Friday Weird Science: Whip it good, hold me closer, and other reproductive music messages

May 18 2012 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

We all know what this song is trying to tell us:

And what about this one?

Yes, shocking as it might be to some, a lot of songs, classical, pop, or of any other a lot about sex. But not just sex, there are a lot of reproductive messages in music. We might notice a lot of these lyrics, from Baby Got Back to Gilbert and Sullivan, but what do they mean? Why are they there? And do they make a song more popular?

SCIENCE is here to find out!

Hobbes and Gallup. "Songs as a Medium for Embedded Reproductive Messages" Evolutionary Psychology, 2011.

Note 1: Today's post comes courtesy of the Digital Cuttlefish, who turned me on to this truly awesome piece of the scientific literature.

Note 2: I would like to dedicate this post as a whole to the fantastic Danielle Lee, who I hope will remix it. 🙂

Believe it or not, it was DARWIN who suggested that human music might have evolved as part of a courtship display, suggesting that there is sexual selection for better music makers (though this does not explain the persistence of tone deafness...good drummers?). But there's no denying that everyone does it:

And there's no denying that modern music has a lot of sexy lyrics. But it's not just sex we're talking about. No, in this case the authors wanted to look at reproductive messages in song lyrics. And reproduction is WAY more than sex.

When you want to look at reproductive messages in modern music, where do you turn? To the Billboard top 100 charts, of course! The authors took the top ten hits from Country, Pop, R&B every month for the year of 2009. They analyzed the resulting pile of songs (only 174, much smaller than you'd think due to the high number of repeats), and analyzed them for the following categories exemplifying courtship, sex, pair-bonding, parenting, fidelity, mate guarding, and provisioning (complete with examples, and I included some of theirs because many of them are genius, and some of mine):

They looked at the number of songs containing phrases on these themes...and computed the averages.


Overall, 92% of the billboard top 100 songs for 2009 had reproductive phrases. You can see that the reproductive phrases themselves varied by genre (R&B was more explicit, Country made more references to parenting and commitment, and Pop hovered in the middle for almost all categories).  Country was the overall lowest, at 5.96 reproductive references per song, and R&B the highest at 16.77 per song.

Now remember, these are top 10 hits. Do reproductive phrases make it more likely for a song to become top 10? To find this out the authors compared numbers of reproductive phrases and song popularity, with a bunch of songs that did vs didn't make the top 10.

The verdict is clear, Weezer. Weezer always wanted to know how to make the most popular song.

And now we know. More reproductive messages: tell 'em you love 'em, tell 'em you want 'em, and don't forget the mate guarding!

Of course, that's NOW. What about in the past? Have we always been so very into lyrics with status and mate guarding? The authors looked at reproductive messages from 1959 to 2009, and references were pretty stable (except R&B, which underwent a huge rise in the 1990's).

But again, this is still pretty modern. It's not older, more high minded music. You know, like classical. Like opera, so pure! So nice! So high-minded!

Yeah, right.


It turns out that operas and art songs are just as bad (or good, it could be good). A little higher on the arousal, commitment, and rejection phrases, but loads of reproductive signals. Sex appeal was a HOT lyric in the 1790s.

And what does it all mean? Well it's hard to tell, there's a lot of marketing that goes into modern music (and less modern music), and plenty of other things. But there's no doubt that when it comes to music, sex (and reproductive themes) does sell. Take note, Weezer, less songs about sweaters, and more about T&A.









Dawn R. Hobbs, Gordon G. Gallup (2011). Songs as a Medium for Embedded Reproductive Messages Evolutionary Psychology, 9 (3), 390-416

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