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The Music of Relationships

As you sit down for a romantic dinner with your partner, you’ve thought of everything: great food, fine china, candles, and a nice bottle of wine. Now you just need a little music to set the mood, so you put on Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” This will certainly set a mood (i.e., confusion), but probably not the mood (i.e., romance). Clearly you should have gone with something like “At Last” by Etta James, or perhaps “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel (boom box and all). Music is a central component of our relationships largely because music influences our emotions. Music can set the tone for a romantic date night, but someone who experienced a recent break-up may use music to feel better (e.g., “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley or just about any song on Adele’s Grammy nominated album 21) or to feel worse (“Everybody Hurts” by REM). 

Yet, in spite of these anecdotal pieces of evidence that make music’s influence on relationship seem quite plausible, there is surprisingly little research that directly examines music’s role in relationships. However, there are several studies that, when looked at together, make a case for music’s influence on relationships. For example, there is the widely held belief that music with sexual lyrics (e.g., “Doin It” by LL Cool J) sexualizes listeners. There is some truth to this belief; when participants were exposed to sexual lyrics they rated individuals depicted in online personal advertisements as having greater sexual appeal.1 Other research finds that sexually based lyrics did not alter the listener’s own attitudes about sex or the perception of peers’ sexual activity.2 Overall, these findings suggest that sexual lyrics may prime an individual to evaluate ambiguous material in more sexualized terms, but may not significantly alter one’s own attitudes.

Feeling romantic, whether because of music or some other reason, can change a person’s behavior. For example, women who listened to music with romantic lyrics they were more likely to give their phone number to a male with whom they interact.3 In addition, individuals primed to remember a previous romance were more likely to behave chivalrously than were those primed to recall their favorite song.4 Similarly, those primed with a previous romance were also more likely to lend money to a stranger for bus fare than were those primed to remember a favorite song.5 In both cases, men were more likely to provide the help, while women were more likely to receive the help.

Music can evoke positive emotions, romantic feelings, and chivalrous behaviors. It is important to match the musical choice to the correct setting in order to evoke a specific emotion. So when you’re planning the song you and your partner will dance to at your wedding, choose carefully; the future of your marriage could depend on it!

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1Carpentier, F., Knobloch-Westerwick, S., & Blumhoff, A. (2007). Naughty versus nice: Suggestive pop music influences on perceptions of potential romantic partners. Media Psychology, 9(1), 1-17. 

2Sprankle, E. L., & End, C. M. (2009). The effects of censored and uncensored sexually explicit music on sexual attitudes and perceptions of sexual activity. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 21(2), 60-68. doi:10.1027/1864-1105.21.2.60

3Guéguen, N., Jacob, C., & Lamy, L. (2010). ‘Love is in the air’: Effects of songs with romantic lyrics on compliance with a courtship request. Psychology of Music, 38(3), 303-307. doi:10.1177/0305735609360428

4Lamy, L., Fischer-Lokou, J., & Guéguen, N. (2009). Induced reminiscence of love and chivalrous helping. Current Psychology: Research & Reviews, 28(3), 202-209. doi:10.1007/s12144-009-9059-9

5Lamy, L., Fischer-Lokou, J., & Gueguen, N. (2008). Semantically induced memories of love and helping behavior. Psychological Reports, 102, 418-424.

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

Julianne (Jules) Nestor is in her junior year at Monmouth University with a Psychology major and Health Studies minor. She works with Dr. Gary Lewandowski on self-expansion and relationships. In the future, Jules would like to continue researching differences between heterosexual and LGBT relationships. She hopes to continue on to graduate school to earn her Psy.D. in clinical psychology.

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Reader Comments (1)

When I'm looking for a potential partner, I am always very interested in their musical tastes. Rightly or wrongly, I always think I can tell a lot about someones true personality by the music they listen to.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenny Summers
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