If music be the food of love, play something complex

Striking a chord with lovers? During the most fertile phase of their menstrual cycle, women prefer sexual mates who are able to produce more complex music. ('Liszt at the piano' by Josef Danhauser, 1805-1845)

Dr Ben Charlton's experiment involved piano compositions that ranged from simple to complex to determine how women respond to music at peak times of conception.

Although Charles Darwin first argued that music’s primary function was sexual courtship, there has been little clear evidence to prove it.  Now a new University of Sussex psychology study supports his theory by showing that during the most fertile phase of their menstrual cycle, women prefer sexual mates who are able to produce more complex music.

The study, published today (23 April 2014) in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, could account for the early origins of music - and why creative individuals are considered so desirable for short-term sexual relationships.

The paper’s author, Dr Benjamin Charlton, says: “The findings of this study provide the first support for Darwin’s original contention that music evolved via sexual selection.”

Dr Charlton’s study involved nearly 1500 women (mean age 27.9 years) who were not breastfeeding, pregnant or using hormonal contraception involved two experiments.  In the first, participants were asked to choose which of four thematically similar piano compositions – as played by a music software application – was the most complex. The melodies progressed from few chords and a simple rhythm to a greater variety of chords and a syncopated (off-beat) rhythm.

Another group of women were asked whether they would prefer the composer of the first (simple) or second (more complex) melody either as a short-term sexual partner, or a longer-term partner in a committed relationship.

The results showed that woman only preferred composers of more complex music as short-term sexual partners when conception risk was highest.

No preferences were displayed when women chose which composer they would prefer as a long-term partner in a committed relationship, and control experiments failed to reveal an effect of conception risk on women’s preferences for visual artists.    

In interpreting the results, Dr Charlton says: “The ability to create complex music could be indicative of advanced cognitive abilities. Consequently, women may acquire genetic benefits for offspring by selecting musicians able to create more complex music as sexual partners.”


Notes for editors

‘Menstrual cycle phase alters women’s sexual preferences for composers of more complex music’ is published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, on 16 April 2014.  Link here: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/lookup/doi/10.1098/rspb.2014.0403

University of Sussex Press Office:  01273 678888, Email:  press@sussex.ac.uk


By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Wednesday, 23 April 2014