For thousands of years, we humans have used music to express our affections to one another. With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, we thought it would be amusing to mine the Music Genome Project to identify what makes a love song tick. To do this, I’ve pored over the musicological data of 100 songs from two of our most popular Valentine’s Day genre stations: “Love Songs” and its polar opposite, “Love Stinks“. If you’re a budding songwriter, I can’t give you the formula for a hit but maybe I can point you in the right direction when it comes to songs from the heart…
Before I get bogged down in specifics, the data is quite clear about one thing: if a successful love song is your goal, acoustic instruments are your friend.
Over 60% of our top love songs favor acoustic instruments over electric – think Adele‘s “Someone Like You” or Jason Mraz‘s “I Won’t Give Up.” So as you’re arranging your love song, include some strings, piano or acoustic guitar, as all are featured prominently on the Love Songs station.
It’s a different story on the Love Stinks station, where the electric guitar is king. Nothing says “get lost, baby” like a jagged, distorted guitar riff. Kelly Clarkson‘s “Since U Been Gone,” Alanis Morissette‘s “You Oughta Know” and The Killers‘ “Somebody Told Me” are great examples of electrified breakup songs. Our data clearly shows that songs of heartbreak feature 33% more distortion than a typical love song guitar.
When it comes to harmony the evidence is overwhelming. For a successful love song, go for a major key. Almost every song can be described as being in either a “major” or a “minor” key, depending on the notes of its musical scale. Specifically, major keys feature a major third, which is 4-half steps above the key’s root note, while minor keys feature a minor third, which is 3-half steps above the root. This is the crucial difference that gives major keys a stereotypical happy, affirming sound and minor keys a dark, melancholy sound. Classic love songs like The Temptations‘ “My Girl” and Whitney Houston‘s “I Will Always Love You” are both written in major keys, as is Enrique Iglesias‘ “Hero.” Over 90% of Pandora’s most-played love songs are written in major keys.
You’ll get more of a mixed harmonic bag on our Love Stinks station – think No Doubt‘s “Don’t Speak” and Ray Charles‘ “Hit The Road Jack.” Almost 50% of break up songs are written in a minor key and another 33% are what I would call harmonically “non-committal” (not clearly major or minor). Perhaps reflecting a general fear of commitment…
Lastly, let’s talk about rhythm. If you’re trying to woo your loved one with song, I recommend a tempo of 82.28 beats per minute, for this is the tempo of love. Songs such as The Fray‘s “Never Say Never” or Richard Marx‘s “Right Here Waiting” are in this tempo range. If you’re instead reminiscing a heartache, you’ll want to ratchet that up to our Love Stinks station average of 119.68 beats per minute. Cee Lo Green‘s “Forget You,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Pat Benatar‘s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” are songs around this tempo mark. Those breakup songs also feature 7% heavier backbeats, and are 13% more rhythmically syncopated (that is, they have more unexpected, off-beat rhythmic accents).
- Steve Hogan (Music Analyst)