08.06.09

Just the Fact: Sex and Music

In a new feature, nonfiction authors tell The Daily Beast about the most surprising factoid unearthed by their research. This week, Daniel J. Levitin on the link between sex and singing, as described in his new book, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.

I think the most surprising thing to me was the oxytocin story. Oxytocin is a chemical we’ve known about for a while—it engenders feelings of trust. So if I show you two political candidates, and I give you oxytocin when you’re watching one of them, and I give you a placebo while you’re watching the other one, you’re going to trust the first political candidate more.

Oxytocin is also kind of famous to scientists because it’s the hormone that’s released when people have an orgasm. The evolutionary thinking behind that is that humans have among the longest periods of raising their children of any species—their children remain in the nest until they’re fairly old. So there would be a survival advantage for a human child to have two parents, for the parents to stay together. Biologists argue that the purpose of the orgasm and the accompanying oxytocin is to create an emotional bond between two people so they’ll stay together. Well, it turns out there’s evidence that when people listen to music together or sing together, oxytocin is released then, too. So music forms a social bond in the same way orgasms may, which benefits us as a species.

As told to Will Doig

Follow Daniel’s Twitter feed at @ danlevitin and join the discussion about music and the brain at his Facebook page.

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Daniel Levitin is the author of The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.