Do you hear what I hear? Your brain on Christmas music

Noah Berger / AP file

All those holiday shoppers...and all that holiday music. Can your brain handle it?

Shana McGough likes Christmas music, until she hears too much of it.

"I think at first Christmas music is nice, it's nostalgic, and it gets me into the holiday spirit," says the writer from Escondido, Calif. Then, "it gets old, and it can start to feel like a part of a giant sales machine trying to bleed me dry."

She also suspects that for anyone of a different faith who doesn't celebrate Christmas,"holiday music must be beyond annoying, right into offensive."

If it’s not started already, by the time the Thanksgiving meal is devoured and the stores open for Black Friday, Christmas music will be inescapable. After hearing 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' and 'Frosty the Snowman' for the umpteenth time, you might be hoping for a silent night.

Earlier this month Canada's top pharmacy chain Shoppers Drug Mart Corp. heeded shopper complaints and put the holiday music on pause until later in the season. Even for people who celebrate Christmas, listening to the same seemingly inescapable seasonal songs over and over again may be incredibly irritating.

Endless loops of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or any tinsel-y tune can have a psychological impact known as the 'mere exposure effect,' says Victoria Williamson, Ph.D, who conducts research on the psychology of music at Goldsmiths, University of London. There's a U-shaped relationship between the amount of times we hear music that we like and our subsequent reaction to it, she says.

As Williamson puts it, at first we like music a bit, then we like it more and more until it hits a peak. And then we crash down -- we have overheard it. That's when boredom and annoyance at the repetition of the same sound hits home. "Anyone who has worked in a Christmas store over the holidays will know what I'm talking about," Williamson says. When asked why holiday music seems to have a polarizing effect, driving some people crazy while others like, or at least, can tolerate it, Williamson suggests that music's effect on us in any situation depends on our own psychological state.

People who are already stressed out about the holidays -- worrying about money, traveling, or seeing relatives -- may find the musical reminder of the cause of their stress very unwelcome, she says. But those who approach the holidays in a receptive, relaxed state are more likely to get a boost from the happy associations -- childhood memories, family gatherings, or the holiday's religious meaning -- triggered by holiday music.

Of course, the reason Christmas music is played in every department store, supermarket from Thanksgiving through December. Music can put us in the mood to spend money, research suggests.

"We've shown that 'holiday appropriate' music combined with congruent 'holiday scents' can influence shoppers by increasing the amount of time they spend in a store, their intention to revisit it, and intention to purchase," says Eric Spangenberg, Ph.D, dean of the College of Business at Washington State University in Pullman, who has studied the  influence of music on holiday shopping.

He says that some types of music work better than others. "Slower tempo music slows down shoppers, and they spend more time and money in a store," Spangenberg explains. Faster-paced pieces move people through the store quicker than retailers would like.

For Charlie Muldoon, only certain types of holiday music can put him in a good mood.

"I find the traditional songs sung by the great artists of the 50s and 60s or the funny songs about 'Grandma Getting Run Over by a Reindeer' put a smile on my face," says the Washington, DC-based professional polo player. 

"But those remakes by commercial singers and rappers make me want to go postal," Muldoon confesses. And some sounds make him forget the season's peace on earth, goodwill toward men sentiment. "Those 'elevator' versions of holiday music make me want to take a bat to the machine that plays them," he says.

As long as Christmas songs are played after Thanksgiving, Mary Leach, a public relations professional who lives in Cambridge, Mass., doesn’t mind. To her, "Christmas [music and decorations] much prior to Turkey Day is just plain wrong."

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You know what's my Christmas music? I listen some to icy, atmospheric progressive psytrance music for my breaks up the norm really well around the holidays.

  • 1 vote
Reply#28 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 5:45 PM EST

I love Christmas music so much, I usually start playing it in my SUV the last week of October. (Mannheim Steamroller is my favorite Christmas music group). But, I don't let others hear me playing it for fear of being called crazy until after Thanksgiving. Still, a few days before Christmas, I can walk into a business, store or restaurant and that one particular playing of Jingle Bells can make me want to scream "...turn it OFF!! If I hear Jingle Bells one more time, I'm going to lose my mind!!!" When I continue to hear it after Christmas, just check me into an insane asylum.

I really, really enjoy the Christmas holidays. It's my favorite time of the year. But, I'm also really, really glad when it's over.

  • 2 votes
Reply#29 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 6:15 PM EST

''simply having a wonderful chistmas time.'' they play this phrase from the song by paul mc cartney over and over at our local jewell food store. i had to walk out after about 5 minutes as i cannot stand it over and over and over and the g-damn song and then don't repeat it for an hour or 2 so shoppers can get out without this song jammed into their head.

  • 1 vote
Reply#30 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 6:29 PM EST

I second that. I detest "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time". I want to barf every time I hear it.

  • 1 vote
#30.1 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 8:05 PM EST

I want to barf whenever I hear anything by Paul McCartney and Wings! Paul was fine when he was with the Beatles. Ever since then, he has been awful. Sorry...

    #30.2 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 6:58 PM EST

    christmas music........subliminal seduction by retailers.

    • 1 vote
    Reply#31 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 6:31 PM EST

    Christmas music was around a long time before retail & the lyrics were written before Wal-Mart existed or Target ... lol.

    • 2 votes
    #31.1 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 6:42 PM EST

    Name 3 Christmas songs that are over 100 years old ?

    • 1 vote
    #31.2 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 7:51 PM EST

    I can name one:

    "The Holly and the Ivy".

    • 1 vote
    #31.3 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 8:30 PM EST

    "Silent Night" was written in 1818 as a selection that could be sung at midnight mass with only guitar accompaniment. Legend has it that was due to the composers' church's organ not being in working order on Christmas Eve, because of damage done to it by mice.

    "Up On The Housetop" has been around since the middle 1800's.

    "I Saw Three Ships" has been around since the 17th century as has "Greensleeves," which is the same tune as "What Child Is This?"

    • 2 votes
    #31.4 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 8:30 AM EST

    I love Christmas music personally. I'm one of those people that start listening to it early every year! As a Christian it reminds me or the redemption we have in Christ. If you have a difficult time with how Christmas has been commercialized, remember this from the Book of Luke (and a Charlie Brown Christmas!).

    And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

    13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

    14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

    Have a great Christmas season matter what music you're listening to!

    • 1 vote
    Reply#32 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 6:38 PM EST

    It is the one time of year to hear Holiday Music & everybody is gripping? You get to hear it once a year. Quit being so easily offended & fault-finding - chill & enjoy! You don't hear it for more than a month or two tops - if that. You're in a store less than an hour typically. Will it really kill you once a year to hear Christmas or Holiday Music while you shop for the Holidays? It's cheerful music typically. It could be songs about how the dog died & the husband or wife left you & how it's the end of the world - but no - it's fun silly songs about snowmen, reindeer & joy. If you are annoyed by happy holiday music then the problem is you - not the music. Just saying.

    • 1 vote
    Reply#33 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 6:41 PM EST

    Excellent post! Thank you!

    • 1 vote
    #33.1 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 7:34 PM EST

    Some good points,I agree. I like most holiday music a lot.Heck,I'm an agnostic and STILL love Christmas and winter holiday songs unless someone is trying to force feed religion to me-which isn't usually the case.I start listening to them the day after Halloween and continue until New Year's.There are some songs like the seamless "Silver Bells" and "White Christmas" as well as the lighter "Feliz Navidad," "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," "Jingle Bell Rock," "Christmas in Killarney," Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,"Berl Ives' "Have A Holly Jolly Christmas," Run DMC's "Christmas in Hollis" and "Give Up Your Dough" that are all so happy and upbeat I'll never get tired of them.Nor will I ever tire of more serious and very beautiful classical Christmas selections.

    But benjackson,Sweetie,even with holiday music SOMETIMES, the problem IS definitely the music!Yes,I would rather hear holiday music than gangsta rap,or the kind of twangy music that encourages inbreeding and leaves banjo music with a lousy chord structure ringing in my ears, but...

    My complaint with some holiday music is there are too many great holiday songs that have been written over the years, that are consistently ignored season after season. Yet the same 12-14 songs,every year get played over and over and over,every hour on the hour, the whole season. Even if you don't play the classic carols that are extremely religious in public places,there are still scads more great options that are ignored.

    At the same time "Sleigh Ride," "Winter Wonderland," "Baby It's Cold Outside," (especially the version about a date rape) "I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "The Twelve Days Of Christmas," in all of it's long drawn out 12 verses,"The Christmas Song," which is beautiful occasionally but is waaaay too slow to be played every 30 minutes for 4 weeks,"Let It Snow"which is a hard song to dislike-are all run into the ground until the song"Bubba Shot The Jukebox Last Night" starts giving me ideas about my car radio.

    I like Madonna but if I hear her version of "Santa Baby" one more time I'll stick nails into my eardrums."Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time" gets far too much air time despite being repeatedly voted one of the most annoying Christmas songs of all time.What WAS Paul thinking? "The Christmas Shoes" is the only one that is truly offensive to me,as an old RN.When it comes on in a public place I go outside rather than listen to a cheesy,exploitative number about a young mother dying on Christmas Eve.Those things really do happen after all and when they do it sure as hell isn't entertainment to be humming along to for pleasure.

    Dig out some of the good ones that never get played and quit running the slowest ones and the ones that ALREADY have people complaining into the ground.Then everybody who is capable of being made happy will be.

    • 1 vote
    #33.2 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 10:23 AM EST

    "Christmas Shoes" and "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" do not qualify as cheerful Christmas songs! Now, I ask you, why would a woman want pretty shoes as she lays dying? Maybe Carrie Bradshaw would, but really? What's that kid doing shopping by himself without parental supervision and not enough money, anyway? Don't even get me started with the "GGROBAR" song!

    • 1 vote
    #33.3 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 7:05 PM EST

    the only thing worse than christmas music is my wife having to watch the hallmark channel christmas movies with b grade actors which play year after year after year.....kinda like a bad penny, never goes away.

    • 3 votes
    Reply#34 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 6:41 PM EST

    All I "hear" is my brain wishing that this silly BS would be over! Come on Dec. 26th!

    Christmas is nothing but a commercialized load of cr@p!

    • 1 vote
    Reply#35 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 6:59 PM EST

    Christmas music is like a yearly mating call to signal it is time of year to spill your money. Like some proverbial salmon swimming upstream for a year, surviving and avoiding threats, those who have survived have arrived at the Christmas season. Now it's time for everyone to dump their money like mating salmon in a reproductive frenzy. Then die in February like the spent salmon when the bills come due.

      Reply#36 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 6:59 PM EST

      "offensive"---Please, attempt to grow brain. It is not necessary to complain 365 days each year. Do something worthwhile rather blaming everyone for your own negative, selfish attitudes.

      On the other hand: we could ban religion in the USA, and then the atheists would have to work all day Saturday and Sunday. Would they be happy then, or just bitch about something else 365 days per year?

        Reply#37 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 7:00 PM EST

        We wouldn't want anyone to "Blame everyone for their own negative... attitudes",would we?

          #37.1 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 10:44 AM EST

          I find it ironic that this is the time of year one is supposed to spend with friends and family, but everyone is so busy shopping, decorating, etc., that no one has time to enjoy the actual season. Too many of the people I know are so caught up in having a "perfect" Christmas that they forget what's really important. I barely see my friends and only see my family for a few hours that feel forced instead of relaxed. It's sad! I'm not even going to decorate this year, because I realized no one ever stops by anymore (too busy) so why bother just for me?

          As far as the music goes, it isn't any worse that than canned music stores play all year long. YUK!

          • 2 votes
          Reply#38 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 7:00 PM EST

          Both shopping and decorating can actually be fun.If they aren't something is wrong.

          It is so hard to set personal boundaries and say "Enough is enough" when demands to spend time shopping,decorating,cooking,seeing relatives who ONLY cause anxiety or anger,ect. start to take over our time that we wanted to spend doing something enjoyable and getting enough sleep.But if we're able to say "no" to things we hate it makes the difference between whether the holidays are a positive or negative experience.

          IMHO just remember:You don't HAVE to see anyone you dislike just because they're related to you.When something that should be fun crosses the line and instead becomes unpleasant, you can re-evaluate how much HAS to get done.You may be able to delegate chores.You can give gift certificates.You can give people something they'll like without spending an arm and a leg.

          • 1 vote
          #38.1 - Sun Nov 25, 2012 10:24 AM EST

          I for one gave up all the holiday's, got tired of it starting earlier an earlier every year. It's gotten to commercialized. What I do instead is take a vacation to get away from it all.

          • 4 votes
          Reply#39 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 7:11 PM EST

          I completely agree, and I'm no scrooge. I love Christmas, but for one thing can't stand to see what's happening to Thanksgiving. It's being eclipsed by greedy commercialism. We should give thanks for what we have before we start asking for more. And Christmas is not just about exchanging gifts, it's about peace and love too.

          • 3 votes
          Reply#40 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 7:33 PM EST

          The music is bad enough, but if I hear that salvation army bell ringer one more time....

          • 1 vote
          Reply#41 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 7:47 PM EST

          I could have told you everything that was in this article. I hope they didn't use a taxpayer-funded grant for their study on Christmas music.

            Reply#42 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 7:52 PM EST

            Endless Christmas music played in stores and on one radio station 24 hours a day, have made me learn to detest at least secular Christmas music. Every year I go in search of ancient Christmas carols to listen to when I want to.

            Actually, I' m burned out on Christmas, too, and would prefer to ignore the holiday. Thanksgiving has become increasingly overshadowed by what has become a celebration of everything materialistic and has lost its original meaning. People will trample each other in search of more cheap stuff, run up their credit cards for gifts that most recipients won't remember in a few days, and raise expectations that nothing can fulfill.

            Enough already!!!

            • 4 votes
            Reply#43 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 7:56 PM EST

            I hear you. I'm a Christian who has come to detest Christmas carols played non-stop in the stores by merchants who seek your money....

            Thanksgiving has become another tool in the retailers' war on common sense.

            Donate to charity and that gives more meaning to the season.

              #43.1 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 9:25 PM EST

              Be careful which charity you donate to though.I strongly recommend that everyone wanting to make a charitable donation,first call the organization that you have in mind and pose as someone needing their help.

              Of course don't fill out a fraudulent application, but tell them your utilities are going to be shut off or that you're going to be evicted if you don't make a rent payment in two days.Or just tell them you're out of groceries and need food, and see how any of those things gets you treated by them. When they think you're a powerless person,think no witnesses with any political pull are around and have no idea they're talking to a potential donor it's not even on the same radar with the way they act when they're soliciting donations.I guarantee posing as someone who needs to be a recipient of their services will be eye opening.

                #43.2 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 11:06 AM EST

                Yes, being a non-christian it was downright offensive to me growing up when we were forced to sing Xmas carols in school. Now I appreciate the beauty of the religious carols... I sang them to my daughter when she was an infant, just because there were no other tunes as beautiful... and when I hear them played in a shopping mall it grates my teeth.

                I just went to Target for groceries and guess what... NO Xmas music on the radio. WONDERFUL!!!! Thumbs up target!!

                  Reply#44 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 8:06 PM EST

                  When the music, the shopping, the wrapping, the decorating, the parties, the visiting, the toasting is over and long forgotten, think of the Reason for the Season... HE is always with us! And, no offense to Daisy in St. Louis... Life would be utterly pointless without Him. (ps: yes, the winter solstace used to be a pagen holiday - The Birth of the Saviour is NOT a pagen holiday and you don't need an 'orgy of feasting and revelry' to celebrate it).

                    Reply#45 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 8:21 PM EST

                    The only Christmas song worth listening to is Weird Al's "Christmas at Ground Zero".

                    • 2 votes
                    Reply#46 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 8:33 PM EST

                    I was thinking about that as I read this article,Tina.I wish Weird Al would tweak it to make it appropriate for everyone who's waiting for the world to end in December,and re-release it this year.

                    • 2 votes
                    #46.1 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 11:37 AM EST

                    Israel in USA, or in CA, they call some people have hallucination/Schizophrenia. Normally, no one can hear what other thinks inside others mind, by all means. Literally, no one can hear what other thinks, period.

                    Abnormally, Israel (USA) can accuse one has hallucination/Schizophrenia, for they can hear one's thinking before one even says.

                    The new diagnosis is Digital Hallucination/Schizophrenia, Induced, Israel type.

                    Just kidding. But one realizes that one gets it. Then relaxed, like IM.

                      Reply#47 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 8:44 PM EST

                      Williamson's description sounds like the way I feel about the Presidential campaigns. But I"m one of the few who love Christmas music, as long as it doesn't start before Thanksgiving. I listen to my own collection of Christmas, which is pretty diverse (from Heart to Canned Heat), and maybe that's the secret to not getting tired of it; the vareity of songs and styles never palls and I add to it every year.

                        Reply#48 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 8:50 PM EST

                        Most of the time the music is played way too loud it is retail water torture at its finest, after all you are trapped with it for eight hours at a time it can even be heard in the bathroom where I work . I try to go to my happy place once I know its begun and try to focus on not hearing it. Actually if I can i will take the cold and hard work of the xmas tree lot over the loud blaring xmas music because once you start the chainsaw to begin to trim the trees its hard to hear it all the way outside anyways. Besides the second best xmas nightmare is the tree lot anyways where else can you see people practically come to blows over a symbol of a religious holiday while freezing your butt off in the in the cold? absolute madness.

                        • 2 votes
                        Reply#49 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 8:51 PM EST

                        Get over it!!!

                          Reply#50 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 8:55 PM EST

                          I love hearing Christmas carols in church at Christmas time. I like hearing a small amount of it during the season at home. BUT the endless drone of one Christmas carol after another in the stores makes me more angry than joyous. Why? Because it is a marketing ploy -- to alter your mood to get you to spend money. It has nothing to do with the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

                          So, bah humbug! to all those carol playing merchants! I'm donating to charity. I'm not shopping in your stores!

                          • 1 vote
                          Reply#52 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 9:22 PM EST

                          And...just think about how abysmal life can be for a music teacher in late September, having to prepare this crap for a holdiday program...

                          • 1 vote
                          Reply#53 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 9:26 PM EST
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