Hot Tchaikovsky: Fertile Women Prefer Complex Composers
Making music might be part of the mating game, according to a new study.
Credit: merzzie , Shutterstock

The answer to the question, "What do women want?" just got a little weirder. New research finds that when fertile, women are more likely to want a fling with a composer of a complex aria than a simple tune.

The study is the first scientific evidence that music may have evolved as a way to signal intelligence, creativity or dexterity to potential mates.

Charles Darwin first suggested that human music, having no implicit survival value, might have evolved as a way to woo mates. In his book, "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex" (1871), he wrote, "It appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm." [How Do I Love Thee? Experts Count 8 Ways]

Music for mating

But no one had ever found evidence that music works in this way. In a 2012 study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers played tunes of various complexity for women in different phases of their menstrual cycle and found that they had no preference for complexity around the time of ovulation, when they were most fertile.

Now, one of the authors of that study, Benjamin Charlton of the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, has approached the problem in a different way — with different results. This time, instead of testing for a preference for the music itself, Charlton asked women to imagine entering a relationship with the composer of the music.

The researcher recruited 1,465 women from the university and from Amazon's hired-task website Mechanical Turk. None of the women were pregnant, nursing or taking hormonal birth control medications, and all reported regular menstrual cycles. After answering questions about the timing of their menstrual cycle, the researchers played a series of tunes for these women, all similar in melody but different in complexity. (The more complex versions had additional chords and syncopated, or offbeat, notes.)

After hearing the tunes, the women reported whether they'd be interested in entering a short- or long-term relationship with the man who composed them.

Some like it complex

The women's answers revealed that those who were most likely to be in the fertile phase of their monthly cycles were more likely than nonfertile women to say they'd be interested in a short-term relationship with the composer of the more complex pieces.

"Women only preferred composers of more complex music as short-term sexual partners when conception risk was highest," Charlton wrote today (April 22) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

To ensure that women in their fertile phases weren't simply preferring artistic complexity in general, Charlton repeated the experiment using tile mosaics, or pictures of mosaics, of various complexity and found no evidence of a shift in preferences. He also found that the music-complexity effect acted only on short-term relationship preferences, not on interest in long-term relationships.

That finding suggests that women might be tuning into those men who possess the "good genes" that make it possible for them to create complex compositions. Music might be a way to display intelligence and creativity — talents that would benefit potential offspring, Charlton wrote.

Of course, he added, music has other benefits, from cementing social groups to promoting infant development. More research is needed to understand those roles, he wrote. And future work, he wrote, should focus on whether men prefer female composers of complex music as sexual partners, to see if the selection works both ways.

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