The sense of rhythmby@havelock
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The sense of rhythm

by Havelock EllisApril 16th, 2023
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The Physiological Basis of Rhythm—Rhythm as a Physiological Stimulus—The Intimate Relation of Rhythm to Movement—The Physiological Influence of Music on Muscular Action, Circulation, Respiration, etc.—The Place of Music in Sexual Selection among the Lower Animals—Its Comparatively Small Place in Courtship among Mammals—The Larynx and Voice in Man—The Significance of the Pubertal Changes—Ancient Beliefs Concerning the Influence of Music in Morals, Education, and Medicine—Its Therapeutic Uses—Significance of the Romantic Interest in Music at Puberty—Men Comparatively Insusceptible to the Specifically Sexual Influence of Music—Rarity of Sexual Perversions on the Basis of the Sense of Hearing—The Part of Music in Primitive Human Courtship—Women Notably Susceptible to the Specifically Sexual Influence of Music and the Voice. The sense of rhythm—on which it may be said that the sensory exciting effects of hearing, including music, finally rest—may probably be regarded as a fundamental quality of neuro-muscular tissue. Not only are the chief physiological functions of the body, like the circulation and the respiration, definitely rhythmical, but our senses insist on imparting a rhythmic grouping even to an absolutely uniform succession of sensations. It seems probable, although this view is still liable to be disputed, that this rhythm is the result of kinæsthetic sensations,—sensations arising from movement or tension started reflexly in the muscles by the external stimuli,—impressing themselves on the sensations that are thus grouped.[86] We may thus say, with Wilks, that music appears to have had its origin in muscular action.
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Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 4 by Havelock Ellis is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. HEARING I


The Physiological Basis of Rhythm—Rhythm as a Physiological Stimulus—The Intimate Relation of Rhythm to Movement—The Physiological Influence of Music on Muscular Action, Circulation, Respiration, etc.—The Place of Music in Sexual Selection among the Lower Animals—Its Comparatively Small Place in Courtship among Mammals—The Larynx and Voice in Man—The Significance of the Pubertal Changes—Ancient Beliefs Concerning the Influence of Music in Morals, Education, and Medicine—Its Therapeutic Uses—Significance of the Romantic Interest in Music at Puberty—Men Comparatively Insusceptible to the Specifically Sexual Influence of Music—Rarity of Sexual Perversions on the Basis of the Sense of Hearing—The Part of Music in Primitive Human Courtship—Women Notably Susceptible to the Specifically Sexual Influence of Music and the Voice.

The sense of rhythm—on which it may be said that the sensory exciting effects of hearing, including music, finally rest—may probably be regarded as a fundamental quality of neuro-muscular tissue. Not only are the chief physiological functions of the body, like the circulation and the respiration, definitely rhythmical, but our senses insist on imparting a rhythmic grouping even to an absolutely uniform succession of sensations. It seems probable, although this view is still liable to be disputed, that this rhythm is the result of kinæsthetic sensations,—sensations arising from movement or tension started reflexly in the muscles by the external stimuli,—impressing themselves on the sensations that are thus grouped. We may thus say, with Wilks, that music appears to have had its origin in muscular action.

Whatever its exact origin may be, rhythm is certainly very deeply impressed on our organisms. The result is that, whatever lends itself to the neuro-muscular rhythmical tendency of our organisms, whatever tends still further to heighten and develop that rhythmical tendency, exerts upon us a very decidedly stimulating and exciting influence.

All muscular action being stimulated by rhythm, in its simple form or in its more developed form as music, rhythm is a stimulant to work. It has even been argued by Bücher and by Wundt[88] that human song had its chief or exclusive origin in rhythmical vocal accompaniments to systematized work. This view cannot, however, be maintained; systematized work can scarcely be said to exist, even to-day, among most very primitive races; it is much more probable that rhythmical song arose at a period antecedent to the origin of systematized work, in the primitive military, religious, and erotic dances, such as exist in a highly developed degree among the Australians and other savage races who have not evolved co-ordinated systematic labor. There can, however, be no doubt that as soon as systematic work appears the importance of vocal rhythm in stimulating its energy is at once everywhere recognized. Bücher has brought together innumerable examples of this association, and in the march music of soldiers and the heaving and hoisting songs of sailors we have instances that have universally persisted into civilization, although in civilization the rhythmical stimulation of work, physiologically sound as is its basis, tends to die out. Even in the laboratory the influence of simple rhythm in increasing the output of work may be demonstrated; and Féré found with the ergograph that a rhythmical grouping of the movements caused an increase of energy which often more than compensated the loss of time caused by the rhythm.[89]

Rhythm is the most primitive element of music, and the most fundamental. Wallaschek, in his book on Primitive Music, and most other writers on the subject are agreed on this point. "Rhythm," remarks an American anthropologist,[90] "naturally precedes the development of any fine perception of differences in pitch, of time-quality, or of tonality. Almost, if not all, Indian songs," he adds, "are as strictly developed out of modified repetitions of a motive as are the movements of a Mozart or a Beethoven symphony." "In all primitive music," asserts Alice C. Fletcher,[91] "rhythm is strongly developed. The pulsations of the drum and the sharp crash of the rattles are thrown against each other and against the voice, so that it would seem that the pleasure derived by the performers lay not so much in the tonality of the song as in the measured sounds arrayed in contesting rhythm, and which by their clash start the nerves and spur the body to action, for the voice which alone carries the tone is often subordinated and treated as an additional instrument." Groos points out that a melody gives us the essential impression of a voice that dances;[92] it is a translation of spatial movement into sound, and, as we shall see, its physiological action on the organism is a reflection of that which, as we have elsewhere found,[93] dancing itself produces, and thus resembles that produced by the sight of movement. Dancing, music, and poetry were primitively so closely allied as to be almost identical; they were still inseparable among the early Greeks. The refrains in our English ballads indicate the dancer's part in them. The technical use of the word "foot" in metrical matters still persists to show that a poem is fundamentally a dance.

Aristotle seems to have first suggested that rhythm and melodies are motions, as actions are motions, and therefore signs of feeling. "All melodies are motions," says Helmholtz. "Graceful rapidity, gravel procession, quiet advance, wild leaping, all these different characters of motion and a thousand others can be represented by successions of tones. And as music expresses these motions it gives an expression also to those mental conditions which naturally evoke similar motions, whether of the body and the voice, or of the thinking and feeling principle itself." (Helmholtz, On the Sensations of Tone, translated by A. J. Ellis, 1885, p. 250.)

From another point of view the motor stimulus of music has been emphasized by Cyples: "Music connects with the only sense that can be perfectly manipulated. Its emotional charm has struck men as a great mystery. There appears to be no doubt whatever that it gets all the marvelous effects it has beyond the mere pleasing of the ear, from its random, but multitudinous summonses of the efferent activity, which at its vague challenges stirs unceasingly in faintly tumultuous irrelevancy. In this way, music arouses aimlessly, but splendidly, the sheer, as yet unfulfilled, potentiality within us." (W. Copies, The Process of Human Experience, p. 743.)

The fundamental element of transformed motion in music has been well brought out in a suggestive essay by Goblot ("La Musique Descriptive," Revue Philosophique, July, 1901): "Sung or played, melody figures to the ear a successive design, a moving arabesque. We talk of ascending and descending the gamut, of high notes or low notes; the; higher voice of woman is called soprano, or above, the deeper voice of man is called bass. Grave tones were so called by the Greeks because they seemed heavy and to incline downward. Sounds seem to be subject to the action of gravity; so that some rise and others fall. Baudelaire, speaking of the prelude to Lohengrin, remarks: 'I felt myself delivered from the bonds of weight.' And when Wagner sought to represent, in the highest regions of celestial space, the apparition of the angels bearing the Holy Grail to earth, he uses very high notes, and a kind of chorus played exclusively by the violins, divided into eight parts, in the highest notes of their register. The descent to earth of the celestial choir is rendered by lower and lower notes, the progressive disappearance of which represents the reascension to the ethereal regions.

"Sounds seem to rise and fall; that is a fact. It is difficult to explain it. Some have seen in it a habit derived from the usual notation by which the height of the note corresponds to its height in the score. But the impression is too deep and general to be explained by so superficial and recent a cause. It has been suggested also that high notes are generally produced by small and light bodies, low notes by heavy bodies. But that is not always true. It has been said, again, that high notes in nature are usually produced by highly placed objects, while low notes arise from caves and low placed regions. But the thunder is heard in the sky, and the murmur of a spring or the song of a cricket arise from the earth. In the human voice, again, it is said, the low notes seem to resound in the chest, high notes in the head. All this is unsatisfactory. We cannot explain by such coarse analogies an impression which is very precise, and more sensible (this fact has its importance) for an interval of half a tone than for an interval of an octave. It is probable that the true explanation is to be found in the still little understood connection between the elements of our nervous apparatus.

"Nearly all our emotions tend to produce movement. But education renders us economical of our acts. Most of these movements are repressed, especially in the adult and civilized man, as harmful, dangerous, or merely useless. Some are not completed, others are reduced to a faint incitation which externally is scarcely perceptible. Enough remain to constitute all that is expressive in our gestures, physiognomy, and attitudes. Melodic intervals possess in a high degree this property of provoking impulses of movement, which, even when repressed, leave behind internal sensations and motor images. It would be possible to study these facts experimentally if we had at our disposition a human being who, while retaining his sensations and their motor reactions, was by special circumstances rendered entirely spontaneous like a sensitive automaton, whose movements were neither intentionally produced nor intentionally repressed. In this way, melodic intervals in a hypnotized subject might be very instructive."

A number of experiments of the kind desired by Goblot had already been made by A. de Rochas in a book, copiously illustrated by very numerous instantaneous photographs, entitled Les Sentiments, la Musique et la Geste, 1900. Chapter III. De Rochas experimented on a single subject, Lina, formerly a model, who was placed in a condition of slight hypnosis, when various simple fragments of music were performed: recitatives, popular airs, and more especially national dances, often from remote parts of the world. The subject's gestures were exceedingly marked and varied in accordance with the character of the music. It was found that she often imitated with considerable precision the actual gestures of dances she could never have seen. The same music always evoked the same gestures, as was shown by instantaneous photographs. This subject, stated to be a chaste and well-behaved girl, exhibited no indications of definite sexual emotion under the influence of any kind of music. Some account is given in the same volume of other hypnotic experiments with music which were also negative as regards specific sexual phenomena.

It must be noted that, as a physiological stimulus, a single musical note is effective, even apart from rhythm, as is well shown by Féré's experiments with the dynamometer and the ergograph.[94] It is, however, the influence of music on muscular work which has been most frequently investigated, and both on brief efforts with the dynamometer and prolonged work with the ergograph it has been found to exert a stimulating influence. Thus, Scripture found that, while his own maximum thumb and finger grip with the dynamometer is 8 pounds, when the giant's motive from Wagner's Rheingold is played it rises to 8¾ pounds.[95] With the ergograph Tarchanoff found that lively music, in nervously sensitive persons, will temporarily cause the disappearance of fatigue, though slow music in a minor key had an opposite effect.[96] The varying influence on work with the ergograph of different musical intervals and different keys has been carefully studied by Féré with many interesting results. There was a very considerable degree of constancy in the results. Discords were depressing; most, but not all, major keys were stimulating; and most, but not all, minor keys depressing. In states of fatigue, however, the minor keys were more stimulating than the major, an interesting result in harmony with that stimulating influence of various painful emotions in states of organic fatigue which we have elsewhere encountered when investigating sadism.[97] "Our musical culture," Féré remarks, "only renders more perceptible to us the unconscious relationships which exist between musical art and our organisms. Those whom we consider more endowed in this respect have a deeper penetration of the phenomena accomplished within them; they feel more profoundly the marvelous reactions between the organism and the principles of musical art, they experience more strongly that art is within them."[98] Both the higher and the lower muscular processes, the voluntary and the involuntary, are stimulated by music. Darlington and Talbot, in Titchener's laboratory at Cornell University, found that the estimation of relative weights was aided by music.[99] Lombard found, when investigating the normal variations in the knee-jerk, that involuntary reflex processes are always reinforced by music; a military band playing a lively march caused the knee-jerk to increase at the loud passages and to diminish at the soft passages, while remaining always above the normal level.[100]

With this stimulating influence of rhythm and music on the neuro-muscular system—which may or may not be direct—there is a concomitant influence on the circulatory and breathing apparatus. During recent years a great many experiments have been made on man and animals bearing on the effects of music on the heart and respiration. Perhaps the earliest of these were carried out by the Russian physiologist Dogiel in 1880.[101] His methods were perhaps defective and his results, at all events as regards man, uncertain, but in animals the force and rapidity of the heart were markedly increased. Subsequent investigations have shown very clearly the influence of music on the circulatory and respiratory systems in man as well as in animals. That music has an apparently direct influence on the circulation of the brain is shown by the observations of Patrizi on a youth who had received a severe wound of the head which had removed a large portion of the skull wall. The stimulus of melody produced an immediate increase in the afflux of blood to the brain.[102]

In Germany the question was investigated at about the same time by Mentz.[103] Observing the pulse with a sphygmograph and Marey tambour he found distinct evidence of an effect on the heart; when attention was given to the music the pulse was quickened, in the absence of attention it was slowed; Mentz also found that pleasurable sensations tended to slow the pulse and disagreeable ones to quicken it.

Binet and Courtier made an elaborate series of experiments on the action of music on the respiration (with the double pneumograph), the heart, and the capillary circulation (with the plethysmograph of Hallion and Comte) on a single subject, a man very sensitive to music and himself a cultured musician. Simple musical sounds with no emotional content accelerated the respiration without changing its regularity or amplitude. Musical fragments, mostly sung, usually well known to the subject, and having an emotional effect on him, produced respiratory irregularity either in amplitude or rapidity of breathing, in two-thirds of the trials. Exciting music, such as military marches, accelerated the breathing more than sad melodies, but the intensity of the excitation had an effect at least as great as its quality, for intense excitations always produced both quickened and deeper breathing. The heart was quickened in harmony with the quickened breathing. Neither breathing nor heart was ever slowed. As regards the capillary pulsation, an influence was exerted chiefly, if not exclusively, by gay and exciting melodies, which produced a shrinking. Throughout the experiments it was found that the most profound physiological effects were exerted by those pieces which the subject found to be most emotional in their influence on him.[104]

Guibaud studied the question on a number of subjects, confirming and extending the conclusions of Binet and Courtier. He found that the reactions of different individuals varied, but that for the same individual reactions were constant. Circulatory reaction was more often manifest than respiratory reaction. The latter might be either a simultaneous modification of depth and of rapidity or of either of these. The circulatory reaction was a peripheral vasoconstriction with diminished fullness of pulse and slight acceleration of cardiac rhythm; there was never any distinct slowing of heart under the influence of music. Guibaud remarks that when people say they feel a shudder at some passage of music, this sensation of cold finds its explanation in the production of a peripheral vasoconstriction which may be registered by the plethysmograph.[105]

Since music thus directly and powerfully affects the chief vital processes, it is not surprising that it should indirectly influence various viscera and functions. As Tarchanoff and others have demonstrated, it affects the skin, increasing the perspiration; it may produce a tendency to tears; it sometimes produces desire to urinate, or even actual urination, as in Scaliger's case of the Gascon gentleman who was always thus affected on hearing the bagpipes. In dogs it has been shown by Tarchanoff and Wartanoff that auditory stimulation increases the consumption of oxygen 20 per cent., and the elimination of carbonic acid 17 per cent.

In addition to the effects of musical sound already mentioned, it may be added that, as Epstein, of Berne, has shown,[106] the other senses are stimulated under the influence of sound, and notably there is an increase in acuteness of vision which may be experimentally demonstrated. It is probable that this effect of music in heightening the impressions received by the other senses is of considerable significance from our present point of view.

Why are musical tones in a certain order and rhythm pleasurable? asked Darwin in The Descent of Man, and he concluded that the question was insoluble. We see that, in reality, whatever the ultimate answer may be, the immediate reason is quite simple. Pleasure is a condition of slight and diffused stimulation, in which the heart and breathing are faintly excited, the neuro-muscular system receives additional tone, the viscera gently stirred, the skin activity increased; and certain combinations of musical notes and intervals act as a physiological stimulus in producing these effects.[107]

Among animals of all kinds, from insects upward, this physiological action appears to exist, for among nearly all of them certain sounds are agreeable and attractive, and other sounds indifferent and disagreeable. It appears that insects of quite different genera show much appreciation of the song of the Cicada.[108] Birds show intense interest in the singing of good performers even of other species. Experiments among a variety of animals in the Zoölogical Gardens with performances on various instruments showed that with the exception of seals none were indifferent, and all felt a discord as offensive. Many animals showed marked likes and dislikes; thus, a tiger, who was obviously soothed by the violin, was infuriated by the piccolo; the violin and the flute were preferred by most animals.[109]

Most persons have probably had occasion to observe the susceptibility of dogs to music. It may here suffice to give one personal observation. A dog (of mixed breed, partly collie), very well known to me, on hearing a nocturne of Chopin, whined and howled, especially at the more pathetic passages, once or twice catching and drawing out the actual note played; he panted, walked about anxiously, and now and then placed his head on the player's lap. When the player proceeded to a more cheerful piece by Grieg, the dog at once became indifferent, sat down, yawned, and scratched himself; but as soon as the player returned once more to the nocturne the dog at once repeated his accompaniment.

There can be no doubt that among a very large number of animals of most various classes, more especially among insects and birds, the attraction of music is supported and developed on the basis of sexual attraction, the musical notes emitted serving as a sexual lure to the other sex. The evidence on this point was carefully investigated by Darwin on a very wide basis.[110] It has been questioned, some writers preferring to adopt the view of Herbert Spencer,[111] that the singing of birds is due to "overflow of energy," the relation between courtship and singing being merely "a relation of concomitance." This view is no longer tenable; whatever the precise origin of the musical notes of animals may be,—and it is not necessary to suppose that sexual attraction had a large part in their first rudimentary beginnings,—there can now be little doubt that musical sounds, and, among birds, singing, play a very large part indeed in bringing the male and the female together.[112] Usually, it would appear, it is the performance of the male that attracts the female; it is only among very simple and primitive musicians, like some insects, that the female thus attracts the male.[113] The fact that it is nearly always one sex only that is thus musically gifted should alone have sufficed to throw suspicion on any but a sexual solution of this problem of animal song.

It is, however, an exceedingly remarkable fact that, although among insects and lower vertebrates the sexual influence of music is so large, and although among mammals and predominantly in man the emotional and æsthetic influence of music is so great, yet neither in man nor any of the higher mammals has music been found to exert a predominant sexual influence, or even in most cases any influence at all. Darwin, while calling attention to the fact that the males of most species of mammals use their vocal powers chiefly, and sometimes exclusively, during the breeding-season, adds that "it is a surprising fact that we have not as yet any good evidence that these organs are used by male mammals to charm the female."[114] From a very different standpoint, Féré, in studying the pathology of the human sexual instinct in the light of a very full knowledge of the available evidence, states that he knows of no detailed observations showing the existence of any morbid sexual perversions based on the sense of hearing, either in reference to the human voice or to instrumental music.[115]

When, however, we consider that not only in the animals most nearly related to man, but in man himself, the larynx and the voice undergo a marked sexual differentiation at puberty, it is difficult not to believe that this change has an influence on sexual selection and sexual psychology. At puberty there is a slight hyperæmia of the larynx, accompanied by rapid development alike of the larynx itself and of the vocal cords, which become larger and thicker, while there is an associated change in the voice, which deepens. All these changes are very slight in girls, but very pronounced in boys, whose voices are said to "break" and then become lower by at least an octave. The feminine larynx at puberty only increases in the proportion of 5 to 7, but the masculine larynx in the proportion of 5 to 10. The direct dependence of this change on the general sexual development is shown not merely by its occurrence at puberty, but by the fact that in eunuchs in whom the testicles have been removed before puberty the voice retains its childlike qualities.[116]

As a matter of fact, I believe that we may attach a considerable degree of importance to the voice and to music generally as a method of sexual appeal. On this point I agree with Moll, who remarks that "the sense of hearing here plays a considerable part, and the stimulation received through the ears is much larger than is usually believed."[117] I am not, however, inclined to think that this influence is considerable in its action on men, although Mantegazza remarks, doubtless with a certain truth, that "some women's voices cannot be heard with impunity." It is true that the ancients deprecated the sexual or at all events the effeminating influence of some kinds of music, but they seem to have regarded it as sedative rather than stimulating; the kind of music they approved of as martial and stimulating was the kind most likely to have sexual effects in predisposed persons.

The Chinese and the Greeks have more especially insisted on the ethical qualities of music and on its moralizing and demoralizing effects. Some three thousand years ago, it is stated, a Chinese emperor, believing that only they who understood music are capable of governing, distributed administrative functions in accordance with this belief. He acted entirely in accordance with Chinese morality, the texts of Confucianism (see translations in the "Sacred Books of the East Series") show clearly that music and ceremony (or social ritual in a wide sense) are regarded as the two main guiding influences of life—music as the internal guide, ceremony as the external guide, the former being looked upon as the more important.

Among the Greeks Menander said that to many people music is a powerful stimulant to love. Plato, in the third book of the Republic, discusses what kinds of music should be encouraged in his ideal state. He does not clearly state that music is ever a sexual stimulant, but he appears to associate plaintive music (mixed Lydian and Hypolydian) with drunkenness, effeminacy, and idleness and considers that such music is "useless even to women that are to be virtuously given, not to say to men." He only admits two kinds of music: one violent and suited to war, the other tranquil and suited to prayer or to persuasion. He sets out the ethical qualities of music with a thoroughness which almost approaches the great Chinese philosopher: "On these accounts we attach such importance to a musical education, because rhythm and harmony sink most deeply into the recesses of the soul, and take most powerful hold of it, bringing gracefulness in their train, and making a man graceful if he be rightly nurtured, ... leading him to commend beautiful objects, and gladly receive them into his soul, and feed upon them, and grow to be noble and good." Plato is, however, by no means so consistent and thorough as the Chinese moralist, for having thus asserted that it is the influence of music which molds the soul into virtue, he proceeds to destroy his position with the statement that "we shall never become truly musical until we know the essential forms of temperance and courage and liberality and munificence," thus moving in a circle. It must be added that the Greek conception of music was very comprehensive and included poetry.

Aristotle took a wider view of music than Plato and admitted a greater variety of uses for it. He was less anxious to exclude those uses which were not strictly ethical. He disapproved, indeed, of the Phrygian harmony as the expression of Bacchic excitement. He accepts, however, the function of music as a κάθαρσις of emotion, a notion which is said to have originated with the Pythagoreans. (For a discussion of Aristotle's views on music, see W. L. Newman, The Politics of Aristotle, vol. i, pp. 359-369.)

Athenæus, in his frequent allusions to music, attributes to it many intellectual and emotional properties (e.g., Book XIV, Chapter XXV) and in one place refers to "melodies inciting to lawless indulgence" (Book XIII, Chapter LXXV).

We may gather from the Priapeia (XXVI) that cymbals and castanets were the special accompaniment in antiquity of wanton songs and dances: "cymbala, cum crotalis, pruriginis arma."

The ancient belief in the moralizing influence of music has survived into modern times mainly in a somewhat more scientific form as a belief in its therapeutic effects in disordered nervous and mental conditions. (This also is an ancient belief as witnessed by the well-known example of David playing to Saul to dispel his melancholia.) In 1729 an apothecary of Oakham, Richard Broune, published a work entitled Medicina Musica, in which he argued that music was beneficial in many maladies. In more recent days there have been various experiments and cases brought forward showing its efficacy in special conditions.

An American physician (W. F. Hutchinson) has shown that anæsthesia may be produced with accurately made tuning forks at certain rates of vibration (summarized in the British Medical Journal, June 4, 1898). Ferrand in a paper read before the Paris Academy of Medicine in September, 1895, gives reasons for classing some kinds of music as powerful antispasmodics with beneficial therapeutic action. The case was subsequently reported of a child in whom night-terrors were eased by calming music in a minor key. The value of music in lunatic asylums is well recognized; see e.g., Näcke, Revue de Psychiatrie, October, 1897. Vaschide and Vurpas (Comptes Rendus de la Société de Biologie, December 13, 1902) have recorded the case of a girl of 20, suffering from mental confusion with excitation and central motor disequilibrium, whose muscular equilibrium was restored and movements rendered more co-ordinated and adaptive under the influence of music.

While there has been much extravagance in the ancient doctrine concerning the effects of music, the real effects are still considerable. Not only is this demonstrated by the experiments already referred to (p. 118), indicating the efficacy of musical sounds as physiological stimulants, but also by anatomical considerations. The roots of the auditory nerves, McKendrick has pointed out, are probably more widely distributed and have more extensive connections than those of any other nerve. The intricate connections of these nerves are still only being unraveled. This points to an explanation of how music penetrates to the very roots of our being, influencing by associational paths reflex mechanisms both cerebral and somatic, so that there is scarcely a function of the body that may not be affected by the rhythmical pulsations, melodic progressions, and harmonic combinations of musical tones. (Nature, June 15, 1899, p. 164.)

Just as we are not entitled from the ancient belief in the influence of music on morals or the modern beliefs in its therapeutic influence—even though this has sometimes gone to the length of advocating its use in impotence[118]—to argue that music has a marked influence in exciting the specifically sexual instincts, neither are we entitled to find any similar argument in the fact that music is frequently associated with the love-feelings of youth. Men are often able to associate many of their earliest ideas of love in boyhood with women singing or playing; but in these cases it will always be found that the fascination was romantic and sentimental, and not specifically erotic.[119] In adult life the music which often seems to us to be most definitely sexual in its appeal (such as much of Wagner's Tristan) really produces this effect in part from the association with the story, and in part from the intellectual realization of the composer's effort to translate passion into æsthetic terms; the actual effect of the music is not sexual, and it can well be believed that the results of experiments as regards the sexual influence of the Tristan music on men under the influence of hypnotism have been, as reported, negative. Helmholtz goes so far as to state that the expression of sexual longing in music is identical with that of religious longing. It is quite true, again, that a soft and gentle voice seems to every normal man as to Lear "an excellent thing in woman," and that a harsh or shrill voice may seem to deaden or even destroy altogether the attraction of a beautiful face. But the voice is not usually in itself an adequate or powerful method of evoking sexual emotion in a man. Even in its supreme vocal manifestations the sexual fascination exerted by a great singer, though certainly considerable, cannot be compared with that commonly exerted by the actress. Cases have, indeed, been recorded—chiefly occurring, it is probable, in men of somewhat morbid nervous disposition—in which sexual attraction was exerted chiefly through the ear, or in which there was a special sexual sensibility to particular inflections or accents.[120] Féré mentions the case of a young man in hospital with acute arthritis who complained of painful erections whenever he heard through the door the very agreeable voice of the young woman (invisible to him) who superintended the linen.[121] But these phenomena do not appear to be common, or, at all events, very pronounced. So far as my own inquiries go, only a small proportion of men would appear to experience definite sexual feelings on listening to music. And the fact that in woman the voice is so slightly differentiated from that of the child, as well as the very significant fact that among man's immediate or even remote ancestors the female's voice can seldom have served to attract the male, sufficiently account for the small part played by the voice and by music as a sexual allurement working on men.[122]

It is otherwise with women. It may, indeed, be said at the outset that the reasons which make it antecedently improbable that men should be sexually attracted through hearing render it probable that women should be so attracted. The change in the voice at puberty makes the deeper masculine voice a characteristic secondary sexual attribute of man, while the fact that among mammals generally it is the male that is most vocal—and that chiefly, or even sometimes exclusively, at the rutting season—renders it antecedently likely that among mammals generally, including the human species, there is in the female an actual or latent susceptibility to the sexual significance of the male voice,[123] a susceptibility which, under the conditions of human civilization, may be transferred to music generally. It is noteworthy that in novels written by women there is a very frequent attentiveness to the qualities of the hero's voice and to its emotional effects on the heroine.[124] We may also note the special and peculiar personal enthusiasm aroused in women by popular musicians, a more pronounced enthusiasm than is evoked in them by popular actors.

As an interesting example of the importance attached by women novelists to the effects of the male voice I may refer to George Eliot's Mill on the Floss, probably the most intimate and personal of George Eliot's works. In Book VI of this novel the influence of Stephen Guest (a somewhat commonplace young man) over Maggie Tulliver is ascribed almost exclusively to the effect of his base voice in singing. We are definitely told of Maggie Tulliver's "sensibility to the supreme excitement of music." Thus, on one occasion, "all her intentions were lost in the vague state of emotion produced by the inspiring duet—emotion that seemed to make her at once strong and weak: strong for all enjoyment, weak for all resistance. Poor Maggie! She looked very beautiful when her soul was being played on in this way by the inexorable power of sound. You might have seen the slightest perceptible quivering through her whole frame as she leaned a little forward, clasping her hands as if to steady herself; while her eyes dilated and brightened into that wideopen, childish expression of wondering delight, which always came back in her happiest moments." George Eliot's novels contain many allusions to the powerful emotional effects of music.

It is unnecessary to refer to Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata, in which music is regarded as the Galeotto to bring lovers together—"the connecting bond of music, the most refined lust of the senses."

In primitive human courtship music very frequently plays a considerable part, though not usually the sole part, being generally found as the accompaniment of the song and the dance at erotic festivals.[125] The Gilas, of New Mexico, among whom courtship consists in a prolonged serenade day after day with the flute, furnish a somewhat exceptional case. Savage women are evidently very attentive to music; Backhouse (as quoted, by Ling Roth[126]) mentions how a woman belonging to the very primitive and now extinct Tasmanian race, when shown a musical box, listened "with intensity; her ears moved like those of a dog or horse, to catch the sound."

I have found little evidence to show that music, except in occasional cases, exerts even the slightest specifically sexual effect on men, whether musical or unmusical. But I have ample evidence that it very frequently exerts to a slight but definite extent such an influence on women, even when quite normal. Judging from my own inquiries it would, indeed, seem likely that the majority of normal educated women are liable to experience some degree of definite sexual excitement from music; one states that orchestral music generally tends to produce this effect; another finds it chiefly from Wagner's music; another from military music, etc. Others simply state—what, indeed, probably expresses the experience of most persons of either sex—that it heightens one's mood. One lady mentions that some of her friends, whose erotic feelings are aroused by music, are especially affected in this way by the choral singing in Roman Catholic churches.[127]

In the typical cases just mentioned, all fairly normal and healthy women, the sexual effects of music though definite were usually quite slight. In neuropathic subjects they may occasionally be more pronounced. Thus, a medical correspondent has communicated to me the case of a married lady with one child, a refined, very beautiful, but highly neurotic, woman, married to a man with whom she has nothing in common. Her tastes lie in the direction of music; she is a splendid pianist, and her highly trained voice would have made a fortune. She confesses to strong sexual feelings and does not understand why intercourse never affords what she knows she wants. But the hearing of beautiful music, or at times the excitement of her own singing, will sometimes cause intense orgasm.

Vaschide and Vurpas, who emphasize the sexually stimulating effects of music, only bring forward one case in any detail, and it is doubtless significant that this case is a woman. "While listening to a piece of music X changes expression, her eyes become bright, the features are accentuated, a smile begins to form, an expression of pleasure appears, the body becomes more erect, there is a general muscular hypertonicity. X tells us that as she listens to the music she experiences sensations very like those of normal intercourse. The difference chiefly concerns the local genital apparatus, for there is no flow of vaginal mucus. On the psychic side the resemblance is marked." (Vaschide and Vurpas, "Du Coefficient Sexual de l'Impulsion Musicale," Archives de Neurologie, May, 1904.)

It is sometimes said, or implied, that a woman (or a man) sings better under the influence of sexual emotion. The writer of an article already quoted, on "Woman in her Psychological Relations" (Journal of Psychological Medicine, 1851), mentions that "a young lady remarkable for her musical and poetical talents naïvely remarked to a friend who complimented her upon her singing: 'I never sing half so well as when I've had a love-fit.'" And George Eliot says. "There is no feeling, perhaps, except the extremes of fear and grief, that does not make a man sing or play the better." While, however, it may be admitted that some degree of general emotional exaltation may exercise a favorable influence on the singing voice, it is difficult to believe that definite physical excitement at or immediately before the exercise of the voice can, as a rule, have anything but a deleterious effect on its quality. It is recognized that tenors (whose voices resemble those of women more than basses, who are not called upon to be so careful in this respect) should observe rules of sexual hygiene; and menstruation frequently has a definite influence in impairing the voice (H. Ellis, Man and Woman, fourth edition, p. 290). As the neighborhood of menstruation is also the period when sexual excitement is most likely to be felt, we have here a further indication that sexual emotion is not favorable to singing. I agree with the remarks of a correspondent, a musical amateur, who writes: "Sexual excitement and good singing do not appear to be correlated. A woman's emotional capacity in singing or acting may be remotely associated with hysterical neuroses, but is better evinced for art purposes in the absence of disturbing sexual influences. A woman may, indeed, fancy herself the heroine of a wanton romance and 'let herself go' a little in singing with improved results. But a memory of sexual ardors will help no woman to make the best of her voice in training. Some women can only sing their best when they think of the other women they are outsinging. One girl 'lets her soul go out into her voice' thinking of jamroll, another thinking of her lover (when she has none), and most, no doubt, when they think of nothing. But no woman is likely to 'find herself' in an artistic sense because she has lost herself in another sense—not even if she has done so quite respectably."

The reality of the association between the sexual impulse and music—and, indeed, art generally—is shown by the fact that the evolution of puberty tends to be accompanied by a very marked interest in musical and other kinds of art. Lancaster, in a study of this question among a large number of young people (without reference to difference in sex, though they were largely female), found that from 50 to 75 per cent of young people feel an impulse to art about the period of puberty, lasting a few months, or at most a year or two. It appears that 464 young people showed an increased and passionate love for music, against only 102 who experienced no change in this respect. The curve culminates at the age of 15 and falls rapidly after 16. Many of these cases were really quite unmusical.

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This book is part of the public domain. Havelock Ellis (2004). Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 4. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022

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