Last year, we reported on two studies that suggested women are more attracted to a man if he’s holding a guitar. For all the guys who read that and excitedly started lessons, we apologize.
A new, much larger study of more than 10,000 Swedish twins finds no association between musical ability and mating success. In fact, using some measurements, people with greater musical ability actually did less well with the opposite sex than their less-musical counterparts.
The results call into serious question the theory, first proposed by Charles Darwin, that music originally developed as “a signal of genetic quality to potential mates.” Beyond its aesthetic beauty, music has plenty of practical applications, but the idea that it's the human equivalent of a peacock's tail feathers seems less and less likely.
"Although basic musical skill is associated with general cognitive ability, and may therefore serve as a mental fitness indicator, our findings show that higher musical aptitude or achievement does not lead to increased sexual success."
In the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, a research team led by Miriam Mosing of the Karolinska Institute of Stockholm describes a study of 11,543 Swedish twins born between 1959 and 1985. They were first surveyed in 2005 or 2006, at which point they revealed their number of sex partners and age of first intercourse.
A second survey, conducted in 2012-13, included measures of their IQ and number of children. Musical aptitude was measured by their scores on three tests "measuring pitch, melody, and rhythm discrimination." Musical achievement, if any, was determined by where they placed themselves on a one-to-seven scale, from "I am not engaged in music at all" to being a professional musician who has achieved major recognition. (Amateur musicians rated a four.)
"We found that, consistent with our expectations, men with higher scores on the music achievement scale had more children," the researchers write. "However, all other associations between musical ability and the mating measures were either nonsignificant, or were significant in the opposite direction."
For example, both men and women with high scores on the musical aptitude test had their first intercourse at a later age than those with lower scores. Consistent with this, "males and females who scored higher on the musical aptitude or music achievement measures scored lower on sociosexuality"—that is, an orientation toward short-term relationships.
Hey, who has time to fool around when you're practicing six or eight hours a day?
"Although basic musical skill is associated with general cognitive ability, and may therefore serve as a mental fitness indicator (to potential mates), our findings show that higher musical aptitude or achievement does not lead to increased sexual success (quantitatively)," the researchers conclude.
That last qualifier provides a potential bright spot for musicians. "It could be that musically skilled individuals attract higher quality sex partners, rather than greater quantity," Mosing and her colleagues concede. "Rather than musical ability being a good-genes indicator, it may serve as a good-dad or good-partner indicator, signaling discipline, conscientiousness, and openness (traits known to predict musical practice), and, potentially, emotional stability or kindness."
Quite possibly, but I would like to see that "emotional stability" measure broken down by genre.
In any case, the study provides more weight for Steven Pinker's notion that music is likely a byproduct of other traits that indicate someone is a good potential mate, such as intelligence and linguistic abilities. Or perhaps its benefits were really felt on the group level, as music (originally in the form of rhythmic chanting) helped societies bond together for a common purpose. Remnants of this can be seen in military bands, national anthems, and school fight songs.
So, if your love life doesn't pick up once you've picked up a guitar, it is not an indicator that you're doing something wrong. That whole premise appears to be flawed. Fortunately, making music has been linked to a variety of intellectual and emotional benefits. Not a bad consolation prize.