When music provokes orgasms

For a small portion of music lovers, the emotions caused by music are so intense that they can be compared to an orgasm. A scientific study looked at the pieces most likely to provide them, and found Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 to be one of them.

You are comfortably sat on the bus, on your couch or in a concert hall, and the best moment of your favourite tune is about to come. Suddenly, you feel yourself submerged by a wave of emotion, tears are rising, you have trouble swallowing and chills run along your spine, giving you goose bumps all over your body.

If you have ever experienced such a physical sensation, you are certainly part of those music lovers who can experience skin orgasms, as a team of researchers at Wesleyan University in Connecticut puts it.

In a study reported on the Frontiers in Psychology website, Professor Psyche Loui, and her colleague Luke Harrison, explains that they have tried to understand this phenomenon which affects 5% of music listeners.

"The skin or musical thrill orgasm is a sensation of pleasure that is both universal and variable, it affects different parts of the human body and depends on the person and the circumstances in which it manifests itself. A sensation that has certain biological and psychological characteristics similar to a sexual orgasm," researchers explain.

However, they prefer to use the word frisson (in French in the original text) avoiding any sexual connotations that could have distorted their study.

This type of orgasm can manifest itself as tingling, goose bumps or even sexual arousal for the most receptive people. The physical response has been questioned by researchers since it usually occurs when we are afraid, cold or during reproduction. "How and why can music affect our bodies in such a powerful way?" asked David Robson, a journalist with the BBC.

Professor Loui explains that she experiences "skin orgasms" whilst listening to Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 and it was the spark that led her to conduct this research. She quickly noticed that she could isolate the bars where most the subject experienced a similar sensation.

After analysing the bars in question, it became clear that sudden changes of harmony, powerful crescendos and appoggiaturas (notes deliberately foreign to harmony) are the musical effects that provoke the most emotions.

Indeed, it is when composers play with what is familiar and what is less familiar, with what our brain, accustomed to tonal music, expects to hear and is surprised, that our grey matter is pleasantly taunted and therefore produces a shiver.

The release of dopamine at this precise moment is like a drug or sexual intercourse. If this is combined with the emotions of the precise moment and one's own memory, the result is an "emotional cocktail" that will occur every time a specific song or passage is heard: an orgasm that may leave the listener feeling powerless for several moments.

The study also shows that musical orgasms seem to occur much more frequently when listening to Western classical music. According to Professor Loui, this may well be a form of reward that our brain allows itself to promote empathy and social bonding. 

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