Why we love love songs

From first dances to last chances, there's a playlist for every emotion.

Everybody's got one, or maybe dozens. A cherished love song, the one they slow-danced to in the arms of their crush around the school gym, the first dance at the wedding, the breakup song, the one for unrequited love or for the one who got away.

There's a playlist for every human emotion when it comes to l'amour-an anthem for every romantic relationship that lasts until death do us part, or at least until it goes on the rocks. No one seems sure of how many love songs there actually are (one offering on answers.com numbers them in the millions), but one thing is for sure: we love to love our love songs.

Why are we so attached to them, letting them colour our feelings and memories of happiness and heartbreak?

Because, according to a University of Alberta music expert, you can always say it in a song.

"Love songs are very relatable," says Brian Fauteux, an assistant professor in the U of A's Department of Music, who studies popular music. "We all have an idea of what love is, and could be, and it's comforting to experience a sense of ourselves in popular culture. Music is an important way of relating to others, to express our feelings and emotions when we can't find the right words for ourselves.

"Music helps us create that personal soundtrack."

Among his personal favourites is Have One on Me, by Joanna Newsom. The album was released in 2010, the same year Fauteux was living in Montreal as a PhD student and shopping for an engagement ring for his fiancee. Fauteux was listening to it at the time, and while not explicitly about love, the album is forever associated with one of the happiest times of his life.

The title track of Joanna Newsom's 2010 album Have One on Me.

"Just listening to that album reminds me of that spring and going through those feelingsā€¦. Music is often a way of bringing back moments from the past through song, and that's one of the reasons love songs are so powerful for us," says Fauteux, who also counts the '60s hits Be My Baby by the Ronettes and Wouldn't It Be Nice by the Beach Boys as two other favourites.

The romantic longing of the Ronettes' 1963 hit Be My Baby would give way to more overtly sexual come-ons as pop culture shifted.

There are more romantic tunes than stars in the sky, and that's probably because they keep us company when we hit life's milestones, especially as teens, Fauteux says. "There's something about love songs being quite strong when we are coming of age or forming our identity, and that's part of the reason love songs appeal so much to youth. They give us feelings and emotions to aspire to, and songs are there for us when we go through difficult times."

Love songs also move with the times, Fauteux adds. "The love story is very common and adapts to cultural shifts. So you have the sexuality of love songs of the '80s with artists like Madonna, which is more liberal than the love songs of the '50s." They easily cross genres, flitting from Motown and jazz, to rock and symphonies, "so we end up with many of them."

Love in the time of classics

Of course, love songs have existed for hundreds of years, well beyond last week's top 10 list.

Leonard Ratzlaff, a longtime professor of choral music at the U of A, has a soft spot for a pair of classical songs about love. The language is formal, even archaic by today's slick synthesized standards, but utterly pure in its devotion.

One of them is Widmung, a German art song (set to poetry and written for recital) created by the 19th-century composer Robert Schumann. As sung by German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, its tender lyrics "describe both the passion and complete dedication to another in one song," says Ratzlaff, who especially treasures the line, "Thou art my repose, my peaceful living," and the last lines of the song, "Thy love lifts me above myself, my loving soul, my better self."

"The last line is a such a great summary of what true love does for a person-it makes that person better," Ratzlaff says. "I think this song captures beautifully the emotions of a love that shows total dedication to the beloved, and appreciation for what that person does enhances every aspect of the poet's or singer's life."

The feelings expressed in Schumann's Widmung are as powerful now as they were in the 19th century.

His other favourite, Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms, is a wistful, lilting ballad about love and loss, penned almost 200 years ago by the Irish poet and composer Thomas Moore. He and his wife had five children, all of whom preceded their parents to the grave.

"It's a simpler song that nevertheless expresses love that is ageless," Ratzlaff says.

Love and loss mingle beautifully in Thomas Moore's 200-year-old ballad.

This Valentine's Day, whatever you happen to be listening to, either with your sweetie or as a singleton, it's important to keep those personal happy or sad tunes in perspective, Fauteux says.

"On the positive side, a love song is a good way to connect emotionally with collective experiences. At the same time, if you're a fan of the latest hits, it's good to think about the commercial motives behind popular music. Many of them are prescriptive in their idea of what love is, as in TV and film, so it can produce a warped sense of love, and we need to be wary of that."