baby, I will love you always’ or ‘You’re the one’ is insufficient.”
A great love song is not a greeting card gushing hackneyed phrases and platitudes; it’s a subtle declaration of deep emotion that all of us feel to our very core. Whether it’s romantic or platonic love, we all experience it, and a great love song expresses those feelings when we’re unable to.
Ingredients of a great love song
The three key components of an exceptional love song, Teel says, are lyrics, melody, and performance. A well-crafted love song lyrically depicts an accurate representation of what love is. “Love is imperfect, yet it’s perfect at the same time,” Teel explains. “It comes with faults, a demand for attention, and with a demand for maintenance. It’s not just freely given; you have to work at it.” Finding that poignant message in what is essentially a 3½-minute poem is a challenging task, but songwriters have succeeded at it for decades.
The song also needs to have a beautiful melody, one that will stay with the listener and evoke feelings. “It needs a buildup of tension and release in the chord progression. Those are those moments of awe that the song provides because they build and they build until there’s finally that release,” Teel says.
The final, and perhaps most challenging, piece is the performance. A song may boast poetic lyrics and an ear-catching melody, but without a passionate, heartfelt rendition, it won’t rise above the ordinary. “You have to be drawn into the performance in such a way that [you feel like] you’re part of the story,” Teel says. “It’s got to have that sincerity and emotional investment about something that’s intangible, like love.”
Our 50 favorite love songs
With those ingredients in mind, we have collected 50 of our favorite love songs for Valentine’s Day. Pop these on when the festivities are getting started and see where the night takes you.