A song can take you on a journey of ecstatic arousal. Is music imitating sex, inviting it, or something else altogether?
Can music give you an orgasm? The short answer is yes. A longer answer will unlock the secrets of the evolution of music. But let’s begin with orgasms. Listen to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ from the film The Bodyguard (1992).
She begins by singing quietly, breathily and alone, in a low register, with those strangely hesitant breaths between her words. As Houston gets into her stride, she stretches out her words with those soaring vocal runs characteristic of gospel music, whose effect here is to compound an emotion of trembling uncertainty.
This is a perfect set-up for the song’s killer blow, when she finds certainty on an extremely long held tonic note swelling at the top of her register (the first note of the scale, but up an octave), with the words that complete the sense of the song: ‘And I will always love you.’ The melodic climax is underscored by the first entry of guitar and synth strings.
And then she repeats the cycle all over again, dropping back down and rising to a climax twice more, each wave higher and more confident than the one before. The second verse is more intense because the rhythm section, absent till now, finally comes in, and she sings louder and with more conviction.
In verse three, she is joined by the saxophone. And for the third climax, Houston pulls the old trick of jacking up the key, and her voice breaks into a falsetto up a 5th for the final stratospheric ‘you’. I remember Houston’s song in the early 1990s stunning British pubs into silence, as drinkers succumbed to collective swooning at the final climax.
When I listen to Houston’s climax, my spine tingles and my heart races. I catch my breath. I get shivers running up and down my entire body, sometimes even a hot flush. I experience similar effects when I listen to Western classical music, as well as non-Western music. I swoon at the soprano’s stratospheric vocal leaps in Mozart’s concert arias, and at the ecstatic climax of a Pakistani qawwali (Sufi devotional song) sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The music doesn’t need to be vocal – ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, or a raga performed by Ravi Shankar gets me every time.
But my physiological symptoms seem to be most visceral in vocal music, perhaps because, in listening to a singer, my larynx contracts sympathetically with their vocal gymnastics. Even when we don’t sing, we imagine that we do, just as we mirror each other’s posture and movement when we talk to each other. The reason is due to mirror neurons in our brain that give us the sensation of motion when they perceive motion in the outside world.
On the basis of the mirror neuron system, the psychology professor Frank A Russo argues that observation of human song triggers ‘a spontaneous internal motor simulation’ by coupling our brain’s sensory and motor regions. So just listening to a singer can make us feel like we’re singing ourselves. I might be unable to follow Luciano Pavarotti up to his top B in Nessun dorma, yet my poor vocal cord can’t help but try, and that makes my head spin and my spine tingle.
Why does music give us a sensation analogous to sexual climax? Neuroscience calls these physiological effects ‘frisson’ or ‘skin orgasm’. The brain’s motor and reward systems are united in the striatum, deep within the subcortical basal ganglia of the forebrain. The upper, dorsal part of the striatum is responsible for action and prediction.
The lower, ventral striatum is connected to the oldest and most emotional part of the brain called the limbic system. A team of neuroscientists at McGill University in Montreal, led by Robert Zatorre, discovered a direct link between these brain regions and musical ‘chills’, based on the release of dopamine.
Dopamine is a pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter associated with food, sex and drugs, and also music (but, unlike the other three, you can’t have too much of music: while it is just as addictive, it’s not bad for you in excess). Using positron emission tomography (PET scans), Zatorre’s lab measured how dopamine was released in the brains of eight subjects listening to their favourite pieces. The order of events is fascinating.
When music starts to build to the climax during the anticipation phase, dopamine pours into the dorsal striatum. When the musical climax arrives, it triggers an emotional reaction in the ventral striatum. This is why listeners experience as much pleasure in imaginatively ‘moving’ towards the musical goal as when they reach it.
Love music has the same shape as sex, widening waves of desire deferring a climax for as long as possible
Skin orgasm is actually one of several names for this effect, including ‘the chills’, goosebumps and piloerection (when your hair stands on end) – terms that betray the surprising affinity of sex with fear. Or perhaps this connection is not so surprising, since sexual encounters can be terrifying.
The composer Richard Wagner knew that, which is why, as a good proto-Freudian, he has his hero Siegfried in the Ring Cycle (1869-76) – ‘the boy who knows no fear’ – experience fear for the first time when he claps eyes on his first woman, Brünnhilde, on her rock. And this is why the musical effects that elicit skin orgasm in music, including shocks, screams and sudden contrasts of tempo, dynamics or pitch, would ordinarily be frightening if experienced in the real world.
When those stratospheric high notes belted out by Whitney Houston or a Wagnerian heroine are performed in parts of the world that haven’t been exposed to that style of singing, such as in South Asia or most of Africa, they really do sound like screams. Growing up in a Western musical culture, we learn not to be afraid of these sounds, and even to like them.