How music gets you in the mood

Think of the songs that have formed the soundtrack to your life as you've fallen in love or nursed a broken heart. Why do we feel such an emotional tie with music?

"Like peacock feathers, music is used by humans to attract mates and we've been writing love songs for centuries," said music psychologist Dr Sandra Garrido of the University of Western Sydney.

Given these days we have access to such an unprecedented range of music styles, as part of ABC Classic FM's celebration of the music of passion and heartbreak, we're asking: can science help you decide what music will get you in the mood?

Before the everyday use of mobile music players and personalised playlists, life was much simpler. In the 1990s, psychologist Professor Adrian North of Curtin University did a rare study specifically asking people what they consider to be romantic music.

He asked hundreds of psychology students what type of music they wanted to hear in 17 different social situations, including a romantic candle-lit dinner.

Their response was surprisingly uniform. For a romantic date they wanted to hear "quieter, slower music, with soothing tones," said Professor North. It's the sort of music that covers awkward silences but doesn't get in the way of conversation.

"It was interesting how much agreement there was between people on the kind of the music they wanted to hear," he said.

But Professor North wondered whether his students were simply regurgitating 1990s cultural stereotypes — fed by movies, advertisers and recording companies — of what romantic music is supposed to be.

Is there a biological basis for our preferences?

Dr Sandra Garrido said our music preferences are likely influenced by a deeper evolutionary imperative.

She believes it's got a lot to do with how music can communicate emotions in the human voice.

"We are evolutionarily programmed to respond to particular cues in the human voice and to perceive them as expressing particular emotions," she said.

"And when those same features occur in music we respond to that in the same way, as if it was a person in front of us doing that."

Dr Garrido said human voices that are less modulated and more monotonous communicate sadness, and this means we perceive music that mimics these contours also as sad.

Studies suggest humans have evolved to find low voices sexy, she said. And music that imitates low tones can evoke similar feelings.

"When people are feeling sexy their voices are generally lower pitched," said Dr Garrido. "And music with low pitch and a slow but rhythmic tempo comes across as romantic and sexy."

Dr Garrido said there are also studies that suggest listening to soothing music increases levels of oxytocin — the 'love hormone' or 'cuddle chemical'.


What's the best music for romance?

But humans — and the music we make — have come a long way since our ancestors were roaming the savannah. A preference for a particular style of music for romance is unlikely to be universal in this era of smart phones and music streaming services.

"There are several different layers that influence our responses to music," said Dr Garrido.

The way we perceive music and lyrics is also affected by our experiences, memories, associations and tastes.

So it's possible people can nominate music as romantic that doesn't reflect the "low, slow and cool" cultural stereotype, she said.

"It really is so subjective."

Dr Garrido's recent research showed people chose songs from all genres for a romantic situation. It might not be that popular, but some even nominate hard rock and metal.

"So the trick in a dating situation is — if you're trying to set the mood — you've got to make sure that the person you're hoping to seduce has similar musical tastes. Otherwise it's not going to have the desired effect."

And findings suggest that we find people more attractive when we are listening to music we like, said Professor North.

In one study, people were asked to rate the physical attractiveness of individuals in photos while listening to different styles of music. They consistently rated people as more attractive when they liked the music they were listening to.

Sharing the same taste in music has also been shown to drive people to form social bonds, said Professor North.

So while there might be good reasons to choose soothing sounds for seduction, research suggests if you and your date or partner both love a different music style, then listening to that could increase attraction — and the bond — between you.