Why Music Is Like Sex

Ebony Steel Band Juniors — UK National Competition Champions 2017

In the process of putting together my list of “favourite 30-40 songs of the decade”, I’ve been listening to my favourite songs from other decades (I’ve been making these lists since the 60s). My objective is to try to make sure that my ‘scoring’ from decade to decade is reasonably consistent, so when I create playlists they’re of songs I like equally.

My list for 2010-19 currently has 78 songs on it, and I admit that trying to winnow the list down is a nice problem to have.

I have to say that these decennial lists are my favourite songs that I first heard in that decade, even if the song was actually released long before the decade began. That’s been the big challenge this decade — the explosion of music that has recently become available on YouTube, SoundCloud, Apple Music and Spotify (particularly with their increasingly-sophisticated ‘recommendation engines’) absolutely dwarfs what has been available in previous decades, and some of it, especially the ‘international’ (non-anglophone country) stuff, is decades-old, but was never available here in Canada until recently.

So I expected the 2010s list to be longer than usual, but as I’ve also found I have to listen to proportionally more music each year to find stuff I really like, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t scoring the songs inconsistently from those of previous decades.

That got me thinking about what it is that makes a song exceptional enough to make a favourites list. I put in some time researching what’s been written on the subject, and while of course musical tastes are highly subjective, I was dismayed at the dearth, and shallowness, of the research that’s been done on this subject. Apparently, pop music is preferred by “extroverts”, country music by “conservatives”, and rock by those “open to new experiences”. Really? This is the best that science can come up with?

On the basis of absolutely no scientific or empirical research, I would speculate as follows:

  1. What TS Eliot said about poetry is equally applicable to music: It must give us both pleasure and some fresh understanding; ie it must connect with us both emotionally and intellectually. Of course, what brings pleasure and understanding depends on the individual; where they’re coming from. TS was careful not to say that this applies only to ‘great’ poetry. If it doesn’t provide these two things, it’s just not poetry, just not music.
  2. While the emotional aspect of good creative writing often depends on the skilful use of imagery, this doesn’t necessarily apply to music. Even when a song has intelligible lyrics, it’s not a requirement of a great song that its lyrics, or title, or any other aspect of its composition evoke a particular image or story.
  3. Like poetry, with its cadences and varied repetitions, music can delight us with its ‘track’, its predictability and familiarity, but not too much — variability and some surprise are also important. In that way music is a bit like sex. We learn a song’s ins and outs and may even learn to play it, and as such we gain appreciation as we learn what makes it ‘work’ for us and why, which is different for each individual. But too much repetition and predictability can be deadly, though again, each person’s tolerance for variety is different.
  4. Also like sex and falling in love, enjoyment of music entails the release of chemicals in the body, mostly of pleasure, but also of tension, and of relaxation. I’m not surprised that many people who suffer from depression report that they find sad songs calming and that they help pull them out of their depressed state. The same internally-produced chemicals: oxytocin, dopamine and phenethylamine, are involved in both activities. And you can no more make yourself love a song than you can make yourself fall in love with someone.
  5. While research has suggested that listening to music “makes you smarter” (at tasks done immediately thereafter), I would suggest that listening to music focuses your attention, and it’s that focus that makes you more adept at subsequent tasks. Music can also, of course, be a distraction, focusing your attention on the qualities of the song instead of that tree you’re about to walk into.
  6. Music will often evoke memory and hence association, and that will inevitably colour your like or dislike of a particular song.
  7. What is considered “pleasant” sounding music depends far more on culture, learning and memory than on anything ‘magic’ about frequency ratios or anything intrinsic to the notes or their qualities themselves.

That’s as much as I’m prepared to speculate on this subject. I’m interested, of course, in why I passionately love some songs and absolutely loathe others. So today I listened to parts of 100 songs I really like, selected from many different genres, and as I did, I looked online for scores for each song that might suggest what they had in common.

Here’s what I discovered:

  • I like highly complex music that still has a discernible underlying pattern and is ultimately somewhat predictable. Even the superficially simple songs on my list have unusual chord sequences, challenging melodic and harmonic runs, novel and changing rhythms, and a lot of variation in notes, rhythm, harmonies and instrumentation.
  • I was surprised to discover how many of my favourite songs had complex orchestration behind them — far more than I would have guessed.
  • At the risk of overusing the metaphor to sex, I like to be teased, played with, kept guessing and kept on the edge for awhile. So for example I like chord sequences that involve many complex and varied steps but which ultimately reach a reliable resolution. Barber’s Adagio for Strings is an obvious example.
  • I like chords that have a certain amount of tension in them; in particular major sevenths, minor ninths, sixth+9 chords, suspended chords, augmented chords, added elevenths and even more complex chords often created by passing notes. Neil Young‘s early work and much of James Taylor‘s have a lot of such chords, as does Todd Rundgren’s Hello It’s Me. So does much of Rachmaninoff‘s work. The published scores of some of the more popular songs on my list often show relatively mundane chord sequences, but when I listen to the music carefully, I realize the performers are actually playing more notes, and adding more complexity, than the simplified score indicates.
  • I like variation. In my favourite songs no instrumental sequence (melody or harmony) longer than one or two bars is ever exactly repeated. They add a turn, a trill, an accidental, a hammer/pull, something different each time. The rhythm track has extra or different instruments substituted, or extra beats, rather than being exactly repeated.
  • Lyrics, interestingly, are important to me but not essential. If they’re clever or moving they can add a lot to a song, and sometimes one astonishing turn of phrase can ‘make’ a whole song. But quite a few of my favourite songs are instrumentals, and quite a few others have either inane or unintelligible lyrics that I just tune out to focus on the music.
  • Certain songs always make me cry, but never make me feel sad. Gonzo’s (Paul Williams’) I’m Going to Go Back There Some Day is one. My newly-discovered favourite Eric Whitacre’s The Seal Lullaby (words by Rudyard Kipling) is another. The former has some very lovely and unusual chord sequences. The latter is reportedly hugely difficult for choirs to master despite its innocent and simple appearance. Both have brilliant lyrics, composers renowned for their compositional skill, and amazing “builds” that then back off to a gentle resolution. Both are in 3/4 time. Why do they make me cry, every time? I don’t know.
  • I love the Haitian ‘kompa‘ rhythm. When the instrumentation and percussion are complex and varied enough, it’s impossible for me to keep from moving. Basically it’s various drums being played on the first, fourth, fifth and seventh beats of a two-bar, 4/4 section, about 80 bpm. But not quite. Play this on a drum machine and it sounds wooden, dead. I’m not sure if kompa is slightly ahead of or behind these beats, or some combination, but there it is. The same rhythm is found in quite a few of my other favourite songs, notably Joni Mitchell’s Just Like This Train (it’s described as a “three-against-four hemiola” rhythm and it has this amazing chord sequence: G13, Am7/G, C/G, Gmaj13, G7sus, G13sus, Fmaj9, Fmaj7 ). The rhythm mimics the “clickety-clack” of a train. You hear this rhythm as well in Zairian Soukous music (though it’s much faster — more like 120 bpm). I’m also a sucker for certain dance rhythms. My head can’t figure it out, but my body gets it.

The 2010-19 list, with links, is coming up soon. Even more eclectic than last decade’s.

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2 Responses to Why Music Is Like Sex

  1. realist says:

    First world problem, Eh?

  2. 1in7.7B says:

    The lyric from The Eagles “Already Gone” should give critical thinkers a massive orgasm.

    Just remember this, my girl, when you look up in the sky
    You can see the stars and still not see the light (that’s right)

    So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
    And we never even know we have the key

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