English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Is it right to say sensual music? What is its meaning when used like this?

share|improve this question
"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" – Mitch Apr 10 '11 at 13:53

The meaning of sensual is "of or arousing gratification of the senses and physical, especially sexual, pleasure." In the sense of "arousing gratifications of the senses," the word could be used when referring to music.

The NOAD has the following note, about the usage of sensual:

The words sensual and sensuous are frequently used interchangeably to mean "gratifying the senses," especially in a sexual sense. Strictly speaking, this goes against a traditional distinction, by which sensuous is a more neutral term, meaning "relating to the senses rather than the intellect" (swimming is a beautiful, sensuous experience), while sensual relates to gratification of the senses, especially sexually (a sensual massage). In fact, the word sensuous is thought to have been invented by John Milton (1641) in a deliberate attempt to avoid the sexual overtones of sensual. In practice, the connotations are such that it is difficult to use sensuous in Milton's sense. While traditionalists struggle to maintain a distinction, the evidence suggests that the neutral use of sensuous is rare in modern English. If a neutral use is intended, it is advisable to use alternative wording.

share|improve this answer

Well, Yeats used it to great effect in his poem "Sailing to Byzantium":

Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

(N.B. This is also the poem that gave the Coen brothers'* No country for old men)

Sensual is an adjective meaning physical, carnal, bodily, etc. It is often confused or conflated with sensuous, which means sexy, attractive, luxurious, etc.


* Via Cormac McCarthy (thanks for the reminder, @Callithumpian).

share|improve this answer
Gave Cormac McCarthy "No country for old men." – Callithumpian Apr 10 '11 at 12:54
@Callithumpian: Good point. – Robusto Apr 10 '11 at 12:56
No problem. Thanks for the reference. I didn't know it was a borrowed phrase. – Callithumpian Apr 10 '11 at 13:03

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.