Perfect Harmony: Singing the Love

All you need is love... and music


Love Song Hall of Fame

The media player above samples great love songs from across a variety of musical styles:

  • Opera and Orchestral
  • Broadway Musicals
  • The Oldies
  • For Friends & Family
  • For Everybody Else

Don’t see your faves here? Talk or text your friends to create your own Top 10 list.

A Short History of Love Songs

A long time ago, some Egyptian scribe scratched these lyrics into a clay tablet:

I am sick inside.
My limbs are weak,
My body fails.
When the doctors come to me,
My heart refuses their remedies;
The magicians can do nothing,
My sickness is unknown.
But only say “She is here” and I revive.

About 3,500 years later, rocker Elvis Presley sang out a similar sentiment:

Saw the fortune teller
Had my fortune read
She sent me to the doctor
Who sent me straight to bed

He said I'm lonesome and I’m lovesick
I've got my mind on lipstick
Will you kiss away my cares and woe?
I gotta know, gotta know, gotta know.

Falling in love never ceases to feel amazing and new—and maybe a little queasy in the stomach. But the more the world changes, the more people stay the same. Put some guitar riffs and a hard-driving backbeat to those Ancient Egyptian lyrics and it could be a hit love song today.

From poets Sappho in Ancient Greece to Ovid in Ancient Rome to Spanish and French troubadours of the Middle Ages to songstress Taylor Swift today, the dizzying wonder of romance has always inspired songwriters to put “I love you” to music.

From Desire to Romance

From Desire to Romance

The oldest surviving love songs date back about 4,000 years. They come from the ancient kingdom of Sumer, an area found in the country of Iraq today. The words were pressed into clay tablets that survived to modern times.

Most of these songs—and many songs of other ancient civilizations—sing devotion to their gods or God. But the lyrics are often, er—steamy? Let’s just say there was a whole lot of smooching and goo-goo eyes going on. Get a load of some lyrics from the Ancient Sumerian song My Honey-Sweet:

My dearest, my dearest, my dearest, my darling,
my darling, my honey of her own mother,
my sappy vine, my honey-sweet,
my honey-mouthed of her mother!
The gazing of your eyes is pleasant to me;
come my beloved sister.
The speaking of your mouth is pleasant to me,
my honey-mouthed of her mother.
The kissing of your lips is pleasant to me;
come my beloved sister.

(Eww! you might be saying. Kissing a sister? It probably helps to know that “sister” was another way of saying “girlfriend.”)

Many, many of the songs of the Ancient Sumers, Hebrews, Greeks, Chinese, Romans and others were very flirty and even suggestive. (Totally and completely and nothing like today’s popular songs. Ahem, cough, cough.)

In Europe during the Middle Ages, though, the tradition of lovey-dovey songs came under attack. This period lasted from the late 400s into the 1400s. During this time, the religion of Christianity took hold there, and love songs were sent to the catacombs. (That’s the church basement where they put dead bodies.) Church leaders considered songs of human love “the devil’s handiwork.” They restricted composers to religious chants, prohibiting any words, rhythms, or music that might excite listeners into thinking of anything besides heavenly devotion.

The tradition of earthier love songs survived in Spain, parts of North Africa, and the Middle East, however. Like songwriters before them, Arab, Jewish, and Berber musicians there often concealed racy lyrics in songs praising God.

After the year 1000, love songs began a slow comeback in Christianized Europe. At first, they were carried here and there by traveling troubadours. These have-lute-will-play-for-love-or-money performers—both male and female—risked Church punishment by again singing of love and desire. The modern love ballad can pretty much trace its roots to this time.

But it was the Renaissance in Europe when the art of the love song came out of hiding for good. This remarkable period of scientific and artistic exploration lasted from the 1300s into the 1600s.

The bawdy song remained a favorite at rowdy parties and noisy taverns. But new themes had also found a voice: Songs of true love—a connection of mind and spirit as well as lips and hips. This was the essence of romance, and it has lived and breathed in love songs ever since.

All Kinds of Love

Lost Love and Breakup Songs

Love has inspired more songs than could ever fit on an mp3 player. What runs a close second? Songs about what happens when relationships end—breaking up, broken hearts, and lost love.

When our hearts are hurting, sometimes hearing the ache in a singer’s voice can help us feel like we’re not alone—and let us know that somehow, some way, we’ll survive to love again.

“Love” might seem like a short, sweet, simple word, but it is rich with multiple meanings. In fact, the ancient Greeks came up with several terms to cover the wide range of feelings that can fit under the umbrella of “love.” (It helps to know that, in their definitions, these terms often overlap and have also changed over time.) They include:

eros (pronounced AIR-ohs)—this is the romantic, physical attraction kind—kissing and all that jazz.

agape (pronounced ah-GAH-pay)—this is the powerful, “got-your-back” love felt in a deep friendship and the love of God.

philia (pronounced FILL-ee-yah)—this involves loyalty and trust, like between dear friends.

storge (pronounced STOR-gay)—this is the deep affection felt within a family.

So why should lovers get all the love on Valentine’s Day? Use the media player above to hear some famous love songs that reach out to family, friends, and even the whole human race.



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Music Excerpts:

  • “Nessun Dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”) from Turandot, Ben Heppner, Roberto Abbado/Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra, RCA
  • “O Mio Babbino Caro” (“Oh My Beloved Father”) from Gianni Schicchi, Helen Donath, Giuseppe Patanè, RCA
  • “Intermezzo Sinfonico” from Cavalleria Rusticana
  • “Liebestod” (“Love Death”) from Tristan and Isolde
  • “Love Theme” from Romeo and Juliet
  • “Summer Nights” from Grease: A New 50's Rock 'N Roll Musical (Original Broadway Cast Album), 1972, Polydor
  • “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story (Original Cast Recording), 1957, Sony
  • “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar (Original London Concept Recording), 1970, Decca
  • “You and I” from Chess (Original Concept Recording), 1984, Decca
  • “On My Own” from Les Misérables (Original London Cast Recording), 1985, Red Ink Records
  • “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture, 1997, Sony
  • “Endless Love” from Endless Love (Original Soundtrack), 1981, Polygram
  • “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from United, Marvin Gay and Tammi Terrell, 1967, Motown
  • “Can’t Help Falling in Love” from Blue Hawaii (Original Soundtrack), 1961, RCA
  • “Unchained Melody” from Just Once in My Life, The Righteous Brothers, 1965, Special Music
  • “Just the Way You Are” from The Stranger, Billy Joel, 1977, Columbia
  • “Maybe I’m Amazed” from McCartney, Paul McCartney, 1970, Apple
  • “Something” from Abbey Road, The Beatles, 1969, Apple
  • “To Love Somebody” from Bee Gee’s 1st, The Bee Gees, 1967, Polydor
  • “Never My Love” from Insight Out, The Association, 1967, Warner Bros.
  • “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story (Original Soundtrack), 1995, Walt Disney Records
  • “Lean On Me” from Still Bill, Bill Withers, 1972, Columbia
  • “Stand By Me” from What is Soul?, Ben E. King, 1967, Atco
  • “I’ll Be There” from Third Album, The Jackson 5, 1970, Motown
  • “Isn’t She Lovely” from Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder, 1976, Motown
  • “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King (Original Soundtrack), 1994, Walt Disney Records
  • “All You Need is Love” from Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles, 1967, Apple
  • “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” from Higher and Higher, Jackie Wilson, 1967, Brunswick
  • “What The World Needs Now” from This is Jackie DeShannon, Jackie DeShannon, 1965, Imperial Records

© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  

ArtsEdge is an education program of

The Kennedy Center 

with the support of

The US Department of Education 

ARTSEDGE, part of the Rubenstein Arts Access Program, is generously funded by David Rubenstein.

Additional support is provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee
for the Performing Arts and the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts.

The contents of this Web site were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not
necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.
Unless otherwise stated, ArtsEdge materials may be copied, modified and otherwise utilized for non-commercial educational purposes
provided that ArtsEdge and any authors listed in the materials are credited and provided that you permit others to use them in the same manner.

Change Background:

Connect with us!    EMAIL US | YouTube | Facebook | iTunes | MORE!

© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  
    Privacy Policy
| Terms and Conditions


You are now leaving the ArtsEdge website. Thank you for visiting!

If you are not automatically transferred, please click the link below:

ArtsEdge and The Kennedy Center are in no way responsible for the content of the destination site, its ongoing availability, links to other site or the legality or accuracy of information on the site or its resources.