Thursday, August 09, 2012

Is music a result of sexual selection? [Revisited]

Cover of NRC Cultureel Supplement.
It was Darwin’s hunch: music, as widespread as it is in our human culture, could well be a result of sexual selection, one of the two selection mechanisms he proposed to be at the basis of our evolution (the other being natural selection).

Today an article by Wim Köhler appeared in the Dutch newspaper NRC elaborating on this idea: the potential evolutionary advantage of ‘mooizingers’ - those who perform well musically.

Music as a result of sexual selection has been adapted by psychologist Geoffrey Miller in his often cited book The Mating Mind, in which he suggests music to be one of the many social and cultural behaviors that we use to impress the opposite sex. At first it seems convincing idea…

However, there is a lot to bring in against this hypothesis (see earlier blogs). The most striking being simply the absence of empirical evidence! (The only evidence that Miller brought forward was the amount of offspring Jimi Hendrix produced - officially three!?)

Cognitive biologist Tecumseh Fitch (Vienna University) and his colleagues recently designed an experiment to put the sexual selection hypothesis to the test: does the ability to produce complex musical sounds  reflect qualities that are relevant in mate choice contexts, supporting the idea of music to be functionally analogous to the sexually-selected acoustic displays of some animals, such as songbirds? If this hypothesis is correct, women may be expected to show heightened preferences for more complex music when they are most fertile -- was the reasoning of the Vienna research team.

To to test this hypothesis the Vienna team used computer-generated musical pieces and ovulation predictor kits. The researchers found that women prefer more complex music in general, but they found no evidence that their preference for more complex music increased around ovulation. As such these findings are not consistent with the hypothesis that a heightened preference/bias in women for more complex music around ovulation could have played a role in the evolution of music.

More empirical research is needed of course, but for the time being and considering the empirical evidence that is available, there is no study, as yet, that supports the sexual selection hypothesis for music. Charlton, Benjamin D., Filippi, Piera, & Fitch, W. Tecumseh (2012). Do Women Prefer More Complex Music around Ovulation? PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035626

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H., & Ploeger, A. (2012). Cognition and the Evolution of Music: Pitfalls and Prospects Topics in Cognitive Science. DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01210.x


  1. More complex than what? More complex than banging a stick on a rock?

    Sexual selected traits will head for quasi-equilibrium where the sum natural and sexual selection pressures are near balance: if the celebrated peacock tail becomes any bigger, he becomes breakfast, and, I guess, the peahens become so besotted that they forget to check whether he can actually walk.

    Presumably, our musical complexitometer is set at a trade-off point where increasing the complexity may be a turn off. The music of the great seductive crooners is typically quite simple rather than complex, though confoundingly difficult to replicate.

    I would only try to serenade a trained musician with complex music. We don't rate paintings by the number of brush strokes or the size of the canvas, though these can be good (or bad) qualities of an artwork. Art doesn't obey the simple more-is-better economics of natural selection.

    If you haven't read it, get Dutton's The Art Instinct. It demonstrated to me why art is attractive and why it is difficult, illusive and even contradictory. There probably was a time when just bumping up the complexity got you laid, but that was a long time ago.

  2. For completeness below a reference to the late Denis Dutton and the u-shape of musical complexity, both referred to in the studies discussed in the blog:

    Dutton, D. (2009). The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    North, A. C. & Hargreaves, D.J. (1995) Subjective Complexity, Familiarity, and Liking for Popular Music. Psychomusicology, 14, 77-93.