As the Immortal Bard himself put it, “If music be the food of love, play on”. The love songs have probably been around as long as we have, with many species of animal attracting their mates with a humble melody. Love, heartbreak, and desire are all deeply personal experiences, inspiring operas, pop ballads, sonatas and folk songs alike. With musical form having changed so drastically over the centuries, is there really a science to the serenade?
Music has long been a subject of scientific enquiry. The ancient Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, is credited with the discovery that harmonious musical notes are related by whole number ratios. He was so enamoured by the relationship between mathematics and the external world that he was convinced the entire universe was a symphony of sorts. Indeed, in Western music, the frequencies of notes in the scale correspond to the Fibonacci series and the Golden Ratio – an uncanny aesthetic standard that crops up across much of the natural world.
When it came to uncovering the principles behind contemporary love songs, however, music platform Spotify took matters into their own hands to compile a study on the relationship between music and emotion. Working with Professor Jacob Jolij from the University of Groningen and Maureen Crowe of the film The Bodyguard, they claim that some of our earliest formative experiences have the greatest influence on our musical taste.
They identified a syncopated rhythm in the melody of Spotify’s top love songs, including “Make You Feel My Love” by Adele. Professor Jolij describes the phenomenon: “there are two accents close together, repeating every bar. This creates the feel of a relaxed heartbeat, a sound we are very familiar with, as that is what we heard during our period in the womb.” Some researchers have claimed this is the reason why syncopation has such a soothing effect on the listener and is frequently used in love songs. While Spotify is yet to release the full analysis from its study, it’s an intriguing hypothesis.
That said, by no means does romance continue to hold the monopoly on musical inspiration. A study by Professor Dawn Hobbs at State University of New York found that “approximately 92 per cent of the 174 songs that made it into the [Billboard] top 10 in 2009 contained reproductive messages”. This is no doubt indicative of a wider trend across pop music, confirming that age-old truism – ‘sex sells’.