Current Event: Recent studies show that musical ability might be a sexually-selected trait

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Franz Liszt, Hungarian composer and pianist

On a snowy day in Berlin, two days after Christmas 1841, Franz Liszt strode out onto the stage at the Berliner Singakademie concert hall. He sat at his grand piano in profile, beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He was 30 years old, at the height of his ability, and he was about to unleash a mania—a mania not in the sense of “Beatlemania,” or any of the other relatively mild musical obsessions, but a mania viewed as a truly contagious, dangerous medical condition that would affect women in Germany, Italy, France, Austria, and elsewhere.

Using his whole body—his undulating eyebrows, his wild arms, even his swaying hips—Liszt dove into Händel’s “Fugue in E minor” with vigor and unfettered confidence, keeping perfect tempo and playing entirely from memory. It was the start of the phenomenon later called “Lisztomania,” and the women in the audience went mad.

At one point or another, many of you have probably swooned over someone in a band. Or a cute ukulele-strumming Youtuber. Or an iconic pop star.

As revealed by recent studies, there is actually a scientific, evolutionary explanation for this. According to Petr Janata, a professor of psychology at UC Davis, we find it attractive when people have the resources, time, and discipline to perfect their musical craft. In fact, musicians are essentially like birds, attracting their mates with the quality and complexity of their songs.

The work of Charles Darwin reveals that music has its roots in evolution. In The Descent of Man, he writes:

 Musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male and female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex.

One-hundred and forty years later, Benjamin D. Charlton confirmed Darwin’s theory in a recent study that explored women’s musical preferences based on their menstrual cycles. Charlton found that in particular slots of time during their cycles (typically within days 6 to 14), women preferred the most complex songs from a selection of piano compositions. Such an observation suggests that women had a greater urge to procreate with the more skilled musicians. Thus, Charlton concluded that “music is a product of sexual selection through mate choice.”

In addition to signifying a variety of traits, such as faithfulness and dependability, musical skill and taste is also indicative of an individual’s miscellaneous preferences—some of which would be distasteful to ask about candidly.

 For example, if someone proclaimed their favorite band to be Vampire Weekend, you would likely assume that they are financially stable, somewhat bourgeois, college-educated, liberal, secular, slightly but not entirely conformist, born in or living in an urban area, etcetera. (Either that, or that is what they want you to think by claiming Ezra Koenig’s indie band as their favorite.) Whereas, if someone responded, “Tim McGraw,” you could glean that they might be from a rural or suburban environment and are likelier to be politically conservative.

Not to mention, music, unlike other art forms such as literature or film, influences its audience’s emotions much more quickly. Thus, a musician has the ability to access his mate’s emotions with ease; surely this is an advantage in the romantic sphere.

So, while we certainly admire musicians for their artistic ability, our attraction to them may be much more scientific than we thought.

 

To read the full article by Cody C. Delistraty, click here.

Post submitted by JoAnna 

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