Sex Ed

Does Listening to Sexy Music Get Us in the Mood for Sex?

June 7, 2021 by Katie Adams

Guest post by Katie Adams

“I’ve been really tryin’, baby / Tryin’ to hold back this feeling for so long / And if you feel  like I feel, baby / Then, c’mon, oh, c’mon / Let’s get it on.”  — Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On” (1973, side one)

Imagine turning on the radio and hearing Marvin Gaye sing those sexy lyrics. If you weren’t already in the mood for sex, would his music help get you there? The popular media sure seems to think so, as evidenced by numerous articles and blogs presenting playlists guaranteed to “get you lucky” or put your partner “in the mood.” For example, Cosmopolitan published an article listing “23 sex songs you need on your bedroom playlist” and Thought Catalogue published a post titled, “17 Super Sexual Songs That Will Make You Drop Your Panties Immediately…With Lyrics!” [1, 2].

Music is known to alter mood in general, especially through its mode (major or minor), tempo, and pitch [3], but can it also alter libido? Does listening to Marvin Gaye and other sexy song-makers really make people want to “get it on” and, if so, why?

Analyses of popular songs dating back to the 1940s shows that as many as 70 to 90% of songs contain sexual themes [4]—that’s a lot of sex songs! And people sometimes incorporate these songs into their intimate lives, with research showing that people, and especially those who desire short-term or causal relationships, often report using love songs for sexual purposes [5]. This kind of music could potentially assist in regulating mood (e.g., making you calm and happy), increasing arousal, or conveying a message (e.g., “I want sex”). This, in turn, could get both partners in a sexual mood and facilitate the initiation of sex.

It may also be the case that sexually suggestive lyrics might make sex-related thoughts and behaviors in one’s mind more accessible and cause you to continue thinking about sex even after the song is over. You may also become directly physiologically aroused by the sexual messages in the song’s lyrics (or the sound of the performer’s voice). All of this might add up to increased interest in sexual behavior, should a potential opportunity arise.

In light of this, I wanted to test whether listening to sex-related song lyrics would prompt more interest in casual sex. To do so, I conducted a study on the immediate influence music has on individuals’ internal states, including their thoughts and arousal [6]. I anticipated that after hearing music with sexual lyrics (compared to hearing music without sexual content), participants would be more likely to indicate interest in a short-term sexual relationship if given the opportunity.

I asked 108 undergraduate students to complete a hypothetical dating profile while being exposed to either a playlist of sexual songs, instrumental covers of those same sexual songs, or generic instrumental songs. Participants answered a variety of multiple-choice questions modeled from various dating websites, which covered topics such as relationships, politics, and faith/religion, as well as a question about the desired length of their next relationship—the key variable of interest.

I expected that sex-related lyrics (as compared with the two control conditions) would decrease the desired length of their next relationship—in other words, they’d be more open to a casual fling. However, contrary to my expectations, there was no effect of sexual lyrics on desired relationship length compared to the other music conditions.

In thinking about why the results didn’t turn out the way I expected, one possibility that came to mind is it might be due to the choice of music. All songs were pre-selected by the research team and consisted of pop and R&B songs from the 1990s-2010s (except for “Let’s Get It On” from 1973). Perhaps it is not sexy music per se that is the key—maybe the effect depends on listening to music that is sexy to you, which can be highly individualized. Allowing people to select their own sexy song playlist might therefor have a very different effect. Also, we cannot be certain which aspects of the music are most important. Is it the sexual lyrics themselves, or is it the sound of a sexy voice, or the mental image of a musician you find sexy that matters most?

It is also possible that any potential effect of music might be different for different people—music is more powerful or impactful for some than others. Perhaps for those who are more musically inclined or sensitive to sound, sexy music could have a bigger effect than for those who are not.

Another possibility is that even though music has been repeatedly found to impact mood [7], it may be that it does not create something out of nothing. One’s own motivations and desires, especially regarding mating and sexual behaviors, may be the driving force behind our actions. Similar to how people chose to listen to music that matches their current mood [8], listening to sexually themed music may only serve to amplify an existing mood or desire—not create a desire that otherwise does not exist.

A recent study worth mentioning found that non-sexual music can prompt feelings of sexual arousal—but only when that music had been previously paired with sexual cues [9]. Thus, when we psychologically associate a song with sex, listening to it can create a feeling of arousal, even if the song itself is not necessarily about sex. This opens up a whole new way to think about when music is likely to put us in the mood—what feelings or memories come to mind when you hear a given song? If it reminds you of something arousing, you may very well start to feel aroused. But because different people may be reminded of different things by the same song, they might experience very different effects.

In light of this, you probably can’t just put on some sex-themed music and expect sexual magic to commence. However, if you and your partner have a song or playlist that you both associate with sex or with a positive sexual memory, it might very well help to put it on when you want to set the right mood.

Thanks to Katie Adams for this guest post! Learn more about her below: 

Katie Adams is a Doctoral student at the University of Kansas in the Social Psychology program, working with Dr. Omri Gillath. Her research focuses on close relationships and the underlying motivations of attraction, sexual behaviors, and short- vs. long-term commitment. She is currently heading research projects on (1) the creation and validation of a measure for pornography consumption motives, and (2) the motivations for, and outcomes of, communicating infidelity to one’s partner. She completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Rochester (2014) and her Master’s degree at Villanova University (2016). This is her second guest blog post for Sex and Psychology.

Want to learn more about Sex and Psychology? Click here for more from the blog or here to listen to the podcast. Follow Sex and Psychology on Facebook, Twitter (@JustinLehmiller), or Reddit to receive updates. You can also follow Dr. Lehmiller on YouTube and Instagram.

[1] Gilmore, P. (2017, October 20). 23 sex songs you need on your bedroom playlist. Cosmopolitan. Retrieved from http://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk

[2] Tarkoff, N. (2015, March 30). 17 super sexual songs that will make you drop your panties immediately…with lyrics! [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://thoughtcatalog.com/nicole-tarkoff/2015/03/17-super-sexual-songs-that-will-make-you-drop-your-panties-immediately-with-lyrics/

[3] Västfjäll, D., Juslin, P. N., & Hartig, T. (2012). Music, subjective wellbeing, and health: The role of everyday emotions. In R. A. R. Raymond, G. Kreutz & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 405–423). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Arnett, J. J. (2002). The sounds of sex: Sex in teens’ music and music videos. In J. Brown, K. Walsh-Childers, & J. Steele (Eds.), Sexual teens, sexual media (pp. 253–264). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

[5] Brockert, D., Haj-Mohamadi, P. & Gillath, O. (2016, April). Attachment style, sexual strategies, and love songs. Poster session presented at the 19th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, Lawrence, KS.

[6] Adams, K. N. (2018). Let’s get it on: Music lyrics’ influence on mating strategy (Order No. 10845271) [Master’s thesis, Villanova University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

[7] Saarikallio, S., & Erkkilä, J. (2007). The role of music in adolescents’ mood regulation. Psychology of Music, 35,88–109.

[8] Thoma, M. V., Ryf, S., Mohiyeddini, C., Ehlert, U., & Nater, U. M. (2012). Emotion regulation through listening to music in everyday situations. Cognition and Emotion, 26, 550–560.

[9] Wan, C., & Lalumiere, M. L. (2017). Can music cue sexual arousal? The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality26(3), 238–248.

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Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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