Greetings, kittens. It’s Throwback Thursday and time for another classic column. This one originally ran in September of 2010, and has been updated for links.
Imagine some terrifying and unnecessary hypothetical situation where you are forced to choose between being able to experience the pleasure of sexuality (alone or with others) and being able to experience the pleasure of music (making or hearing).
The difficulty of this decision comes from the primal nature of both pleasures. The sensations are felt in the deepest parts of our brain, well beyond conscious decision-making. They’re in the fiber of our physical beings, motivating us more than pretty much everything else in the universe. And if someone seems entirely unmoved by the pleasures of either sexuality or music, the rest of us can’t help but raise an eyebrow and assume their parents are terrible people.
And yet, the two are fundamentally different. Sexual drives make evolutionary sense: those who love having sex will probably do it more often, meaning they’re more likely to reproduce and leave offspring. But while being musically talented might pull you some tail, enjoying music others have made has no obvious survival advantages.
Yet it’s a nearly universal trait to dig music. Even non-human animals have musical preferences . Music can wordlessly alter the emotions of huge groups, inspire coordinated physical movement of complete strangers and build feelings of community, love and lust in a matter of moments.
Author Kurt Vonnegut’s epitaph read, “the only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”
It means that much to us. And to many people, music IS sex. A good rock song, many have stated, follows the sexual arousal cycle, including at least one solid orgasm before all is said and done.
We react to both sex and music similarly: in an inverted U shape of enjoyment. That is, the things that are most familiar are the easiest to process and therefore, the most enjoyable right away. But with too much exposure to the same thing, we become annoyed. More complex, complicated pieces of music and more advanced sexual stimulants take longer to adjust to, but can be enjoyed longer term.
But why does music have the same (if not stronger, depending on who you are) power as the most basic drive of all living creatures (fucking)? Why do we feel such a strong bond of affiliation with those with whom we share music and dance experiences? Why are brain damaged people who are unable to form simple sentences still capable of singing songs?
We know our emotional enjoyment of music works in the brain the same way all other stimuli do, with a stimulus evoking a chemical response that we interpret as pleasure. And we know brain development is shaped by exposure to music. We have the fondest memories of the tunes we enjoyed when we were developing as young sexual beings. We recall the songs that were popular when we dated So-and-So in 8th grade, we remember what was playing in the background when we were making out with that total hottie at that party. We pick a single song to play at our wedding to be the consummate expression of joining two people.
Music is sex. And if you’re doing it right, sex is music.