Vocal Attractiveness and Sexual Dimorphism: Why Singers are Sexy

Picture this scene: you sit in a dark bar, feet cold from the snow outside, warmed by slow sipping gin and tonic, listening forlornly to a group of women sing dusky arias. Suddenly a blonde woman of moderate physical looks comes to the stage and starts to sing. Her voice intoxicates you and for those few minutes, you fall madly in love. Something about her voice has captivated you. Seems reasonable enough right? I’ve spent a pretty good amount of time watching and listening to a number of singers performing in various groups: a capella, opera, choral, and others. I suspect anyone with similar experiences can also recall a time where they’ve fallen in love listening to someone sing. Voices can be powerfully alluring, and I’d never really stopped to question it or ask why until I recently stumbled across an study with some interesting insight into the matter. The study is enthrallingly titled: Ratings of voice attractiveness predict sexual behavior and body configuration (click title for full text). Before we get too far into it though, let’s do a brief overview of a concept you’ll need:

WHR and SHR: Waist-to-hip ratio and shoulder-to-hip ratio are cross-cultural indicators of sexual attractiveness in humans; with smaller WHR in women being more attractive, and larger SHR in men being the same.

The Study

The study mentioned above is quite simple in practice. Researchers recorded the voices of 76 females and 70 males (excluding ones who may have damaged their voices from external events such as smoking and clear outliers such as people with accents). The participants were recorded counting from 1 to 10. Participants were then asked to listen to recordings from others and rank them from 1 to 5 (1=very unattractive and 5=very attractive). Each voice was rated 12+-2 times and had approximately the same number of male and female reviewers. People tended to rate voices as similar.

The second part of the experiment was gathering additional data from participants. Each was measured at the shoulders, waist, and hips and their BMI* as well as height and weight were recorded. Roughly half the participants also completed an anonymous questionnaire about their sexual history, including such things as number of sexual partners, number of extra-pair copulation partners (sleeping with someone who’s not your partner), and age of first sexual intercourse, among others.

* As a side note, BMI sucks as a measurement. Healthy, well muscled individuals will often show up as overweight or obese, whereas a someone who is skinny fat could likely be marked as normal, despite being quite unhealthy. For example, at 5’11” and 175lbs, I’m borderline overweight, despite having around 10% body fat and the ability to deadlift 2x my bodyweight. Oh, hey look, a quick google search turned up an article from NPR entitled “Top 10 Reasons Why The BMI Is Bogus” which explains this.

Results and Conclusions:

This study produced a number of interesting results:

Voice and physical characteristics:

  • Men with larger shoulders and smaller waists (higher SHR) were more likely have voices rated as attractive by women and men to a lesser degree.
  • Women with smaller waists and larger hips (lower WHR) were more likely to have voices rated attractive by men.
  • BMI seemed to have no relationship between vocal attractiveness.

Physical characteristics and sexual behaviors:

  • Higher SHR is men were correlated with having sex at younger ages, as well as having had more sexual partners, more EPC and more sexual partners who were in other relationships.
  • Lower WHR in women was correlated with younger age of first sexual intercourse as well as a higher number of sexual partners, EPC partners and partners in other relationships.

Voice and sexual behaviors:

  • Men and women with more attractive voices had sex at younger ages, more sexual partners, EPC and sex with people in other relationships.

The data establishes correlations between physical attractiveness, vocal attractiveness, and sexual behaviors, noting that both physical and vocal attractiveness seems to lead to increased sexual activity. Researchers also offer a potential explanation for the link between physical and vocal characteristics in the form of hormones; noting that sex hormones influence both the emergence of physical sex differences as well as vocal structure during adolescence.

Regardless of the device by which this occurs, we can extrapolate some interesting conclusions about vocal attraction and the link between physical and vocal attraction. Other studies have show that physical attractiveness (as measured by SHR and WHR) are good indicators of health and reproductive status. We can therefore assume that there is likely a correlation between these factors and vocal attraction as well. Authors of this study suggest that because of the high degree of accuracy in predicting health from vocal attractiveness, it may well have been an important part of mate selection throughout our evolution.

What about singers?

Then what about my claim that singing can get you laid? Well, singers which people find more vocally attractive are going to be most likely also more physically attractive, and regardless, vocal attraction also predicts increased sexual activity. As this study indicates, those with more attractive voices tended to have more sexual partners. The act of singing in performance also affords singers a unique opportunity to display the attractiveness of their voices, much as a sport competition allows athletes to exhibit beneficial physical traits.

Learning how to sing is a process of training the voice to sound more attractive. While there are certainly examples of bad singers who have been successful (like Bob Dylan or the guy from Audioslave), most singers strive for success (at least in part) by sounding attractive to listeners. (I should note here that I am blending the concepts of vocal attraction with vocal pleasantness, but I feel that the two are very similar if not the same.)

In a sense, training the voice to be more pleasant (attractive) is a bit like training the body to be more physically attractive. Sexual indicators such as SHR and WHR can be affected by diet and exercise to some degree, and there’s no reason why vocal attraction cannot be trained as well. Certainly not everyone would be able to move from a 1 to a 5 on the scale, but 1 to 3 or 4 to 5 is certainly not out of the question. Imagine a soft-spoken man being coached by a friend to speak more loudly in a bar. This will increase the attractiveness of his voice by making it sound fuller and more confident (words we would use to describe an attractive voice). He has not changed his fundamental vocal devices, but has improved his use of them.

Through both technical and physical training and performance opportunities singers are inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally) going to make themselves more attractive to members of the opposite sex. This will in turn likely improve their chances for sexual encounters.

Improving Memorization Technique for Opera

Memorization of music has always been something that I’ve struggled with. I think in part I’m not as good at it as many of my musical peers, and I also have study methods don’t lend themselves to memorizing. I don’t like tedious work where it’s difficult to see progression. Memorizing can be very intangible, where you’ve memorized something one day, only to have it disappear the next. While discussing singing with a friend recently, I noticed that she seemed to have a much better idea of the structure of her pieces that I do. This kicked off some inquiry and thought on my part. Perhaps I’m just memorizing wrong. I’ve always used a brute force method as opposed to working within a framework intended to aid memorization.

The next day I started researching memory. Wikipedia has a good page on it if you’re interested. I also interviewed a number of singers and did other reading online and have come up with what I currently believe to be possible techniques to improve the speed and accuracy with which I memorize. Here you go:

Preprocessing (before beginning the actual memorization work)

1)  In questioning different singers, a frequent pattern emerged in how they claimed to most efficiently begin to memorize. Here it is:

  1. Translate the music
  2. Learn how to speak the words properly
  3. Learn the rhythms absent the words
  4. Learn the words in rhythm
  5. Learn the notes absent the words
  6. Add the words to the notes and rhythms

This seemed like a simple way to learn music, not memorize it though. Yet when I asked, this was the response for the best way to memorize. I suspect the reason this slow and methodical approach works is because it allows you to get it right the first time. Relearning incorrect notes can be extremely time consuming and difficult. This method also allows for methodic repetition of the words, rhythms, and notes which create a good baseline for memorization. In addition, you have to know how to sing something correctly before beginning to memorize it. This process may actually be enough for some musicians to memorize a piece, but for myself, I need a bit more work.

2) Identify Patterns, Chunk, and Categorize

Research on memory shows that humans do much better in memorizing lists or random items when they are able to provide some structure to the data they’re attempting to recall. By chunking (or dividing into pieces) we can often memorize much more information at a time. One good example is that of a phone number. Take this fake number for example: 4065551242. Trying to memorize that all as a string of 10 digits is hard. Yet dividing it up, like this: (406) 555-1242, and memorizing the 3 pieces as separate pieces makes it easier. For a piece of music, breaking it into sections or even further into phrases should aid the memorization process.

Extending on this technique, creating distinction or categorizing the chunks will allow you to more easily remember the chunks. For example, if you remember that there is a fast section, then a slower one, then a repeat of the first fast section with a modification in dynamics, those three things create a basic structure on which you can fill in pieces more easily. Look for chord patterns, texture changes, tempo changes, dynamic changes, repeated sections, modal differences, etc. to categorize phrases or larger sections of music.

A final skeleton-building technique is to memorize the meaning and emotion behind the song. If you can learn the broad feelings, or better yet, the actual line-by-line translation of the piece, it will provide a great framework to begin memorization.

Execution (the hard work of memorization)

1) Brute force

Probably the most common method of memorization is simply rote learning, or learning by repeating. Often singers will listen to a piece over and over or sing through a piece, or parts of a piece, numerous times to engrain it into their mind. I’m fairly certain that every singer uses this technique to one degree or another.

Tip: I find it best to learn a piece this way by starting with the final phrase and working my way back through the song, stringing it together as I go. For example: memorize the final phrase, then memorize the second to last, then memorize those both together, and move backwards using this technique. This works well because it forces repetitions and it’s comforting to know that if you can get started in a performance, you’ll improve as you sing through your piece.

It took me a while to find a music player that would allow me to easily loop A->B, but if you need one, I recommend VLC. To view the A->B tool, click the “View” menu and select “Advanced Controls”

2) Reinforce

We all have sticking spots in every song that we’re learning. They might be difficult sections, or they could just be seemingly random sections that we get caught up on. For myself (and I suspect others) there is a definite tendency to want to just run through these parts and ignore the fact that I’m struggling. It’s a lot more fun to just sing the parts I know well. This is a bad plan though. You should work these parts until they become the best part of the piece for you, otherwise you’ll either learn a mistake or this problem will crop up again during a performance. Trust me, I’ve had that happen more times than I’d like.

3) Take breaks

Research has show that taking naps or sleeping between study or memorization sessions improves memory retention. Also, more shorter sessions are typically more valuable than one long session.

4) Practice recall

Don’t simply repeat your music, try to recall it. This could be something as simple as reading a line and then looking away and attempting to recall. It’s been shown that your brain behaves differently while recalling vs. simply reading.

Experimentation (my crazy plan):

Being an engineer makes me try to find overly complicate solutions to things sometimes. Knowing that I learn well with things like flashcards, where I have visual cues to go off of and can easily repeat the information quickly and challenge my recall repeatedly, here’s my experimental aid for this problem:

Example piece done in this formatI bought a moleskine notebook with music ruling on one side, and I’m going to use it to break down pieces into cues. The sheet will have the first few notes of each phrase on one side with the accompanying words. Once I have a general understanding of a piece, I’ll then use that structure to cue me as I try to recall the piece. Once I’ve memorized the piece with only those notes, all I have to do is memorize those phrase beginnings. I’ve essentially chunked the piece into parts to make them more consumable. I also plan on writing in a translation and the lyrics on the page across from the phrase beginnings and will be including any structural notes I have (as mentioned above from analyzing the piece).

I’m fully willing to admit that this isn’t going to make memorizing easy or trivial, but hopefully it will be a good starting point to improve the amount of time it takes for me to memorize a piece. A wise voice teacher once told me when asked how long it takes him to memorize a piece: “As long as it takes.” Let’s just hope that it won’t take as long.

Learning “Questa o quella”

I started working on this song a few weeks ago. It’s an aria from Verdi‘s Rigoletto. This opera itself has a rather interesting background (assuming we can trust wikipedia). Verdi was commissioned to compose the opera with the understanding of both him and his sponsor Piave that they risked censorship by the Austrian government. The Austrians controlled much of Northern Italy at the time and the opera was intended to be performed in Venice. The reason for this censorship was the libretto’s portrayal of the primary figure, a French king, as both an immoral figure and a womanizer. Such things were not looked upon well by the Austrian government of the 1850s. At one point Verdi was even forced to move out of Venice to avoid trouble during composition. In the end Verdi was forced to change a few names and a bit of the story around to assuage the censors, but it was able to premier.

In addition to this aria the Duke of Mantua (the renamed king’s character) also performs “La Donna e Mobile“, which is probably one of the most well know tenor arias of all time. (I’ll learn that one eventually.)

“Questa o quella,” which translates to “this woman or that” begins the show. The Duke sings at a ball in his palace, exhorting the pleasures of women, and off the show starts with a bang. We soon discover that the Duke is currently pursuing two women and comedy and tragedy ensues, as it so often does when women are involved.

Sorry the sound quality on this isn’t the best, but Franco Corelli is still a BAMF.

Questa o quella per me pari sono
This girl or that girl are just
the same to me,

a quant’ altre d’ intorno mi vedo,
to all the others around me

del mio core l’ impero non cedo
I won’t give away my heart

meglio ad una che ad altre beltà
to this beauty nor to the others.

La costoro avvenenza è qual dono
Their charm is a gift

di che il fato ne infiora la vita
Given by destiny to embellish their lives

s’ oggi questa mi torna gradita
If today I love this one

forse un’ altra doman lo sarà.
I’ll probably love someone else tomorrow.

La costanza tiranna delcore
We hate constancy, the heart’s tyrant,

detestiamo qual morbo crudele,
as if it were a cruel plague,

sol chi vuole si serbi fedele;
Let those who wish to be faithful
keep their fidelity alive;

Non v’ha amor se non v’è libertà.
There is no love without freedom.

De’ i mariti il geloso furore,
The rage of jealous husbands

degli amanti le smanie derido,
and lovers’ woes I despise,

anco d’ Argo i cent’occhi disfido
I can defy Argo’s hundred eyes

se mi punge una qualche beltà.
If I fancy a beautiful girl.

Translation by Guia Monti (guiam@tinn.net)
Thanks to Aria-Database.com

Learning “Pourquoi me réveiller”

I’m working on learning this aria from an opera called Werther by Jules Massanet. It’s pretty gorgeous, so I thought I’d share a video of Pavarotti singing it.

It comes at a point in the opera when Werther comes to see the woman he loves, but whom he can never be with. He proceeds to read her a French poem (which happens to be this song). She realizes that she returns his love, and they embrace shortly before he leaves the stage. Shortly thereafter Werther kills himself, distraught with the knowledge that he can never be with the woman he loves.

“Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
“Why awaken me, oh breath of spring?

Pourquoi me réveiller?
Why awaken me?

Sur mon front, je sens tes caresses
On my brow, I feel your caresses,

Et pourtant bien proche est le temps
and yet, very close is the time

des orages et des tristesses!
of storms and of sorrows!

“Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
“Why awaken me, oh breath of spring?

Demain dans le vallon viendra le voyageur,
Tomorrow in the valley will come the voyager,

Se souvenant de ma gloire première.
Remembering my first glory.

Et ses yeux vainement chercheront ma splendor,
and his eyes vainly will seek my splendor,

Ils ne trouveront plus que deuil et que misère!
They will find only mourning and suffering!


“Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
“Why awaken me, oh breath of spring?

Translation by Lea Frey (blfrey@earthlink.net)
Thanks to Aria-Database.com