Musical Mystery

Singer Tom Jones, famous recipient of ladies’ panties

There are three categories of supersars who seem to attract excessive female interest. The first is actors, who of course are selected for being abnormally attractive and put into romantic and exciting narratives that our brains subconsciously interpret as real. The second are sports stars and other athletes, whose ritualized combat and displays of strength obviously indicate their genetic “fitness” for siring and providing for children.

The third and strangest category is professional musicians, especially rock stars.

I understand why people want to pass athletic abilities on to their children, but what is the evolutionary importance of musical talent? Does music tap into some deep, fundamental instinct like a bird’s attraction to the courtship song of its mate? And if so, why?

There’s no denying the importance of music to American courtship rituals–not only do people visit bars, clubs, and concerts where music is being played in order to meet potential partners, but they also display musical tastes on dating profiles in order to meet musically-like-minded people.

Of all the traits to look for in a mate, why rate musical taste so highly? And why do some people describe their taste as, “Anything but rap,” or “Anything but country”?

Mick Jagger and Chuck Berry

At least when I was a teen, musical taste was an important part of one’s “identity.” There were goths and punks, indie scene kids and the aforementioned rap and country fans.

Is there actually any correlation between musical taste and personality? Do people who like slow jazz get along with other slow jazz fans better than fans of classical Indian? Or is this all compounded by different ethnic groups identifying with specific musical styles?

Obviously country correlates with Amerikaner ancestry; rap with African American. I’m not sure what ancestry is biggest fans of Die Antwoord. Heavy Metal is popular in Finno-Scandia. Rock ‘n Roll got its start in the African American community as “Race Music” and became popular with white audiences after Elvis Presley took up the guitar.

While Europe has a long and lovely musical heritage, it’s indisputable that African Americans have contributed tremendously to American musical innovation.

Here are two excerpts on the subject of music and dance in African societies:

source: A Voyage to Senegal: The Isle of Goreé, and the River Gambia by  Michel Adanson, Correspondent of the Royal Academy of Sciences


source: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience Aardvark-Catholic. Vol. 1
Elvis’s pelvis, considered too sexy for TV

Both of these h/t HBD Chick and my apologies in advance if I got the sources reversed.

One of the major HBD theories holds that the three races vary–on average–in the distribution of certain traits, such as age of first tooth eruption or intensity of an infant’s response to a tissue placed over its face. Sub-Saharan Africans and Asians are considered two extremes in this distribution, with whites somewhere in between.

If traditional African dancing involves more variety in rhythmic expression than traditional European, does traditional Asian dance involve less? I really know very little about traditional Asian music or dance of any kind, but I would not be surprised to see some kind of continuum affected by whether a society traditionally practiced arranged marriages. Where people chose their own mates, it seems like they display a preference for athletic or musically talented mates (“sexy” mates;) when parents chose mates, they seem to prefer hard-working, devout, “good providers.”

Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky, from War and Peace by Tolstoy

Even in traditional European and American society, where parents played more of a role in courtship than they do today, music still played a major part. Young women, if their families could afford it, learned to play the piano or other instruments in order to be “accomplished” and thus more attractive to higher-status men; young men and women often met and courted at musical events or dances organized by the adults.

It is undoubtedly true that music stirs the soul and speaks to the heart, but why?


12 thoughts on “Musical Mystery

  1. I’ve been into this a little bit, too, and I keep coming to the conclusion that musical skills do play a role in sexual selection, even though they don’t directly correlate with general intelligence. It actually recently reared its ugly head on our rather underpopulated forum:

    I actually suspect that the likeness of these actual musical skills (i.e. the quality of the music including its genre) does show a correlation with intelligence, which is what Satoshi Kanazawa theorizes as well ( – he finds that instrumental music and high IQ are correlated). Which would make sense, if I accept that intelligence is primarily a fitness indicator that plays a major role in sexual selection.

    I really like your blog, glad to see you keep it going.


    • Thanks!
      When you think about it, using music to attract mates goes way back, way beyond humans. Surely singing must have some adaptive function or signal some function besides “Hey I’m over here!” But of course just because it works that way in birds doesn’t mean it works the same way in humans.
      Humans are uniquely intelligent among species, which implies that some selection for intelligence must be going on, but I suspect that our ability to measure this is affected by the fact that 1. People probably aren’t interested in partners who are much more intelligent than themselves and so the average person will reject a highly intelligent person, 2. People at the extreme ends of the intelligence spectrum may just be weirdos but trends could still hold generally for the middle, and 3. We probably select for proxies like “brings home lots of meat from the hunt” rather than direct measures like “scores well on an IQ test.”

      So among people in the normal intelligence range, say from about the bottom 25% to the top 75%, I bet musical ability, broadly speaking, correlates decently well with intelligence–smarter people can probably memorize more songs, are better at performing them, can come up with their own songs, etc. Maybe the #1 best musician in town spends a little too much time thinking about music to be a good mate, but the #2 guy might be just clever enough.

      Thanks for dropping by!


      • Unless that poor girl is deep into music as well, in that case, only #1 will work for her. So they will be able to join the reindeer choir and teach them new songs while running the farm like a champ. Which is a nice fairy tale, I wonder why Andersen & friends didn’t touch it. -.- Yeah, what you’re saying leads back to the triumph of the average and the tragedy of the outlier. Thank you for your reply!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. In a dual choice system, individuals will pursue a mate with whom offspring will more closely approximate their idealized member of their in group. Music (and art in general) is a very pure way of expressing “who we are.” It will mirror whatever traits are considered optimal within a culture, although the aesthetic specifics are likely arbitrary to some extent. What it means to “do the right things” has changed in America over the generations, and our art has changed to match.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I tend to think sexual selection. Of course this is to some degree a cop out. It’s kind of throwing up the hands. But whenever you have mate selection that is inobviously about fitness, it’s a solid hypothesis.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. NFLer turned actor Jim Brown once said that singers hands down get the most and most attractive women, followed by pro athletes in the major sports , with actors in third place.


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