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Reflections on a Failed Music Career: Why Do We Play Music?

By Wil Forbis
Read the complete Reflections on a Failed Music Career!

As a musician, one of the more interesting and revealing questions you can ask yourself is: why do I play music? The answer is usually something like, "because I enjoy it." It's not the most illuminating answer, but it's essentially true. Playing music is fun. It makes you feel good about yourself.

Of course, there's two kinds of playing music. There's playing for yourself (or casually jamming with friends) and then there's performing music live, in front of an audience. Musicians experience varying emotions related to playing live. It's doubtless a time of great excitement but also a time of anxiety. You worry about whether or not you're going to hit a wrong note and be revealed as a musical fraud in front of your peers, cast forever into the social abyss. But you also dream about creating a brilliant musical moment which causes the audience to collectively gasp and then chant your name as you dodge a hail of women's underwear (or, if you are a woman, soiled boxers.)

I think it's reasonable to say that most of the time, for most musicians, playing live is a positive experience. We get a thrill --- an electrical charge of adrenaline that usually lasts through the show and even into the next day or two. After we experience a good show, we're riding a subtle body high that makes life sweeter. I realized only recently that this sensory charge is quite addictive and has a lot to do with why I play music.

(There's a downside to this thrill. It means a lot of people, including myself, are willing to play for little or no money*, which drives down the wage scale of playing music. In essence, we're forsaking being paid in money to be paid in a visceral rush. And this is why "boring gigs" (e.g. weddings, bar mitzvahs) tend to pay better than fun bar gigs.)

*Only some of the time. I try not to make a habit out of it.

I can offer an additional insight into the effects of this body high created by performing. I've long suffered from repetitive strain to my forearms and as a result, guitar playing is often quite uncomfortable. However, I've noticed on several occasions that playing live seems to mute that discomfort. The shot of adrenaline or whatever it is I get actually mitigates the pain, often for days. I think that's a testament to the strength of the body's reaction to the experience of performing in public.

A question arises: why does the body reward us (with pleasurable sensations) for performing on stage. Why does that experience illicit a response that, say, ironing your pants, does not?

Evolutionary psychologists would point to man's greatest motivator: sex! They would argue that our genes are programmed to create brains that reward an individual's behaviors in certain situations. What is that brain delivered reward? The aforementioned pleasurable sensations... sensations we understand to be caused by adrenaline, serotonin and various other neurotransmitters and hormones. (That's as scientific as I'm going to get --- if you want more detail on this argument, check out my neuroscience heavy article "What Is Emotion?")

But why would genes "design" brains that fire off pleasurable sensations when you deliver a wicked saxophone solo to a packed crowd? Well, that display of musicianship will likely increase your standing amongst your peers. And elevated social status usually equals access to more mates (and the ability to be discriminating in your tastes.) And increased sexual access is what genes are all about.

There's a lot of theorizing what being a good musician signals to the opposite sex --- genes for creativity, a certain physical skill*, a certain charisma --- but whatever it is, it contains some obvious appeal. (This is not to say becoming a musician is a magical formula for attracting mates. A 300 pound zitty couch potato who plays guitar is still gonna have trouble meeting women. But a 300 pound zitty guy who plays guitar is probably going to do better than a 300 pound zitty couch potato who does not. Or so the theory goes.)

* "You see me playing guitar," Gene Simmons of Kiss once sang (if you can call what Simmons did singing.) "And you see what my fingers can do. You wish you were the one they were doing it to!"

And it's not simply about getting laid. Performing well in a live situation (and we're not just talking music, but acting, sports, public speaking etc.) increases your social stature on many levels. It pushes you up the social hierarchy, closer to the role of alpha monkey. This can bring you all sorts of benefits: more money, more friends, respect. Evolutionary speaking, these benefits can be useful both in natural selection (e.g. not being killed) and sexual selection (e.g. the aforementioned passing on of genes.)

However, proficient performance only increases your sex appeal if you're performing in front of people, ideally as many people as possible. It's not so much the playing (or speaking, or dunking basketballs) as it is the display of your skills that delivers a body rush, the frantic cheers of your genes egging you on. Playing a gig is essentially a live personal classified --- an advertisement for the advantages of your sexual companionship, placed before a willing audience.

To be clear, I don't think this is the only reason people play music live. If it were, people would not perform music once they were past their reproductive years. (Of course, people do tend to perform music less as they get older.) There are doubtless additional pleasures derived from music: intellectual joys, the challenges of problem-solving, the release of creativity. But I think the component of sexual adventurism, and the accompanying body rush, is a big part of it.

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - acidlogic@hotmail.comVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.