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Musical Ability Is Attractive in a Potential Mate

New research suggests the ability to play an instrument well is surprisingly sexy.

The origins of music remain murky. Did it evolve due to its ability to forge a group of people into a cohesive group? Were the first songs lullabies? Or, as romantics would have it, was it simply a way to attract a mate?

New research from Sweden provides evidence for the latter explanation. It finds a potential partner is more attractive if his or her photograph is accompanied by higher-quality improvised music.

This tendency was stronger among women—especially those looking for a long-term relationship. Perhaps John Coltrane's famous "sheets of sound" enticed a few fans to invite him under their sheets.

The small-scale study, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, featured 27 women and 27 men, all of whom looked at a series of photos featuring faces of people from the opposite sex, which had previously been rated for attractiveness.

After examining each image, they responded to a series of mating-related questions, including how good-looking they found the person, and how interested they would be in having a romantic relationship (of the long, short, or one-night-stand varieties).

Each photograph was accompanied by a 30-second piece of music, which was recorded especially for this experiment. It featured musicians of various ability levels improvising on the drums, violin, or alto saxophone. These instruments were selected because "they give away poor performance skill more readily than, for example, piano or guitar."

So was musical skill sexy? The results suggest the answer is, in general, yes. "Mate value ratings were generally increased by music performance quality by raters of both sexes," reports the research team led by psychologist Guy Madison of Umea University.

There were exceptions to this general tendency. Not surprisingly, "music performance quality generally affected women's ratings more than men's," they write. In contrast, "Facial attractiveness generally affected men's ratings more than women's." To paraphrase John Lennon, imagine that.

Another interesting finding: Compelling music in the background increased women's perception that the man in the photo was intelligent. This may explain why it increased their interest in long-term relationships.

What does this tell us about music, and its evolutionary purpose? Madison and his colleagues have some ideas. "Evolution may have favored assigning to males the task of crafting efficient signals that reflect the cumulative result of several fitness-related traits," they write.

"A moment of playing an instrument, or something else that has been similarly perfected through sustained, effortful culling of genetic resources," signals to potential mates that the person embodies such desirable traits as "intelligence, conscientiousness, grit, and motivation," the researchers add. If you have the smarts and perseverance to learn to play an instrument well, you're probably pretty good mate material.

Previous research has found men are more attractive to women if they are holding a guitar. This study suggests there is much truth in an assertion women have been making for millennia: It's not just the instrument, but how well you play it.