Q: My partner will only have sex with music on, which I find off-putting. It makes it seem like a fitness class and I feel under pressure to mirror the tempo and drama of the music in my ‘performance’.
A: Like sex, music bypasses the rational and hot-wires you to the emotional, and whether your thing is Bach or Bieber, when what you are hearing gels with what you are doing, it can totally give you the feels.
However, the relationship between sound and sensation is so powerful that if what you are hearing is out of sync with what you are feeling, it can be unsettling.
Music you don’t like can induce such a stressful response that hitting the off switch is the only option.
In 2015 Emily Carlson at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland carried out a study that explored the impact of music.
She found that music amplifies emotions, so if you are feeling happy, Pharrell Williams will make you more so, but if you are feeling a bit down, steer clear of Leonard Cohen.
In a world where streaming, Spotify and Bluetooth mean that we live to a continual soundtrack, understanding how music affects us is an increasingly relevant area of research, and studies are beginning to reveal the unique relationship between music and sex.
In 2017 Samira van Bohemen and her colleagues at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands explored the ways in which people integrate music into their sexual relationships, and found that it helped to take them from one emotional state into another.
It could energise them, relax them, or shift their mood to make them feel more or less connected to their partner.
One of the most interesting findings to emerge from the study was that, for women in particular, music during sex had a performative aspect; it allowed them to lose themselves in a way that compared to moving their bodies on a dancefloor.
Other research has found a similar relationship. At Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, neuroscientist Adam Safron found that rhythmic sexual stimulation creates a trance-like state that is similar to the feeling you get when dancing.
Clinical studies have shown that listening to music can ease pain, improve blood flow and lower levels of stress-related hormones such as hydrocortisone. It also activates the parts of the brain involved with movement and dance.
And positron-emission tomography scans of people listening to their favourite music show that after 15 minutes their brains were flooded with dopamine, the neurotransmitter linked with nearly all pleasurable experiences, including having sex.
If your girlfriend needs music to help her to feel less inhibited during sex the sound of silence is likely to make her feel very self-conscious.
When a behaviour or an association is deeply ingrained, it is not easy to switch it off, so the best way to minimise the irritation for you is to try to compile a soundtrack that pleases you both.
Classical or instrumental is probably a better bet than rap, heavy metal or folk music because your brain won’t be distracted by lyrics. Ask your partner to help you so that it becomes a collaborative project.
In Van Bohemen’s study participants viewed their playlists as a form of memory-making — they chose songs that were meaningful to them and had relevance to their relationship.
The playlist became part of their relationship history and those songs had the power to transport them back to that time, that place, that person and that sexual experience.
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