By Philip Ball 23 April Humans have been making music for at least 40, years. The earliest known instruments are flutes made from hollow animal bones. What is less clear is why we make music. But how credible is the notion that making music is all about sex? First, all known cultures have had music — even those that have lacked a written language. It is as close to a universal human trait as you could hope for.
Of course, we love it, it makes us joyful or transports us into tears, rapture and dance, but it bears no obvious, tangible evolutionary advantage. There is no shortage of ideas for why it first emerged among our ancestors. He regarded sexual selection as an adjunct of natural selection: It is conceivable that such sexual displays do offer honest clues about genetic fitness.
By this logic, falling for a skilled musician makes good evolutionary sense. The link between sex and music might seem indisputable. Rock and pop stars are famously surrounded by gaggles of sexually available fans at the height of their fertility, and no one made the guitar more explicitly phallic than Jimi Hendrix.
For example, Miles Davis attested that musicians are often celibate before big concerts, to retain their edge. A sexual-selection origin of music might also help to explain the apparent impulse towards diversity, creativity and novelty, for many male songbirds also develop large repertoires and variety in an effort to produce the most alluring mating signal.
Most Western music in the Middle Ages was practised by supposedly celibate monks. And in some African societies, musicians are regarded as lazy and unreliable, and so poor marriage material. Hard scientific evidence for sexual selection in music is been scant and equivocal.
If women do pick sexual partners on the basis of creative or artistic traits, one would expect changes in their preferences during peak fertility. A study in did find that apparently creative men were favoured at this time. Cycle of attraction So what does the latest study add? But what about the composers themselves? Charlton divided his group of 1, adult women survey participants into those at low and high risk of conception at the time of testing, based on what they reported about their reproductive cycle.
He played them several short melodies, composed for the experiment, of varying degrees of complexity. First he asked some of the participants to rate the melodic complexity, to ensure that they could do this reliably.
Next he asked a different group which of the supposed male composers of a pair of melodies of different complexity they would prefer as a short- or long-term sexual partner.
A significant number showed a greater preference for the composer of the more complex piece — but only in the high-conception-risk group, and only as a short-term partner.
Now, numbers are numbers: For example, the most complex music, according to some measures, is Indonesian gamelan, which is among the most social, devotional and non-sexualized of all world music. There is also little evidence to suggest that music has displayed a steady trend towards greater complexity.
More work required, then — or in other words, if music be the food of love, play on.