Well, here you are once again, staring at a screen. It’s okay, we all do it. Constantly. In fact, there’s a good chance you’re sitting in a room with somebody else who is also gazing into the blue light of a smartphone or some other gadget right now. All of this technology, the common complaint goes, appears to be driving a wedge between us.
Surely, there must be a way to bring us back together. Would you believe the answer is… more technology?
Music, to be more specific. And insofar as technology has made music easier to create, find, and listen to, the very same networks and gadgets that seem to drive us apart may actually wind up making us feel closer, both physically and emotionally. And yes, that includes sex.
That’s among the key findings from a study recently conducted by smart speaker manufacturer Sonos in partnership with Apple Music and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin–the guy who literally wrote the book on how music affects our brains. Through a research partner, Sonos polled 30,000 music listeners about the affects that music has on their lives. From there, the researchers did something that hasn’t really been done before: In 30 homes throughout the world, they conducted an experiment. For one week, the members of each household didn’t listen to any music out loud. The following week, they did. And the researchers rigged up each home with Sonos sound systems, Apple Watches, iBeacons, and Nest cams to observe what happened when the music started playing throughout the home. Families and housemates were free to put on whatever music they wanted whenever they wanted.
“The thing I’m most excited about is that the experiment is being done on this scale,” says Levitin, whose best-selling book This Is Your Brain On Music came out 10 years ago. “This is the kind of thing that it would be very difficult to do in a university setting or a research lab. This kind of work is very labor intensive.”
By observing people in their natural habitat–their homes–researchers were able to get a unique look into the impact that music has on their day-to-day behaviors. “Music historically has been a group experience,” Levitin points out. And one, he argues, that serves an evolutionary purpose.
Some of the most notable findings of this research fall into what Levitin calls “a nexus of intimacy and togetherness.” When music is playing at home, people become physically closer. The average distance between household members decreased by 12% during the in-home study. In the U.S., housemates (usually family members), spent four and a half more hours together with music playing than without it. With music on, people were 33% more likely to cook together and 85% more likely to invite people over. They were 15% more likely to laugh together and 18% more likely to utter the words “I love you.”
People also have sex more, thanks to music. In Sonos’s initial survey, couples reported 66% more intimacy when music is playing. And indeed, the in-home experiment found couples spending 37% more “awake time” in bed. You know what that means.
“It’s absolutely new,” says Levitin of the music-to-sex correlation uncovered in the study. “It might be something that you heard about, that people would say, but that doesn’t make it data.”
It only makes sense. Music has long been a part of physical attraction and sexuality. A 2015 study published in Psychology of Music, for instance, found that women were more likely to give their phone number to a man holding a guitar case than a man holding a gym bag or nothing at all. In fact, the notion that music plays a key role in human mating rituals goes at least as far back as Charles Darwin, who wrote that “musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male and female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex.”
It’s not just musical skill that lures the opposite sex. The mere presence of music can help serve as an aphrodisiac. And not just any music: In recent years, science has found correlations between musical taste and sexual attraction. In Sonos’s survey, 59% of respondents said that they find people more attractive if they’re playing music that the respondent likes (Valentines Day jukebox pro tip!). Nearly 30% of respondents said they suspected their partners of lying about the musical taste in order to attract them.
There’s apparently a neurochemical basis for all of this, Levitin says. Listening to music out loud together triggers the hormones oxytocin (the so-called “love hormone” and serotonin. So it’s no wonder cranking “Hotline Bling” makes us feel randy.
And it doesn’t stop in the bedroom. Throughout the day, human beings use music as a way to regulate their mood, not unlike a drug.
“We find from studies that people listen to a different kind of music when they’re cleaning the house,” says Levitin. “Then there’s a different kind of music to help motivate you through your exercise workout. The same way we use coffee to get stimulated or alcohol or pot to get calm, we have music that fits these different moods or alters these different moods and alters their neurochemistry.”
The Sonos study confirmed this connection between music and mood. When music was playing, respondents were 24% less irritable on average and felt 25% more inspired. In general, they reported a 16% increase in positive feelings overall. But it isn’t just the brain that changes when music starts playing: Participants were 22% more physically active. As you might imagine, spontaneous dance parties were much more common in households that listen to music out loud.
Music doesn’t just encourage us to do more, it actually makes activities more enjoyable as well. In this new study, 80% of respondents reported that household chores were easier to complete when music was playing. Eighteen percent said sex was better with music. Another 58% said food actually tasted better when music was playing. This finding confirms something psychologists have already been investigating: the use of music as a sort of “digital seasoning” than can actually affect how our food tastes. Spoiler alert: Justin Bieber is more likely to ruin your dinner. Is it too late now to say… sorry?
So why would Sonos spearhead a study like this? Obviously, the company’s chief motivation is to sell speakers. And geeky experiments like this have a way of grabbing headlines, especially if you can work in the sex angle. But beyond the promotional value, there’s a long-term advantage to gathering data like this, both for Sonos and for others in the radically changing music industry. During the course of the study, Sonos was able to gather intelligence on how people actually use their products in the wild. They already conduct consumer research all the time–for instance, when designing new speakers like the Play:5 they released last fall. But this is the first time they’ve taken such a broad look at music consumption and behavior at home, rather than simply conducting user tests on a new interface or specific piece of hardware.
“It kind of influences the ways that we’ll approach our product development,” says Michael Papish, head of global product marketing at Sonos. “Do we want to make it easier for them to control Sonos? Do we want to add Sonos to more rooms like hallways or the laundry room? Could you use it as part of reading a story to your kids? Could it play a playlist of music to help someone fall asleep?”
Questions like this will become more important as Sonos moves toward developing its own public API, which will allow third-party developers to build features on top of the wireless speaker system.
Observing families and housemates in the wild allows the company to learn more about how their products are used, in addition to feeding scientific data into our understanding of music and behavior more broadly. To lend legitimacy to the project, the company enlisted Levitin, who was asked to critique the design of the study and help the researchers read and understand the resulting data without drawing faulty conclusions.
“I see this as a golden age for music unlike any other,” says Levitin, who is also a musician and record producer. “I’m carrying around a two-year-old MacBook. I’ve got the capacity to make a record that sounds better than any Rolling Stones record.”
Not only has music become much easier to create and share, but now it’s becoming even easier to consume. All-you-can-stream music subscription services are becoming mainstream, a trend that Apple is widely expected to help accelerate with its recent launch of Apple Music (which, as of today, is available on Sonos wireless speaker systems). The rise of the streaming services and these types of hardware integrations–like the recent arrival of Spotify on the Amazon Echo–help shift some music listening out of our white earbuds and toward a more shared experience.
“I’m old enough to remember having record listening parties where people would come over and we’d turn out the lights and we’d put on side A of a vinyl,” says Levitin. “Nobody would talk. Then it was over, we’d talk about it.” The ubiquity of streaming services, coupled with dead-simple-to-use products from companies like Sonos, Bose, and Amazon, Levitin hopes, will bring that communal experience of music listening that he once enjoyed, perhaps even making it more common than ever. And, if this research is any indication, that could have a marked impact on people’s lives.
“If music actually causes people to have sex more often, we could see a change in the birthrate,” says Levitin. “Or we could also see a change in the divorce rate. I think the next five to 10 years are going to be interesting.”