How About Sex?

Music does not appear to have its origins in the beating heart or in the overtones of speech. That’s where I stood on the problem as recently as 2007, when I had recently left Caltech for RPI. I was confident that music was not lub‑dubs or speech, but I had no idea what music could be. I did, however, have a good idea of some severe constraints any theory of music must satisfy, namely the four hurdles we discussed earlier: brain, emotion, dance, and structure. After racking my brain for some months, and perhaps helped along by the fact that my wife was several months delayed in following me across country to my new job, it struck me: how about sex?

Reputable scientific articles–or perhaps I saw this in one of the women’s magazines on my wife’s bedside table–indicate that to have sex successfully, satisfying both partners and (if so desired) optimizing the chances of conception, the couple’s movements should be in sync with each other. Accordingly, one might imagine that we have been selected to respond to the rhythmic sex sounds of our partner by feeling the urge to match our own movement to his or hers. Evolution would select against people who did not “dance” upon hearing sex moves, and it would also select against people who responded with the sex dance every time a handshake was sufficiently vigorous. The auditory system would thus come to possess mechanisms for accurately detecting the sexual sounds of our partner. A “sex theory of music” of this kind has, then, a story for the “brain” hurdle.

In addition to satisfying the “brain” hurdle, the sex theory also has the beginnings of stories for the other three hurdles. Emotion? Sex concerns hot, steamy bodies, which is, ahem, evocative. Dance? The sex theory explains why we would feel compelled to move to the beat, thereby potentially addressing the “dance” hurdle. (In fact, perhaps the “sex theory” could explain why dance moves are so often packed with sexual overtones.) And, finally, structure? The sounds of sex often have a beat, the most essential structural feature of music a theory needs to explain.

I was on a roll! But before getting Hugh Hefner on the phone to go over the implications, I needed to figure out how to test the hypothesis. That’s simple, I thought. If music sounds like sex, then we should find the signature sounds of sex in music. The question then became, what are the signature sounds of sex? What I needed was to collect data from pornography. That, however, would surely land me in a heap of trouble of one kind or another, so I went with the next best thing: anthropology. I began searching for studies of human sexual intercourse, and in particular for “scores” notating the behavior and vocalizations of couples in the act. I also found scores of this kind for nonhuman primates–not my bag–which, I discovered, contain noticeably more instances of “biting” and “baring teeth” than most human encounters. My hope was to find enough of these so that I could compile an average “score” for a sexual encounter, and use it as a predictor of the length, tempo, pitch modulation, loudness modulation, and rhythm modulation of music.

I couldn’t find but a handful of such scores, and I did not have the chutzpah to acquire scores of my own. So I gave it up. I could have pushed harder to find data, but it seemed clear to me that, despite its initial promise, sex was far too narrow to possibly explain music. If music sounded like sex, then why isn’t all music sexy? And why does music evoke such a wide range of emotions, far beyond those that occur in the heat of sex? And how can the simple rhythmic sounds of sex possibly have enough structure to explain musical structure? Without answers to these questions, it was clear that I would have to take sex off the table.

Enough with the things I don’t think can explain music (heartbeats, speech, and sex)! It is about time I begin saying what I think music does sound like. And let’s edge closer to that by examining what music looks like.


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