Music and Sex

The parallels between music and sex have been variously documented over the years. For example, certain music sounds like sex—take the famous depiction of coitus interruptus at the end of the Liebesnacht from Act II of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It is not even controversial to say that all tonal music, even when it doesn’t narrate a sexual plot, realizes a sexual paradigm, gradually more pronounced towards the fin de siècle, since the structured deferral of harmonic resolution that (arguably) constitutes the (musical) narrative of much tonal music dams up tension to almost unbearable levels, before finally unleashing it with orgasmic effect (see, for example, the last four minutes of this). Some composers seem to have, intentionally or not, monumentalized their own troubled sex lives in music, leaving analytical puzzles for future musicologists still debating the ins and outs of their more mysterious predilections. The almost certainly homosexual Tchaikovsky wrote a fragment of a programme for his Fifth Symphony (in which, among other things, a glorious love theme is repeatedly shattered by a crushing ‘fate’ motif), including phrases such as ‘murmurs of doubt, complaints, reproaches against XXX […] Shall I throw myself in the embraces of faith?’. Michael Musgrave has suggested that, in his First Symphony, Brahms encrypted the name of his beloved Clara Schumann alongside guilty quotations from the work of her late husband—and his best friend—Robert. Finally, of course, feminist musicologists like Ruth Solie, Suzanne Cusick and Susan McClary have decoded everything from thematic structures to the demographics of orchestral personnel, demonstrating the ways in which they conform to gendered (and usually heteronormative and misogynistic) sexual paradigms.

This post, however, will not deal with these issues. Leaving aside the well-worn ground of what sex sounds like, what sex symbolizes and what sex means (and all vice versa), here we shall attempt to look at what sex is. Attempting to surmount the pragmatics and practicalities of actual gendered sexual intercourse we shall try to explore the parallels between musical and erotic experiences.

The contention is a simple one: music is important to us, it speaks to us, and it tells us something about ourselves. I contend that there are clear parallels between the relationships to our music and to our lovers; nevertheless, sex is not unproblematic, and saying ‘music is like sex’ is, in fact, not saying very much at all. In recent years, and in not so recent ones, a great deal of thought has gone into uncovering what ‘work’ sex does, what it tells us about ourselves. Exploring some of that research might pave the way to a better understanding, not only of how to approach music, but how we already approach it, why we do so, and what its effects are and can be.


Listening to a great piece of music can be an unsettling experience. The visceral pleasure of a musical highpoint is hard to rationalize; indeed, any attempt to dissect logically the reasons why a particular phrase or cadence is affecting seems to be an injustice, trivializing what can be a transcendental experience. There is a necessary perspectival dissonance—aesthetic listening becomes a balancing act, with exhausting mental elasticity trying to capture every miniscule detail for posterity counterweighing a self-imposed innocence to fully immerse oneself in the immediate present. Over time, familiarity with a particular performance of a piece breeds nothing like contempt, but rather an understanding and admiration of details that seemed secondary, if not irrelevant, first time around. Something new appears at every hearing, as you realize—perhaps through comparison with other performances—that highly idiosyncratic, even atypical nuances of phrasing and intonation contribute to the overall effect, with the result that even more objectively ‘accomplished’ renditions leave you cold; this is what you fell in love with. And of course, you never experience a piece fully enough, you are never quite satisfied. No matter how much you feel or how intently you listen, you always want to go one step further, to be completely immersed in it, to exclude everything but the music, to fuse utterly with the object of your attention.

The sexual parallels should be obvious. The angle to be taken in this post is to align the role of the listener with that of the lover. The productive tension between these two ideas, and the many forms that both listener and lover can assume, will raise crucial questions about our attitude towards music, as well as our attitude to each other.

The aspects of love and listening described are linked by their totalizing drive; what is sought—but never achieved—is a moment of sheer clarity, a bolt of enlightenment. This is where we diverge from the usual musico-sexual narratives sketched at the beginning: while they all explore the physical (or physiological) aspects of sex (and thus, gender), we are concerned with the mental element. There is nothing new in highlighting this aspect of sex—the Bible terms it carnal knowledge after all. In fact the link between desire and knowledge goes all the way back to Plato, which is where we shall begin our investigation.

Plato’s fully formed ideal of love, mentioned in Republic among other places, is that true couples should be completely chaste—whence ‘Platonic relationship’. Despite this disappointingly conservative conclusion, Plato’s reasoning, exposed principally in The Symposium, takes him on a fairly radical route that presents some startling, and startlingly perceptive, angles on contemporary sexual relationships.

The Symposium transcribes a fictional dinner party attended by, among others, Socrates, Aristophanes and Agathon, at which the chosen topic of conversation is love. All present are invited to give a speech in praise of love; after contributions of varying insipidness from his companions, Socrates’ final speech, culminating in the revelation of the mysteries of Diotima (a mystical priestess he apparently met on his travels) constructs an idea of love that still seems radical today. While the other orators praised love as an entity in itself, something to which humans aspire, with a few careful questions Socrates turns this formulation on its head. He concludes that love is love of something, and that something is either absent or could be absent in the future. In this way ‘love’ becomes ‘desire’—a seeking of that which we need, but that which we lack. This in turn gives way to a revelation, via Diotima’s allegorical tale about the birth of Love, that ‘love’ is not in the object of love but the lover. It’s hard to decide whether this means Love—presented by Diotima as a daimon, a spirit mediator between humans and gods—actually is a ‘lover’ (and therefore just an allegorical character from which we are to extrapolate human lovers’ behaviour), or whether Love is conceived of as a messenger, some kind of quantum which fixes onto ‘lovely’ objects to make them ‘beloved’ or onto ‘lovers’ to make them ‘in love’. I believe Plato’s mythology is intentionally confusing, because the result is that the details become irrelevant; it goes without saying that Love is not a demi-god, because such things do not exist—we know that, and Plato almost certainly did too. But what seem like irrelevant and fantastical changes have in fact brought about a radical alteration in the conception of love. To take a present-day example, we often say that we’re ‘looking for love’, or ‘he’s found love’. This is a clear hangover from the idea of love as being in the object: I do not love him, he is lovely to me—or to take a modern twist on exactly Aristophanes’ idea of love given earlier at the party (that soulmates are the divided halves of a previously conjoined protohuman), ‘he was made for you’. What Plato (via Socrates via Diotima) insists is that love is an attitude, it is the searching out and the experiencing of that beautiful thing which you lack—which is categorically not the same as love being the beautiful thing that you lack. Love is not a sediment, the result of your effect on me—you do not ‘provoke love’ within me—love is the very process of engaging with you at all.

The famous ‘ascent of love’ presented during Diotima’s final mysteries consolidates and extends this approach. Diotima shows that what humans really desire is to be happy (this was in fact generally accepted to be the ideal life goal in Classical Greece) and in typical Platonic fashion asserts that ‘being happy’ is the having of good things—of being ‘good’ and surrounded by ‘good’ (this, at bottom, is what Republic sets out to prove). Therefore it follows that one does not simply love other people, but anything good.  Several non-sequiturs occur, such as that humans want what they want forever, and crave immortality; again, these stem from Plato’s own tendentious ethics, but on the whole aren’t crucial to our overall argument. What is crucial is the appeal to the Platonic idea of form, the existence of a transcendent ideal form of something that survives the changes of reality—for example the existence of ‘Beauty’ apart from and beyond the individual instantiations of beautiful things. It is this which effects the final sublimation of love, allowing it to become the love for Good—something which can be found in the love between two people, but also in philosophy. Platonic forms might seem like an outdated idea very much at odds with the way we understand the world, but this is not so. Diotima points out:

Someone is said to be the same person from childhood till old age. Although he is called the same person, he never has the same constituents, but is always being renewed in some respects and experiencing loss in others, for instance, his hair, skin, bone, blood and his whole body. This applies not only to the body but also to the mind: attributes, character-traits, beliefs, desires, pleasures, pains, fears—none of these ever remain the same in each of us

This not only rings true, but having been an abiding theme in modernist discourse, has become a more pressing concern as we edge deeper into this postmodern (or late-capitalist) age. For example, an almost-identical monologue appears in Rupert Goold and Ben Power’s 2008 adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), where the transposition to the digital, multimedia, internet age intensifies the play’s meditation on the instability of the notion of human existence.

Plato’s formulation, therefore, exposes an ontological problem that is at the heart of the unsettling aspects of musical listening sketched at the beginning of this section. The sublime experience of the perspectival clash—the impossibility of fully comprehending the way individual moments are linked together, and the impossibility of memorializing the work as a whole and remaining receptive to its immediacy—is symptomatic of the broader problem of being, namely the impossibility of objectively locating anything apart from its immediate instantiation. Plato’s unifying method, simply asserting the existence of transcendent forms, may seem unsatisfactory, but once again his working method is illuminating. First, someone is always ‘doing’ the loving, engaging with something exterior in order to affect their own existence. In this way, it is cast as a problem of the Self encountering its Other. As we have seen, the Other is never posited objectively, claims are never made on its behalf; rather, the relationship is always cast in terms of the Self’s perception of its beloved. This is significant, since it provides a consistent and fairly secure base from which to build further arguments. Second, this relationship is cast dynamically, performatively. Again, qualities of loving (or, in the final analysis, knowing) are not taken to be inherent—we might say, ‘prediscursive’—but rather come about through the act of engagement; it is an intersubjective model of loving, knowing, being. And as a result of these features, third, the transcendental move is not as absurd as it otherwise might be.

Despite the surface implication, it does not appear that any transcendent truth, any Platonic form—be it a person’s real ‘Being’ or the ‘music itself’ lurking behind a thousand performances, editions, fragments of themes—is simply floating out there in the ether, beyond the veil. Rather, it too is posited as a function of dynamic individual action: it has purpose, specificity. It may extrude from everyday reality, but it is clearly grounded in the human: if you fall down in a wood and no-one’s around to perceive the truth of your being by loving you (and vice versa), is it ‘you’ making a noise? Or, less facetiously, is a piece of music still a piece of music if no-one is listening to it, thinking about it? When Boulez said the once a piece was finished he had no interest in hearing it, or when Webern allegedly planned his final compositions as geometric designs on large sheets of paper, never even notating them—when the pieces were deprived of the opportunity for interaction, which gives rise to rich ambiguity itself making possible the turn to the transcendent—can we really call it ‘music’ as we understood it above?

What Socrates’ speech allows us to do is to keep these admittedly banal questions open a while longer; whilst we may contest Plato’s conclusions, we can reframe his method and explore the ramifications of this dynamic intersubjective network of love and knowledge. We have reached a point of almost total abstraction; it remains for us to refocus our discussion onto sex and sexuality, before finishing with a return to the music that brought us here.


To recap, we are dealing here with the possible similarities between our attitudes to music, and our attitudes to sex and erotic interaction; we have begun to see that both of these relationships can be profitably examined in the light of a Self/Other split, which itself only gains significance under interrogation. Judith Butler’s philosophy, drawing on a range of continental sources, deals primarily with the Self/Other split described above, but from the opposing side, considering the ways in which our sense of self is constructed through interaction with our Others. In this way she exploits a major lacuna in Plato’s thought: as well as being a Self, we are always an Other to someone else. The strict Self/Other (or ‘lover’ and ‘beloved’) dyad, rigidly enforced in Plato, cannot be sustained in reality.

The impossibility of the monadic Self is not an end-point, however, but a beginning. For if a Self/Other interaction is complicated by the fictionality of those very ideas, then the way it is navigated and the way we experience it becomes an exciting terrain to explore. Butler is principally concerned with the way we experience ourselves through interaction with not-ourselves: the body, therefore, is a highly problematic area. For whilst we think of it as belonging to ‘us’, it is also the locus of interaction with our ‘Others’—it is the point at which we stop being us-for-ourselves, and start being us-in-the-world, or for Butler, us-for-other-people (future posts on Heidegger will clarify this terminology). This provides the springboard for a rich argument—since we are ourselves by virtue of ‘that which is outside’ of ourselves, what is the effect, and what is the ethical value, of occasionally, self-consciously, ‘being outside of ourselves’, ourself?

To be ‘outside of oneself’ is, of course, to be ‘ec-static’. And in what context does ecstasy usually come to the fore? In our sexuality, naturally. This is not about enjoyment, but about being the object of all of those feelings we listed at the start—being the object of total interrogation by an Other, being the object of total desire by another, giving up the control of your self-construction in the knowledge that everything about you will be re-constituted under someone else’s gaze. And as for sex, for music. But this is not some lame plea to ‘treat music with respect’, a wishy-washy hippie call to ‘give yourself completely to the music’. Remember our Plato: this is about genuine insight, about authentic engagement with something that we recognize to be important enough that it effects our emotions and our sense of ourselves. As Butler says: ‘Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something’.  It must be emphasized, again, that this is not a demand for a specific endpoint, such as that all analysis be conducted choking back the tears and wracked with sobbing. It does not circumscribe how you should find yourself or what you should conclude from the music at the end of the process. It does, however, recognize that rather than wanting to discover music because it is extraordinary, that the process of discovery makes it extraordinary.

It is often said that bad analysis tells you more about the analyst rather than the piece; if this were so it would not be a cause for criticism, but for celebration. What greater proof of music’s worth could there be, than its call to contemplation leading to self-discovery? In light of the models described above, it seems more likely that bad analysis will tell you more about the external armour worn by each of us to stop the Other undoing us—that ill fitting sense of self that is scrupulously maintained, since even the neurosis of maladjustment and unenlightenment is less frightening than the paranoia of having one’s entire existence questioned. But it does not have to be this way:

The question we pose to the Other is simple and unanswerable: “who are you?” […] The nonviolent response lives with its unknowingness about the Other in the face of the Other, since sustaining the bond that the question opens is finally more valuable than knowing in advance what holds us in common, as if we already have all the resources we need to know what defines the human, what its future life might be.

The dynamic mediation that is love sketched out by Plato, the constant openness advocated by Butler, these are the ways that we respond to the effects music has on us. Do not be fooled, the disdain for finality and closure implicit here is not a licence to lay down arms, to stop short in front of the music in awe and, as Carolyn Abbate would say, ‘fall silent’. Instead, as Butler suggests about sexuality, but which could just as easily apply to music, ‘as I understand it, sexual difference is the site where a question […] is posed and reposed, where it must and can be posed, but where it cannot, strictly speaking, be answered’. It is to keep thick what would otherwise be thin, and to persist in struggling to capture all details, all perspectives, to record them for posterity and to be fully immersed in its immediacy, for it is the impossibility of these Platonic ‘forms’ and the effort that it takes even to approach them that guarantees their transcendence; to claim to grasp them is to admit that they have slipped through one’s fingers.


The impasse we have now reached—after which we can only descend into platitudes—is the final problem, germane to music and musicology itself. The study of music is concerned with the act of experiencing, but also the act of recounting. While analysis of any artwork, in any medium, implies that the interpretation of subsequent encounters with that work might be different, this is all the more acute in musicology, where the lines between ‘explanation’ and ‘interpretation’ are most profoundly blurred. In the absence of any clear content, any truly separable historical or factual substance, music is experienced as much through its analysis as through its performance or its witnessing. The aesthetic and the practical, the ‘ontic’ and the ‘ontological’ (Heidegger again), merge. What does it mean to experience music through analysis rather than through the act of listening? Indeed, analysis presupposes not experiencing—in order to engage in the sort of complex examination, for example of harmonic structure or even narrative, the piece must exist outside of time. Moments from the end must be compared against those of the beginning; we must read the middle with the foreknowledge of where it is going. There is an element of the ‘already heard’ about musical analysis, different and more efficacious from the ‘already known’ of literary criticism, since the plot and its manner of elaboration are, in music, one and the same.

And what of the nature of music criticism itself? Understanding music is different from simply experiencing it for itself. Judith Butler talks about confessing to sexual encounters under psychoanalysis as another form of sexual activity. It is not only through sexual practice that we come to be ourselves, but through talking about it, and especially the way we talk about it—the confessional experience under psychoanalysis is equally as constitutive of the self as the sexual one. Is the way we talk about music, explain it to others, constitutive of our musical selves? And is there a double edge in musical criticism, since we confess not as analysands, but already as the analyst? To further complicate the issue, Butler is concerned with speaking—embodied, immediate, improvised. What we have (implicitly) been talking here about is writing. Writing is sent out, objectified, it has an afterlife totally separable from the moment of creation and the intentions of its author. It is as interpretable as it is interpretation, and if it has an immediacy at all, it is a different one from that of the music it… what? Describes? Constructs? Derrida would say writing is ‘always already’, and as such is one of his models for the human psyche, redolent not of life as experienced, but life as assessed. And therefore music, under writing, becomes not experience or possibility—as it might be in an uncomplicated ‘music is sex’ model—but ‘already interpretation’, carrying not signification of itself, but the ‘already written’ of the about-to-be-written.

But that will have to wait for an entirely different post.


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