A song can take you on a journey of ecstatic arousal. Is music imitating sex, inviting it, or something else altogether?
Michael Spitzer is professor of music at the University of Liverpool in the UK. His books include A History of Emotion in Western Music: A Thousand Years from Chant to Pop (2020) and The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth (2021).
Edited bySam Dresser
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…