A new experimental study in Austria found that presenting a man as a performer of music significantly increased his desirability as a date and his attractiveness to women. Presenting a female as a performer of music increased her desirability as a date to men. The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Scientists have long wondered about the origin and the social function of music. On the one hand, music is a universal phenomenon found in cultures across the world. On the other hand, musical behavior has no immediate survival value and it is, therefore, unclear how it evolved and became widespread in human populations.
One theoretical approach suggests that study of the social role of music should start by differentiating between musicality, “the set of capacities and proclivities that allows our species to generate and enjoy music in all of its diverse forms,” and music, “the product of human musicality”.
The evolution of musicality can possibly be explained using Darwin’s sexual selection hypothesis. This hypothesis states that certain traits might evolve and become established if they provide the individual with those traits better success in obtaining mates and thus creating offspring that will inherit the advantageous trait.
“There are many theories about the origins of human musicality, and at the moment researchers are not agreeing on one theory, and sometimes there is – for my taste – too much speculation involved,” said study author Manuela M. Marin, a music psychologist, researcher, and lecturer affiliated with the University of Vienna. “So I thought that it may be worthwhile contributing to this debate by providing empirical data.”
“However, it is a challenging task to develop experiments to test theories about the origins of musicality. I am generally interested in how music influences visual perception. Therefore, I thought that it may be a good idea to investigate how musicality affects the perception of faces and dating behavior in the context of Darwin’s sexual selection hypothesis.”
“Mate choice and dating behaviour are determined by a wide range of factors. The human face is an important biological and social cue in any dating scenario. Musicality may be another relevant cue because researchers have proposed that musicality is a signal of intelligence and enhanced motor skills.”
“Music is also mostly performed in a social context, in which dating usually happens. Taken together, music and dating seemed to be a promising topic to be studied, especially since there were not many people working on testing Darwin’s theory at the time I got interested.”
To study the hypothesis that musicality makes an individual more attractive to potential sexual partners, the researchers conducted an experiment on a sample of 35 female and 23 male heterosexual participants. The participants were mostly German and Austrian psychology students.
All reported being single and participating females were required to not be taking hormonal contraception, not be pregnant and not breastfeeding. The two groups were matched on age, mood, role of music in their life, years of music training and the liking of the piano music used in the experiment.
There were two conditions in the experiment – the musical priming (experimental) and the silent (control) condition. In the silent condition, participants were asked to rate facial attractiveness and dating desirability of 37 faces of average attractiveness presented in a random order. Twenty of these faces were the opposite sex “targets,” faces the ratings of which the researchers were really interested in. The remaining 17 faces were same-sex faces used as distractors and not included in the analyses.
In the musical priming condition, participants listened to different musical excerpts of various characteristics, each lasting for 25 seconds and randomly paired with the same 20 opposite sex faces used in the control condition. Each of these faces was displayed 4 times paired with musical excerpts to the participants. Target faces were intermingled with 17 same-sex distractors (that were not analyzed).
Participants were told that the musical excerpt they listened to was played by the person whose face they were asked to rate. The experiment was run separately for males and females – males were shown “target” faces of females and females were shown male faces as “targets.”
Results showed that females rated target faces as substantially more attractive after listening to music supposedly played by those persons. Attractiveness ratings were higher regardless of the arousal or pleasantness qualities of the music associated with the face (which the target was allegedly playing). The difference in dating desirability was even more pronounced – after being told that faces displayed to them belonged to persons playing the music, they rated them as much more desirable for dating than in the control condition.
Males rated target faces in the musical condition as more desirable for dating, but attributing the playing of music to the target faces did not affect their attractiveness ratings. Additionally, females reported to a larger degree than males “that they would be willing to have a one-night stand with the most attractive person shown in the experiment.” There was no difference between male and female participants in their willingness to enter a long-term relationship with the most attractive person shown in the experiment.
Marin noted that the results differed somewhat from a previous study, published in 2017, which examined whether listening to music influenced ratings of facial attractiveness and dating desirability.
“Our previous and current results indicated surprising differences regarding the observed gender effects,” Marin told PsyPost. “In the previous study, music was not directly linked with the facial stimuli when the stimuli were presented one after the other. In this case, music only significantly influenced the females when rating male faces. Males were not significantly affected by the music.”
“In the current study, we told the participants that the music was played by the person shown on the photograph (thus a direct link between music and face was established). In the group of females, we observed a music effect for attractiveness and dating desirability ratings. This result for the group of females is similar to the one of Marin et al. (2017).”
“However, the male group in the current study also reported an increase in dating desirability after music exposure, whereas facial attractiveness remained unaffected,” she explained. “This result for males differs from the one reported in Marin et al. (2017).”
“In sum, these findings suggest that gender differences may depend on the underlying mechanism of how music affects facial perception and dating desirability in a mating context. To gain a better understanding of these gender differences will be a challenge for future research.”
The findings provide three important takeaways:
“First, more and more empirical evidence is accumulating for Darwin’s sexual selection hypothesis of musicality. This shows that old theories should not be neglected or even abandoned in current academic debates on the origins of music unless counter-evidence prevails,” Marin told PsyPost.
“Second, musicality (studied here) and having listened to music (studied in Marin et al., 2017) can influence the perception of attractiveness of opposite-sex faces and dating desirability mostly among females. Males appear to be less influenced by music when rating female faces.”
“Third, more generally, our results obtained in the laboratory are in line with many previous studies on other social topics demonstrating that music may be able to influence the way we perceive and act on others in a real-life social context,” Marin explained.
The experiment makes an important contribution to our understanding of the psychological mechanisms associated with musicality. However, it should be noted that the experiment was carried out on a very small group of participants and that the participants were university students, Europeans, and single. Results on people of different ages, cultural backgrounds as well as studies focused on long-term relationships might yield different results.
“It will be necessary to repeat the experiment with different musical styles (we used piano solo music) and also in a more realistic setting, perhaps even outside the laboratory,” Marin said. “It would also be great to run a similar study in Asia or Africa to be able to see whether there are cultural differences. In context of Darwin’s theory, we would not expect any major differences regarding the general effect of music on mate choice.”
“Music is part of every human culture,” the researcher added. “As music psychologists, we try to get a better understanding of how music affects our feelings and thoughts as well as our behaviour. Our research field keeps growing world-wide.”
The study, “Darwin’s sexual selection hypothesis revisited: Musicality increases sexual attraction in both sexes”, was authored by Manuela M. Marin and Ines Rathgeber.