The orgasm is the most non-linguistic and loneliest event there is (other than death) in human existence. Pain comes next, and music follows just after. In both orgasm and song, we are reduced to our basest non-linguistic selves; favouring melody over meaning. In the grip of ecstasy, words escape our mouths until we are left with only breath and we writhe and shriek and rattle in our intolerably sensuous states.
The connection between our bodies and brains to music has been explored in experimental psychology for almost as long as the discipline has existed. Pitchfork brought it to our attention again with their recent exploration into musical therapy. It reminded us of our most instinctual interaction with music; how we were sundered from the steady beat of our mother's belly and into the world of unpredictable, inconsiderate, competing sounds. As Katie Down, a music therapist in New York City, states in the article: "We connect readily to music and sound because we are, in our essence, music - made of vibration, which is movement, which is life." As babies, we try to adjust the unfamiliar and often violent soundscape of the world by focusing instead on familiar sounds. That steady beat from our mother's chest would pacify us into slumber and we'd wake dreamily, ready to eat and dribble.
"Oxygen, food, heartbeats - we don’t often think of music as a conduit to these primal functions", Jayson Greene points out in the same article. But I want to take it a step further. If we are music in our essence, to the point where music can engage our primary functions - could music be a conduit to our orgasms too?
Evolutionary science would appear to suggest so. Before humans acquired articulate language, we used musical notes and rhythm to entice our crushes into bed, through repetition and a flirtation which was largely unconscious. Music, therefore, is a form of libidinal expression. That means when we are in the claws of the orgasm's blissed out, speechless reign our body is finally receiving and speaking the language of music. Sex is purely an adult desire because of this since it eschews the safety, familiarity, and protection we needed as infants. Sex is, at its essence, a competing arena of difference, unpredictability, and fantasy. But does the kind of music we play in the background affect our love-making?
On some level, no. A study conducted this year at McGill University found that sex and music triggered the same area of the brain. Similarly, in 1995 S.M. Freeman found that oxytocin was secreted immediately after we orgasm, just as it was when we listen to music. That means, on some level, when we soundtrack our sex with music what we are effectively doing is doubling our stimulation. Although this was once only enjoyed by the monarchy with a group of bemused musicians, with streaming services available to most of us in our bedrooms, we can now pick and choose what to hump to.
Ivanka Trump favours James Blunt, while Spotify found in 2015 that the majority of us are more inclined to put on the xx, 'Intro' soundtracking most of our fucks, apparently. With its insistently clobbering beats and vast sonic picture, it suggests that something is going to happen, and provides us with enough empty space to fill with our own fantasies. Having topped a survey in 2015, it may be fair to say that having sex to the xx would now be as painstakingly self-actualising as putting on Boyz II Men and letting slip those three words: "Wanna make out?"
Nevertheless, there is some science to the xx's sexiness. Dr Rolando Benenzon, the figurehead of musical therapy, found that low frequencies can relax the body, while rhythmical music invigorated it; 'Intro' incorporates both. It feels fast and slow at the same time; its beating heart is steady and insistent, but its surface splits like stretched plastic. While I've not had sex to 'Intro' – nor do I ever intend to – the impetus for this piece came from an experience with a song that is similar in dynamic. During a one-night stand with someone whose experience with women was minimal, I became living evidence that music was not only a conduit to music, but perhaps even a result of it.
We undressed each other, not with excitement, but out of some false sense of duty – like changing from our school uniforms to our gym kits. I lay on their bed, receptive and bare, hardly feeling their touch. Then, Fever Ray's 'If I Had A Heart' came on. I could feel the bass in my bones. "This will never end 'cos I want more / More, give me more, give me more", the song breathed, like a werewolf with bloody teeth. Their head was between my legs, their mouth shy and dry. I felt the shake and vibration of Karin Dreijer's sounds, each little ping prodded at my nerves like the clumsy tongue below. I came in the most gorgeously lonely way I can imagine, and all before the song was over.
But what about men? Do they get the same from sex and music? Maybe not. Cissexually speaking, the male orgasm is unavoidably visual. There are visual cues for when the man is turned on and when he cums, but there are virtually none for women in comparison. Women own the aural realm, and own the non-linguistic world of the orgasm; the world without symbols. While you'll only be able to see a man cum in a Gaspar Noé film, you'll no doubt have heard the sound of girlish, pornstar moans all over popular, primetime radio. The woman's orgasm has been alienated from the visual and symbolic world of sex, so its tie to the mythic world of music is all the more profound. When we cum, we are in conversation with the goddesses of sound. We finally speak the lingua franca of music.
So, is it the women who are singing to us rather than the ones who are fucking us that make us cum? If, after all, sex and music are synonymous, it's not so absurd to ask. Fever Ray's latest is certainly more fantastical and mythic than the xx, and Dreijer seems to fuck the listener directly as she commands "I wanna put my fingers in your pussy". While there are these explicit references to sex, the album vibrates with a creamy and fruity hornyness, in a way that’s more subliminal than literal. When turned up to its highest, the bass oscillates at the rate of orgasm as we're stirred from stress to rest and back again. It projects a fantasy more perverse and more beautiful than any we're capable of imaging ourselves. And then we're back again; babbling like a baby, screaming at life like it doesn't want us. We give into orgasm and feel at one with the music again.