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Music to Her Ears: Female Fertility and the Sounds of Music

What is the point of music? Psychologist Stephen Pinker likens it to “auditory cheesecake,” a confection intended to tickle our neural pleasure circuits1 -- a jolt of enjoyment rather than a necessity for human survival. But 140 years ago, Charles Darwin was tinkering with another theory: that music’s true purpose is to impress the opposite sex.2 He recognised that birds don’t sing for pure joy, but to attract a mate or challenge rivals. Could music serve a similar function in humans?

Quite possibly. The lyrics of most pop songs are about relationships, with love at first sight, jealousy, and breakups being common themes. And it’s also plain that music stirs fierce emotions, from the screaming adulation that provided a second soundtrack to Beatlemania, to the Beliebers and Directioners of today whose online worshipping of their idols knows no bounds. But until recently, there’s been little hard evidence for Darwin’s theory that music is a method of sexual seduction.

What we do know is that women are more willing to share their phone number with a man if he is carrying a guitar case.3 Also, that a devotion to country music reduces the sex appeal of both men and women4 In 2012, Benjamin Charlton of the University of Sussex was unable to show that women prefer more complex piano music,5 the type with lots of chords changes and rhythmic variation. He wondered whether this was because he hadn’t linked the music with composers or performers. Perhaps this would have provided his female volunteers with a target for their “musical appreciation.” Women might not prefer more complex music, but they might prefer men who produce more complex music.

In a new research paper published this past week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Charlton set out to test his theory.6 He recruited 1500 women and had them listen to 20-second piano compositions that differed in complexity. The least complex piece had two major chords and no syncopation (the creative layering of on- and off-beat rhythms). The most complex piece had seven major chords and multiple syncopated patterns. So, more Rachmaninov than Harry Styles. The complexity of two additional compositions was spaced equally between these two extremes.

After listening to two of the compositions, women indicated whether they would prefer the composer of the first or second melody as a romantic partner. Now, researchers have known for some time that women prefer male characteristics that suggest genetic robustness (such as facial masculinity or symmetry) when they judge men’s suitability for a one-night stand rather than as marriage material.7 Women also prefer these same traits more when they judge during the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle.8 If musicality is a cue to male mate quality, we might expect these same factors to affect patterns of attraction. So Charlton split his female participants into fertile and nonfertile groups depending on whether they were near ovulation, and had them rate men’s attractiveness as both long- and short-term partners.

Charlton found that only women in the fertile phase who judged short-term attractiveness preferred the more complex melody. In fact, around 75% of these women found the composer of the syncopated chord-rich tunes most appealing. However, when the same women judged the men for marriage, they were split 50-50. The complexity of the music didn’t matter. The same was true when women in the nonfertile phase of their cycles made their choices for both long- and short-term partners. When women are unlikely to become pregnant, they are less interested in musical complexity as a cue to attractiveness. In a follow-up experiment, Charlton showed that complexity is only important in the auditory realm: women didn’t give two hoots about complexity in Mondrian-style abstract paintings.

As Charlton acknowledges, his results cannot prove that sexual courtship drove the evolution of human music. It remains possible that we developed an ear for music for other reasons, perhaps as a foundation for language. Nor do Charlton’s findings imply that women are indiscriminate in their pursuit of long-term partners. But it does seem that women take note of the ability of male musicians when selecting sexual partners, just like birds. And it shows that Charlton is singing from the same hymn sheet as his fellow psychologists, who have discovered that women prefer to pursue creative and intelligent men for flings.9,10 Why? Because creativity and intelligence might be heritable, giving children sired by brainbox fathers an evolutionary advantage.

Whether this means that Justin Bieber would be even more successful with the ladies if he eschewed auto-tuned vocals and simplistic Euro-pop beats, well... that’s a prospect too terrifying for even science to contemplate.

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Dr. Robert Burriss - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Rob is an evolutionary psychologist who researches what we find attractive in potential partners. He is most interested in how female behavior and appearance is influenced by menstrual cycle phase and hormonal contraceptive use.


1Pinker, S., (1997). How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton.

2Darwin, C., (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.

3Guéguen, N., Meineri, S., & Fischer-Lokou, J. (in press). Men’s music ability and attractiveness to women in a real-life courtship context. Psychology of Music. doi: 10.1177/0305735613482025

4Zillmann, D., & Bhatia, A. (1989). Effects of associating with musical genres on heterosexual attraction.Communication Research, 16(2), 263-288. doi: 10.1177/009365089016002005

5Charlton, B.D., Filippi, P., & Fitch, W.T. (2012). Do women prefer more complex music around ovulation? PLoS One, 7(4), e35626. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035626

6Charlton, B.D. (2014). Menstrual cycle phase alters women's sexual preferences for composers of more complex music. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 281(1784), 20140403. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0403

7Little, A.C., et al. (2011). Human preference for masculinity differs according to context in faces, bodies, voices, and smell. Behavioral Ecology, 22(4), 862-868. doi: 10.1093/beheco/arr061

8Gildersleeve, K., Haselton, M.G., & Fales, M.R. (in press). Do women’s mate preferences change across the ovulatory cycle? A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin. doi: 10.1037/a0035438

9Haselton, M. G., & Miller, G. F. (2006). Women’s fertility across the cycle increases the short-term attractiveness of creative intelligence compared to wealth. Human Nature, 17, 50-73. doi: 10.1007/s12110-006-1020-0

10Prokosch, M. D., Coss, R. G., Scheib, J. E., & Blozis, S. A. (2009). Intelligence and mate choice: intelligent men are always appealing. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30(1), 11-20. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.07.004

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