Ladies, which musical composer would you like to sleep with? Well, according to some science that just happened, your preference might be influenced by where you are in your monthly cycle.
Benjamin Charlton at the University of Sussex wanted to know if Darwin was right, that music, having no survival benefit, was a target of sexual selection. Translation: do the ladies pick partners based on whether they can make sexy music?
You see, other animals that make music woo their women by mafking more complex music than the dude next door. (Examples: singing mice and nightingales). So why not humans, too? The idea is that women would be able to get a sense of how creative, intelligent and capable of complex learning a man is by listening to the music he made (this hypothesis doesn’t account for the fact that women also compose music, but we’ll just ignore that, I guess…)
Previous studies seem to have shown that women prefer more creative men during peak ovulation. In this study, Benjamin Charlton of the University of Sussex found that women preferred composers of more complex music as short-term sexual partners (but not long-term partners) when they were ovulating.
The experiment was set up like this: Dr. Charlton recruited 261 undergraduate women from the University of Sussex and 1204 women from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace for at-home workers. The women participated in the experiment online. They filled out information on their age, relationship status, amount of formal musical training, length of menstrual cycle and date of last menses (among other information).
The women were divided into 2 groups. The first group (265 women) judged pairs of short piano compositions and marked which one they thought was more complex. The second group (629 women) got the good question: of these 2 short compositions, which composer would you rather have as a sexual partner, and would you prefer it to be short-term or a long-term committed relationship? As a control, women were asked to participate in a similar experiment using visual mosaics instead of music.
The sexual preferences of the women for different imaginary composers was then correlated with where she was in her menstrual cycle. Basically, were they at high or low risk for conception? And if they were at high risk, did they want to jump into bed with one or the other composer? Dr. Charlton crunched the numbers, and came up with a p-value less than 0.001 for conception risk. A p-value less than 0.05 is generally considered to be “significant”, ie: the statistical test used came up with a number that is significantly different than what you would expect if the hypothesis (that menstrual cycle timing affects sexual preferences of composers) was false. The results indicated that women prefer composers of more complex music as short-term sexual partners, but only if their eggs are a-ready for fertilizing.
Where to begin? First of all, if I were asked which non-existent man I would rather sleep with, based on 20 seconds worth of music, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to sleep with either of them. In this case, however, the women had to make a choice of one or the other. So, I’d probably pick the one with more complex music, too, just because it sounds less dull. That doesn’t mean that there is necessarily any real-world scenario in which I’d hop in bed with a guy just because his music is super complex.
As for the association to conception risk…who the hell knows? The sample sizes are so small, and the experiment so contrived, I really don’t know what to make of these data. The p-value may be technically significant, but it’s well-known that crazier hypotheses yield smaller p-values. The more unlikely something is to be true, the less evidence you need to say that it’s actually kind of likely. It’s more likely than it was before he did the experiment, I guess, but still nowhere near proven.
I guess we still don’t really know if Darwin was right when he mused that, perhaps, “musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex.”
Charlton BD (2014). Menstrual cycle phase alters women’s sexual preferences for composers of more complex music. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 281 (1784) PMID: 24759864