In our society, and across the developmental history of the human species, music has been present. It is played in our cars and streamed on our televisions, broadcast on the radio and overheard in grocery stores. It is in the range of our vocal cords and the rhythmic beating of our very hearts. From ritual to dance to rave, music has provided a platform upon which individuals have connected and communicated with others for centuries.
That music is one of humanity’s oldest and most constant forms of art is undeniable, but its adaptive purpose has been somewhat more unclear. Despite a continuing presence over cultures and civilizations, music has no clearly identified basis in human survival and evolution. Emerging evidence, however, suggests that our musical preferences may be less happenstance than we think. Playing a role in communication and social bonding, music may even influence our choices in mate selection.
Perhaps it seems fairly intuitive to imagine that shared appreciation for musical genres promotes social bonding. Social psychologists have observed for decades that individuals tend to be more attracted to people who share similar attitudes and beliefs, from politics, to religion, to social values. Working as a signal for these held beliefs, musical tastes also appear to promote feelings of similarity-based attraction.
In a 2011 study by Boer and colleagues exploring the link between social attraction and shared musical preferences, researchers found a mediating role for value similarity, defined as “self-affirmative expressions that convey values and identity-relevant information to the outside world” (Boer et al., 2011). According to the study, certain musical genres are commonly associated with corresponding value orientations. Rock and punk, for example, are linked with openness to change. Popular music and hip-hop are tied to self-enhancement and openness values. Jazz and classical music are associated with self-transcendant values.
To simplify the findings of the study, individuals with shared musical tastes also shared value characteristics, which in turn resulted in greater social attraction. Interestingly, this similarity in value orientation was more strongly influential in social attraction than similarity in other domains, such as background or personality characteristics (Boer et al., 2011). In observing and relating to the musical tastes of others, it appears that we are able to gain significant insight into the very aspects of individuals that may determine our attraction to them. While the work conducted by Boer was designed to explore social, rather than romantic, attraction, there appears to be a case for music in the latter, as well.
In a separate study, single men and women first introduced while background music was playing rated significantly higher levels of interest and attraction, compared to couples who met with no background music (Lukits, 2015). In conjunction with the research discussed earlier by Boer and colleagues, it seems possible to consider that this enhancement might be due to the shared listening experience, perhaps evoking similar ideas of shared values. While the experiment did not ask the men and women to identify their own musical tastes or share them with their partners, simultaneous exposure to the same tune may have possibly elicited similar effects.
It also seems possible to consider a role for enhanced dopaminergic transmission in facilitating this attractive effect. In a study exploring the effect of music on the dopaminergic pathway, Sutoo and Akiyama (2004) determined that exposure to music for a period of 120 minutes produced an 18% increase in dopamine within the lateral area of the neostriatum in rats. In addition, systolic blood pressure measurements suggested a depression of blood pressure during exposure to music and persisting at least 30 minutes afterward. The effects were suggested to result from an acceleration of calcium-dependent dopamine synthesis within the brain in response to music (Sutoo & Akiyama, 2004).
Heavily implicated in the pleasure and reward pathway, dopamine is also associated with feelings of attraction, anticipation, and desire. As discussed by Anjan Chatterjee in his book, The Aesthetic Brain, when male rats are separated from receptive females by a barrier, dopamine floods the nucleus accumbens (Chatterjee, 86). Similarly, Chatterjee writes,
Neural activity in the hypothalamus that increases with sexual arousal is enhanced with the drug apomorphine, which works on dopamine receptors. Conversely, antipsychotic medications and some antidepressants that blck dopamine receptors inhibit sexual desire. (Chatterjee, 86)
It seems possible to imagine then, that music may influence our attraction to others not simply through illustration of held values, but also through the activation of neural mechanisms implicated in sexual desire. This possible intersection of music and attraction within the dopamine pathway is supported by the combination of observed sex differences in dopamine-centric neuropsychiatric disorders (Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, etc.) (Czoty et al., 2009) and an apparent interaction between music and hormone levels.
In a study by Benjamin Charlton of the University of Sussex, menstrual cycle phase was explored in relationship to sexual preference for musical composers. Female participants were divided into high conception risk and low conception risk categories, and exposed to two melodies, one of which was substantially more complex than the other. Asked to determine preference for one composer or the other in terms of short-term and long-term mating preference, high conception risk women exhibited significantly higher preference for the composer of the more complex melody for short-term sexual partnership (Charlton, 2014). Notably, this sexual preference applied only to short-term partner selection. When taken into consideration alongside emerging evidence for hormone-dopamine interactions and dopaminergic changes associated with both music and attraction, perhaps an evolutionary basis for music is not so far fetched. Acting as both a social cue to direct us to those with similar values, as well as contributing to dopaminergic activity in a manner similar to that elicited by sexual attraction, music may underlie not only our cultural roots, but our biological ones as well.
Boer, D., Fischer, R., Strack, M., Bond, M., Lo, E., & Lam, J. 2011. How shared preferences in music create bonds between people: values as the missing link. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(9): 1159-1171.
Charlton, Benjamin D. 2014. Menstrual cycle phase alters women’s sexualpreferences for composers of more complex music. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 281: 1784.
Chatterjee, Anjan. (2014). The aesthetic brain : how we evolved to desire beauty and enjoy art. New York, NY ; Oxford :Oxford University Press,
Czoty P.W., Riddick N.V., Gage H.D., Sandridge M., Nader S.H., Garg S., Bounds, M.,Garg, P.K., & Nader, M.A. (2009) Effect of menstrual cycle phase on dopamine D2 receptor availability in female cynomolgus monkeys. Neuropsychopharmacology, 34(3): 548–54
Lukits, A. 2015. Music enhances feelings of attraction. The Wall Street Journalonline, accessed April 5, 2016.
Sutoo, D. & Akiyama, K. (2004) Music improves dopaminergic neurotransmission: demonstration based on the effect of music on blood pressure regulation. Brain Research, 1016: 225-262