Male musicians somehow always get the girl, and live concerts always seem to be great settings to spark romance. Recently, researchers uncovered new insights into why that always seems to be the case. Simultaneously listening to pleasant music and looking at photos of men, University of Vienna researchers found in a new study, consistently makes heterosexual women rate those men as more attractive.
In their study, published Monday in PLoS One, they explain that this observation might be best explained by a phenomenon called “misattribution of arousal.” Essentially, brains that are turned on by music can sometimes get confused, leading them to feel turned on by people, too.
The scientists were investigating how exactly music affects the courtship process — in particular, how music affects the way people perceive facial attractiveness and dating desirability. To study this, they showed their participants photographs of people of the opposite sex while soft music played in the background.
Their playlist was less “Thong Song” and more what you’d hear at a really nice dinner party — eighty excerpts from 19th-century piano solo music. Some stars of this era include Erik Satie and Franz Schubert, known for their emotional, romantic pieces.
After rating how pleasant they found the songs and stating how often they listened and enjoyed music, the 64 women and 32 men were asked how willing they were to either have a one-night stand or consider a long-term relationship with the person they saw in the photograph, who wore a neutral expression.
The analysis showed that women, but not men, were significantly more influenced by music when it came to rating another person’s attractivess. In particular, women who listened to pleasurable music were more likely to give someone a high facial attractiveness or dating desirability compared to women who listened to unpleasant music or looked at a photograph in silence.
Investigating whether the characteristics of the music had anything to do with perceived attractiveness, the researchers found that women who listened to the most “arousing and complex” songs were the most likely to give men high marks for attractiveness. Where a woman was on her fertility cycle, however, didn’t seem to make any difference.
The researchers hypothesize that what’s going on here is misattribution of arousal — the idea that intense experiences of any kind elicit a strong emotional response that the brain confuses with a sexual response. The theory has also been used to explain why pairs of people going through dangerous situations and watching scary movies have greater sexual attraction for one another.
“There is some evidence in the psychological literature that so-called arousal transfer effects can occur if two stimuli are processed consecutively,” the new study’s co-author Manuela Marin, Ph.D, says in a statement. Processing the first stimulus — in this case, music — makes people more internally aroused, and that arousal is then attributed to the second stimulus — the person of the opposite sex.
“This mostly unconscious mechanism can then influence our actions, in this case, the choice of a partner,” she writes.
The researchers aren’t sure why the way men perceived female attractiveness wasn’t influenced by music in the same way, but they speculate it may have to do with the way music evolved to be a part of courtship in the first place.
“One possible interpretation is that men generally use courtship displays to attract women, and not vice versa, as implied by previous studies focusing primarily on how women are attracted by men’s musical engagement or abilities,” they write. It’s worth pointing out, however, that while Darwin believed music definitely has a reproductive function, he didn’t think it’s a trait that differed between males and females.
Among music’s many other effects are its ability to boost human cognitive creativity, change the way we perceive flavor, and ignite the same pleasure centers of the brain as drugs. Considered by scientists to be a core human experience and a fundamental part of our evolution, it makes sense that music would want to make some of us want to bone too.