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Body Language Lessons From Rock-and-Roll Songs

What can popular music tell us about nonverbal communication?

Key points

  • Songwriters draw on experience in human interaction and express what they see in song lyrics.
  • Many song lyrics discuss body language; these lyrics often match up with nonverbal communication research.
  • Some songs focus on the ability to control and regulate nonverbal expressions; others focus on how we use body language to express love.

Music is a form of nonverbal communication that can influence our emotions and moods. We’ve all heard music designed to be emotionally uplifting, create suspense and anticipation, and reflect sorrow. This makes sense because songwriters put their feelings and emotions into their music to try to “touch” the listener at an emotional level.

But, what about the lyrics?

Well, lyricists are astute observers of human behavior, and there are many messages about nonverbal communication in song lyrics. Let’s look at some body language lessons from well-known rock and roll/pop songs.

“If you smile at me, I will understand. Because that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language” —Crosby Stills & Nash, "Wooden Ships"

Facial expression expert Paul Ekman has argued that there are certain universal facial expressions emitted and recognized by people all over the planet. Perhaps the most common universal emotion is happiness, and the smile is a prominent part of the expression of happiness. Of course, Ekman’s research also tells us that there are true ("Duchenne”) smiles and fake smiles.

“Whenever I see your smiling face I have to smile myself”—James Taylor, "Your Smiling Face"

Speaking of smiles, research in nonverbal communication has captured the process of “emotional contagion,” which is how, through our facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, our emotions can be vicariously experienced by others. We sort of “transmit” our emotions to others and they can feel what we are feeling.

“So, take a good look at my face. You'll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer, it's easy to trace the tracks of my tears" —Smokey Robinson, "The Tracks of My Tears"

Of course, we do not always easily express the emotions we are feeling. Sometimes, we work hard to control the display of our felt emotions, often using conflicting emotions as a sort of “mask.”

“No one bites back as hard on their anger. None of my pain and woe can show through”—The Who, "Behind Blue Eyes"

Expression of negative emotions, such as anger, are often suppressed. There is good evidence that men are more skilled at controlling their display of emotional expressions, while women tend to be more skilled at expressing and tuning in to emotional communications.

“Something in the way she moves, attracts me like no other lover"—The Beatles, "Something"

Body language can be used to express aspects of our personality. Moreover, in addition to “static” physical attractiveness (i.e., being born with a “beautiful” body or facial features), there is “dynamic” attractiveness—our style of behavior that can be physically appealing to others.

“The look of love is in your eyes. A look your smile can't disguise. The look of love, it's saying so much more than just words could ever say"—Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, "The Look of Love"

Our eyes are very good at communicating nonverbal messages. Cues of physical attraction can include something as subtle as pupil dilation. People in love tend to engage in more mutual gaze—looking into each other’s eyes—than do friends or relations.

“You’ve got the magic touch. You make me glow so much it casts a spell, it rings a bell. The magic touch"—The Platters, "(You’ve Got) the Magic Touch"

Like eye contact, touch can be used to express subtle and complex messages to others. There is the touch of love and tenderness, but we can also use touch to intimidate or distract others.

It is interesting to note that we don’t receive any formal training in body language and forms of nonverbal communication. Instead, it is picked up in everyday life. Here is a primer on how to become a better nonverbal communicator.