Sexuality-Sensuality In String-Playing

This article is part of the Psychology section.

Both music and sexuality take us into a world of powerful emotional and physical (tactile) sensations. Even just listening to music can take us into this intensely emotional world. But when we actually play music, combining these intense emotions with the physical acts required to produce them, we enter a world that is very close to that of human intimacy. Making love and making music have a lot of similarities: each of these enormously potent activities is composed of a similar combination of emotional and physical ingredients. Music mimics human sexuality in all its different forms, from the most intimate and tender to the most brutal.

Both James Bond and Barbie would find it difficult to be good classical musicians (see Male-Female). It would also be very difficult for a (catholic) priest or nun to be an expressive string player. For all of them, it is their sexuality that would cause the incompatibility. For James and Barbie, the problem is their omnipresent, exaggerated, stereotyped, narcissistic, artificial and superficial sexuality. Although their type of sexuality has little place in the world of “serious” music, it would pose absolutely no problem – and could in fact be a great help – to becoming commercial pop stars.

For the priest or nun, on the other hand, the problem is their repressed, denied sexuality (also omnipresent). The hand of God is not a sensuous hand and God’s touch must never be warmer than a paternal blessing. This lack of sensuality would make it almost impossible for the priest or nun to be a romantically expressive string player. They could however be excellent organists or harpsichordists because these instruments – with no vibrato, no glissandi, very reduced possibilities for crescendo/diminuendo and above all, a very limited response to variations in touch  – are the least sensuous instruments of all (with the possible exception of bagpipes!). So it is not surprising that it is the organ, the harpsichord and the boy-soprano that are the traditionally preferred musical instruments for the church ……….. and that bagpipes, drums and trumpets are the favourites for military occasions!

Playing a string instrument is, on the contrary, a very sensual, tactile experience. As well as vibrato, glissando and crescendo/diminuendo, we have a huge variety of ways in which we can touch the instrument (with the bow as well as with the left hand) in order to create the many different sounds (responses). This gives us an enormous sensual, tactile palette that replicates in many ways human intimacy. It is not for nothing that we talk about the bow-stroke ! Tactile exploration is as much a vital part of sensuality as it is of string playing. In both, it is a key to creating intimate personal emotional contact.


Along the continuum of human sexual behaviour, we could perhaps describe a progression through three principal “evolutionary levels” of sexuality (see below). At the most primitive extreme we have purely physical, “animal” sexuality, while at the highest, most “human” extreme we have ultimately the intense (but tender) emotional intimacy of “love”. Between these extremes, we have every different gradation of “sensuality”. We can compare this evolution, from animal sexuality to love, with their equivalent “evolutionary levels” in the world of of musical interpretation:


Empty instrumental virtuosity, with its flashy, superficial showing off, could perhaps be considered a sort of primitive mating ritual, rather like a peacock spreading its tail to impress potential partners. This is the equivalent of having a gorgeous body and displaying it. Or – to find less obviously sexual analogies – of hitting a golf ball a great distance, lifting 100 kilos, or doing other impressive acts of bravura. Empty virtuosity is the musical equivalent of sexuality at its most physical and most primitive stage: the primal world of lust, pornography, ego, breast enlargements, bodybuilding, and the stereotyped sex roles of James (Bond) and Barbie.  The worst forms of emotionally-empty virtuosity are – like pornography – mechanics without meaning. Music without emotionality is like sex without love, a purely physical act of egotistical bravura performed in an emotional desert.

(SIDEBAR) Performing a virtuoso showpiece badly is similar to somebody with a not-very-gorgeous body walking along a beach in a tiny bathing costume: it’s probably better not to do it until the object to be displayed is worth showing off.


Sensuality is something different: more subtle, more emotional and more tender. Sensuality brings the neolithic reptilian mating ritual up to the level of the courting ritual of humans. Here, a perfect body (or tail, crest, mane or beak) is not enough, and is, in fact, no longer the most important component of the attraction. Sensuality corresponds to a higher level of musical interpretation in which the delicacy, tenderness and beauty of our touch, movements, nuances, sound and timing at the instrument, engage the higher emotions, mimicking human flirtation and seduction. Sensuality requires generosity, patience, lack of self-consciousness, empathy and the capacity for give-and-take. Sensuality also involves tenderness, and music without tenderness is like sex without kissing. With the addition of sensuality we enter into the worlds of both “art” and “love”.


With “true love” we arrive at the highest level of both human sexuality and musical interpretation. Here, the physical combines with both the emotional (sensual) and the spiritual/intellectual components. It doesn’t get any better than this! In both music and sexuality, if we can reach this level we are truly blessed …… this is divine stuff. Healthy sexuality, just like healthy music-making, finds a good balance between the instinctive (physical), the emotional and the intellectual. But, just like in a musical performance, the intellectual “thinking” is best done before and/or afterwards but never during the performance (or at least only during the rests)! See the Think-Feel page.


The relative importance of sensuality in music of different stylistic periods is actually more a question of place and social context than of historical epoch (period). People have fallen in and out of love – and expressed this through music – in more or less the same way throughout history. The main element that has changed over the centuries has been simply the social context for which the music was composed i.e. who was paying for the music and where (and for who) was it performed.

In the Baroque period, music was largely written and played for (and in) churches. Sensuality has rarely been a characteristic of religions, and even the Sarabande – with its suggestive agogic lean onto the second or third beat – was banned by the Inquisition for being too sensuous (perhaps it should be called “Sarabanned”). Music written for churches is systematically less sensuous than music written for the wider public. Popular music, regardless of its period (it doesn’t matter if it comes from the Renaissance or from the 20th century) is often very sensuous and speaks almost exclusively about love.

Somewhere in the middle comes music written for royalty and wealthy patrons. Much music of the Classical Period was written for such patrons, renowned normally for their formality and strict protocol in public, but usually somewhat less allergic to public displays of sensuality than the church. In general, the Classical Style was characterised by beauty, proportion, refinement, elegance and moderation – all of which tend to limit the displays of unbridled passion and sensuality.

However, in the Romantic Period, this situation changed radically. Then, music became much more the expression of the intimate feelings of the composer rather than being written to please and glorify rich and powerful patrons (or God). Intimacy, authenticity and emotivity were welcomed out of the closet by the Romantic Style. Music was now written more for the wider public, and thus became “popular”. This is the most openly sensuous and emotive period in the history of classical music.

The 20th century brought havoc, genocide and violence on an industrial scale to the western world. During this past century, Contemporary Classical Music saw a radical elimination of sensuality. In most “classical” music of the last 100 years, the typically harsh sounds and dissonances are a perfect rejection of beauty, warmth, tenderness, kindness and intimacy. Many composers since the second half of the 20th century can be considered almost as fundamentalist priests of cold intellectualism, confining music to its most extreme forms of icy intellectual complexity.

This is ironic because it is normally through the addition of the “higher” intellectual and spiritual ingredients that brute-sexuality is converted first into sensuality and then into the highest form of love (and music). But here we see how pure intellectuality – devoid of sensuality, warmth, tenderness, intimacy and humanity – can actually bring us full circle back to a sound world equivalent to the extreme mechanical contortions of pornography. This is the cold, loveless world of insanity, mania, autism, paranoia etc in which sensuality is absent and any trace of sexuality is of a deviant, loveless (often violent and sadomasochistic) kind.


Music is a language through which people of any age and sexual orientation can openly express all their unrequited feelings and passions in a non-sexual, non-explicit and therefore non-conflictive way. Music can represent a “safe” outlet for sensual, amorous and sexual feelings whose open expression in “real life” might be considered dangerous, offensive or in any other way unacceptable or anxiety-producing. So it’s not surprising that the world of music holds an especially strong attraction for sensitive and repressed youngsters who are at an age where physical romantic expression is hugely interesting but also frowned upon (taboo, dangerous) and a source of huge emotional insecurity.

Perhaps this might also explain why the proportion of male classical musicians who are gay seems to be higher than in the “normal” population? And also perhaps why there have been so many gay composers …… Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Lully, Corelli, Britten, Saint-Saens, Barber etc. The intense emotivity and intimacy of music is about as far removed as possible from typical macho competitive team activities like sports and war, so it tends to attract sensitive, introverted and thoughtful souls. Everybody can identify with a beautiful melody or a love poem  …..  and in music, because there are no words, nobody knows (or cares) if it’s gay love or not.

Even many inhibited heterosexuals – passionate and romantic, but cripplingly shy – are attracted to the world of classical music for this same reason: as a substitute for the truly romantic “real-life” relationships for which they do not feel ready, confident or capable. The world of music is often a sensual world, but it is a virtual world: the passions are real and powerful, but everything is done at a safe distance. Although we might touch the souls of our listeners, the only physical touching involved is with our instruments.

In the same way that nuns declare that their only intimate loving relationship is with “God” and catholic priests try to renounce their sexuality, some musicians also try to renounce or deny their sexuality, declaring “music” as their God. But without a healthy human outlet for our sexual, emotional and relational drives, music can easily become almost like an unhealthy sexual deviance. It’s probably not healthy to use music or cello-playing as a substitute for real human sexuality, intimacy and sensuality and it will certainly not help our cello-playing at all !! (See also Communication).


Playing any instrument – but especially a string instrument – reveals a lot of intimate details about the player. It is almost as if we are making love with our instrument  – and moreover, in public. Some people criticised Jaqueline Du Pre’s emotional way of playing, saying that her sensual and emotional abandon to the music was the equivalent of “masturbation in public”! Perhaps they were jealous of her incredible generosity, musicality, unbridled passion, power to communicate, lack of self-consciousness …..?  On stage, if we play emotionally, we are revealed in our intimacy almost as though we were naked. This why it’s possible to fall in love with someone just by the way they play!

I will never forget the following real-life situation that brought together some very contrasting elements related to the subject of music and sexuality:

On a hot summer afternoon ….. a rehearsal of the highly romantic and sensual Bruch Violin Concerto …..  in a church …..  in England …….. with a very attractive young lady soloist dressed in only the minimum of clothes ……… and playing very passionately. Seated in the church watching intently, were a group of young Buddhist monks from Tibet who the soloist had just met in the street and invited to the rehearsal. They were transfixed …… is that surprising!! Unfortunately, we can only imagine what might have been going on in their minds (and bodies) at the time!