Sound and Sexual Response


by Randall S. Frederick

Last month, I started seeing a woman who has an atypical appreciation for music. It’s been difficult to really pin down why – I mean, sure. Everyone loves music, right? Why do we keep talking about artists I’ve never heard of? Initially, I thought it was a game of one-up-manship. I know more bands and artists than you do. Then a few nights ago, she outright told me why music was so important to her. She had just gotten off work – I could hear her car in the background and at one point she was unlocking her front door – and called to ask, “Have you ever heard of skin orgasms?”

Skin orgasms go by many names, including frisson, tingling, “chills” and goosebumps, similar to the sensation of skin adjusting to a rapid change in temperature. It may lead to a shiver, but is certainly not the same as a traditionally understood orgasm. In fact, most explanations of “skin orgasms” come by way of what they are not. Discussing the connection between frisson and music raises all kinds of interesting questions about sexual experience and sound.

Mitchell Colver writes, “Listening to emotionally moving music is the most common trigger of frisson, but some feel it while looking at beautiful artwork, watching a particularly moving scene in a movie or having physical contact with another person.” He goes on to claim, “Studies have shown that roughly two-thirds of the population feels frisson, and frisson-loving Reddit users have even created a page to share their favorite frisson-causing media.” Most of these online groups devoted to the experience share links to music videos users claim “worked” for them. Colver’s claim that two-thirds of the population experiences skin orgasms certainly (echem) aroused my attention.

Dr. Amani El-Alayli, a professor of Social Psychology at Eastern Washington University, is willing to support these numbers. He points to two studies, one conducted in 2007 and another from 1995, admitting that “research regarding the prevalence of frisson has varied widely, with studies showing anywhere between 55 percent and 86 percent of the population being able to experience the effect.” Musicians, in particular, say they experience skin orgasms regularly. Writing for the BBC, David Robson says,

A 1991 study of professional musicians and non-musicians, for instance, found that around half of all the respondents experienced trembling, flushing and sweating, and sexual arousal in response to their favourite pieces, as well as that familiar feeling of a shiver down the spine. Such varied and potent experiences may explain the origins of the term “skin orgasm”, and indeed, many cultures openly recognise the similarities. North Indian and Pakistani Sufis have long discussed an erotic dimension to deep music listening. Even so, [some individuals] tend to prefer the term “frisson”, since it avoids embarrassing connotations for experimental subjects describing their experiences.

Dr. Chelsea Thouvenot of Tulane Medical in New Orleans says she is one of those people. “Music is a form of meditation for me,” she says. “A few years ago, I started listening to music intentionally and with deep focus for the purpose of practicing mindfulness and meditation. It reduced my stress levels and put me into another state of mind.”

What many people just finding out about the experience don’t understand, she says, is that most popular music is engineered to facilitate a response. It can affect your mood, productivity level, and sometimes, your sexual response. Why not make a playlist that you can listen to during sex that would double the joy? You could have a regular orgasm and a skin orgasm at the same time.

Dr. Thouvenot jokes, “Barry White wouldn’t work for me. Maybe for some people, but not for me. I prefer to put on something with a steady, repetitious beat that leads into an intense crescendo. Softer instrumental music is great when I’m in mood to cuddle. Music can put you in different states of mind, which I think brings it back to meditation.” Meditation is not simply sitting in one position and repeating a mantra; it’s focusing deeply on one thing while not letting other thoughts enter your mind. It helps you block out distracting thoughts, like the mistakes you made today or your to-do list for tomorrow. “Just being in a relaxed or meditative state will also help you orgasm more easily.”

Recently, several popular articles have been released on another aspect of sex and sound, the brain orgasm. Julie Beck of The Atlantic has written about another form of frisson that “the Internet has dubbed ASMR—autonomous sensory meridian response. Those who get ASMR describe the experience as a tingling inside their heads, or a head rush. Sometimes the sensation extends down their backs or limbs. It’s often referred to as a brain-gasm, but counterintuitively, it’s also supposed to be relaxing, a mellow feeling. Some people watch the videos to help them sleep at night. And even without the tingles, it is sort of relaxing, if you can get past the dissonance of someone whispering in your ear while you scroll through Twitter in your cubicle, or whatever.”

In 2014, I tried listening to ASMR videos and audio files. While I cannot say I experienced a “brain-gasm” or anything similar, I immediately understood how other individuals could be aroused by the experience. I was aroused by the substance of the audio more than the sound design and engineering, but could still see the merit. I might even admit that I was put into a relaxed state. But at the time, I felt mildly unhappy by the experience. Everyone kept talking about having “brain orgasms” and I couldn’t get there; while I was keenly aware that I was aroused by sound, even getting chills and experiencing frisson, it was nowhere near experiencing an orgasm. Moving away from those experiences, I began to notice a genre of porn emerge. This genre, commonly known as “hypno porn,” utilized streaming bursts of repeating images accompanied by layered music like electronic pop and a typically female voice. These two forms of porn, the autonomous sensory meridian response and “hypno porn” do not produce a traditional orgasm (at least not for me), but may very well help facilitate a profound sexual experience.

“I can see that,” Dr. Thouvenot offers. “I can see how being in an otherworldly, trance-like state could make you sexually suggestible. Without addressing either of those particular genres of porn, I would say music in general can help facilitate an experience. The more times you listen to the same song and begin to make associations, begin to associate that song with a particular feeling or activity, the easier it would be to slip into that state of mind whenever you start to hear a particular song.”

In order to have good sex, one has to be in a relaxed state to some degree. If you’re anxious, you’re probably not going to be able to achieve orgasm because your mind is on other things like work or school. Music, in itself, is a way to meditate or, during sex, keep your mind off of all the other activities you have to do. You can be enveloped in just the music and your partner, or even during self-stimulation.

Frisson, though, is not an orgasm or even an indicator that one will occur. “Skin orgasm” may a bit of a misnomer. The word frisson originates from a late 18th Century word in French for shiver, frigere, for “to be cold” and today is typically understood to mean “a sudden, passing sensation of excitement; a shudder of emotion; thrill.” Typically, frisson is accompanied by goosebumps, which some scientists have suggested are an evolutionary holdover from our early (hairier) ancestors who kept themselves warm through an endothermic layer of heat they retained immediately beneath the hairs of their skin. Experiencing goosebumps after a rapid change in temperature (like being exposed to an unexpectedly cool breeze on a sunny day) temporarily raises and then lowers those hairs, resetting this layer of warmth. Since we invented clothing, humans have had less of a need for this endothermic layer of heat, but the physiological structure is still in place and it may have been rewired to produce aesthetic chills as a reaction to emotionally moving stimuli, like great beauty in art or nature. Calling the experience a “skin orgasm” may be misleading because of the traditional understanding of what an orgasm is, the many ways an orgasm can be experienced, and how an an orgasm is produced. While some generalities exist – for example that more women will experience a clitoral orgasm than a g-spot orgasm – each body is different and every avenue of exploration that we find ourselves on is a new opportunity to learn and focus on what brings us pleasure. Said another way, every “orgasm” does not produce a wild, screaming, slip-n-slide capped off with a post-coital cigarette. Some sexual activities or experiences do not have to have a “happy ending” to be remarkable. We would be well served to perhaps expand our definitions to include the sensual or that which can be experienced through the senses.

Years ago, I had a slice of cheesecake that caused me to space out for a moment. I still remember when and where it happened. Since then, I have never questioned anyone else’s claims that a particular food was “orgasmic” because of what I experienced that afternoon. In the same way, we might say that films and even music produce intense experiences that affect us, even physically, and arouse us without that experience tipping over into the sexual or even the orgasmic.

Anna, a data analyst and musician living in Los Angeles, says that listening or even playing music can produce in her “a sense of euphoria” that feels more powerful than the shiver of frisson. “It’s deeper than just ‘the chills’ – it’s more like falling in love.” When she listens to certain music, there are noted goosebumps, “But it goes deeper, involving a pounding heart, rapid breathing, a sense of longing, etcetera. I tend to think of it as a feeling of euphoria rather than simply involving the skin. Usually it involves multiple layers of stringed instruments a la Andrew Bird or really good bluegrass.” She’s reluctant to call this experience sexual, though. “I don’t know if I would call it a sexual reaction per se, but it’s definitely very pleasurable. I’m very sensitive in general, so maybe that has something to do with it – maybe certain personalities are more inclined to experience physical pleasure when they hear certain sounds or combinations of sounds.” She shared that a live bluegrass show in Cambridge, Massachusetts once affected her so much that she “felt so good for hours after the show was over, that it was the only time I felt like I could literally die happy.” Anna and Dr. Thouvenot both shared that heavily layered music were what affected them the most. For Anna, “Multiple layers of stringed instruments can give me a sense of euphoria, but I’m more likely to feel turned on if the music is quite deep or low. Cello or bass are more likely to give me that feeling, or if I’m hearing a really low male voice, like Matt Berninger’s.”

Whatever produces frisson and sexual arousal for each person is individualized, though there seems to be evidence that repetitive, constant, rhythmic sound has an effect on the human body, producing a state of suspense. When, where, and how the sounds begin to deviate from the established pattern, a listener may find themselves either following along or carried away. Reaching the climax of that pattern produces in the listener that state of frisson that directly mirrors the sexual response cycle.

The human sexual response cycle was first proposed by William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson in their 1966 book Human Sexual Response. Although the book is now fifty years old, I have multiple copies that I refer to often. The work of Masters and Johnson helped establish much of the scientific research that sexologists use even today. In Human Sexual Response, the authors propose that the human body goes through four stages during sex. In order of occurrence, they are the excitement phase, plateau phase, orgasmic phase, and resolution phase. I would propose that this mirrors the construction of every song – even bad ones – by way of establishing a chorus or beat (repetition) that the listener begins to match, a crescendo or swell of sound that breaks the pattern (either louder, stronger, or faster), and then the resolution or climax. Listening to a piece of music, when the pattern (the plateau) is broken, the brain signals a resolution, producing frisson. Similarly, the formal sections found in songs have been identified as the verse, chorus, bridge, hook, and refrain. Folk duo Miriam Davidson and Kiya Heartwood of the group Wishing Chair have written that, “All songs are put together with some or all of these parts in a particular pattern.” Though each song is unique and may arrange these sections (or remove them altogether), we are intuitively judging each song based on how these sections are used in the same way that we would judge a sexual experience. The human sexual response cycle and structure of a song are exceptionally similar in this way and it is little wonder that the brain would experience frisson or the “skin orgasm” as a result of what a listener would identify as “good” music. Layering a song and building a constant section, then transitioning, is likely to produce a subliminal response in the listener which is likely to produce a physical response.

Dr. Thouvenot encourages people to make their own playlist and see what happens. She offers the following list via 8Tracks for interested parties.

Murmurs – Hundred Waters
Thin Air – Anathema
Tessellate – Alt-J
Calgary – Bon Iver
Let Down – Radiohead
Bury Us Alive – Starfucker
Innerbloom – Rufus Du Sol
Untitled 1 – Sigur Ros
Mono – Fightstar
Your Hand in Mine – Explosions in the Sky
Machine Gun – Slowdive

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