You felt so charming that night the two of you fell in love over front-porch, late-night summertime ale—but maybe it was less you and more the beer, the soft lighting, the cool nighttime air, and most importantly, says a new study, the music.
In an experiment designed to test the impact of background music on getting-to-know you scenarios, Aoyama Gakuin University's Psych department set up 32 teenage and twentysomething gals and guys to meet and greet for konkatsu, or marriage hunting. According to the study, published recently in Psychology of Music, the arrangement went like this:
The two conditions were as follows: the 'with-music' condition, where BGM was played during a 20-minute conversation, and the 'no-music' condition, where BGM [background music] was absent. The participants were divided into eight small groups, consisting of two males and two females each. Four other students (two males and two females) participated in pairs (two couples) in each group as the target conversation partners (called 'guests' here). The participants rated their impressions of the guests of the opposite sex before and after the conversation. The guests were instructed to keep the conversation smooth and amicable.
It turns out that face-to-face interaction made everyone like everyone else more than they thought they would, and generated more intimacy after the conversation. And, intriguingly:
The biggest difference between the no-music and with-music conditions is the point that music facilitated the feelings of love for the partner of the opposite sex.
Over at the Wall Street Journal, Ann Lukits notes that it wasn't only love that flowed more freely with a soundtrack, but that conversation partners were viewed as having more openness and friendliness against the backdrop of music, too. Lukits wrote:
Subjects in both groups rated 10 traits to describe their impression of the opposite-sex visitors, including confidence, patience, likableness and interest in dating, before and after the meetings. (The experiment was repeated twice for both groups.)
Average scores for all 10 traits were higher after conversations with music compared with no music, suggesting the music increased the participants' feelings of attraction for the visitors, the researchers said. Likableness and interest in dating the person saw the greatest increases when accompanied by music.
Conversations without music also resulted in higher scores for most of the 10 traits, though the increase was less significant than with the music groups.
One caveat Lukits notes: Researchers said the music itself could've made the participants more charming. And who knows what might've happened if they'd selected their own music?
This was one of the first things I thought of: What was the type of music that moved the needle of attraction? Apparently, it was a selection of stuff—rock, rap and classical buzzed from small speakers as participants moved in and out of the room. But this has to matter, because I find it hard to believe that I could fall in love with someone while Dave Matthews or anything by Florida Georgia Line was wafting all over my courtship.
But all told, I don't really find these results so surprising. Music is a known powerful force that affects mood and healing. And the right music, at least, can conjure some pretty cinematic feelings. If you've ever carefully curated a mixtape for a road trip, you know how much it matters what is playing when. If you've ever watched how many people seem to instantly head to the bar to order another drink when a certain song comes on (cough Van Halen "Jump" cough) then you know how music can motivate.
But in our actual lives, the right songs push us out of the mundane and ordinary and into—as these study participants might have noted, even in such a sterile environment—our own personal little music video. This is why for certain brains, the wrong music is excruciating, and a sad song when you're feeling happy can feel as if it's reaching into your emotional receiver (sorry) and quite literally fiddling with your knobs. I don't listen to sad music unless I'm sad, because, obviously, I usually don't want to feel sad. A Lifehacker piece on music's impact on the brain confirms that music certainly affects some people this way. One such study found that after hearing happy or sad music, participants perceived a neutral face to match the tone of the music they just heard. (Other people are able to listen to sad music and enjoy it without necessarily becoming sad. I think those people are weird.)
This stands out in particular:
In a study of couples who spent time getting to know each other, looking at each other's top ten favorite songs actually provided fairly reliable predictions as to the listener's personality traits. The study used five personality traits for the test: openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability.
We respond to music at all ages, and in all states (much research has looked at music and brain trauma), but in general, from a very young age we respond strongly to the emotion of music. Pop music can feel a lot like drugs without the side effects, which is probably why I like it so much, and probably why some people think it's so so bad for you.
But when it comes to falling for someone, I get it. They don't call it mood music for nothing. In the right setting, music is a facilitator for the feelings you already have, a fluffer for love, if you will. It can set the tone, change the mood, and color everything. Being at the mercy of the externally controlled music in any public place while cozying up to someone can be the death knell, or the very thing that brings you together, whether by shared interest or shared disdain.
While I believe that music tends to up your vibes considerably, there's one other thing about this study we should be wary of: The visitors who interacted with the study participants were instructed to be "smooth and amicable," which no doubt had a huge effect on them being likable, and facilitating the feelings of both intimacy and love. In the real world, it's probably not always a slam-dunk to fall for someone if they're kind of a prick but your favorite Cure song is crooning overhead. The incongruity, more likely, would just make it really really sad.
But I say this with a kind of cautious optimism. If you find yourself out for some getting-to-know you fun anytime soon and things are going real swell, maybe just ask yourself: Is this my date, or the DJ? And, in the moment, does it matter?
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.