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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I had to listen to christmas music for a month and a half every year where I worked... I hate it now!!!!

  • 2 votes
Reply#56 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 10:00 PM EST

X mas six and so does the music

What six even more is the stupid sheep shopping.The consumer as s hole.

  • 2 votes
Reply#57 - Fri Nov 23, 2012 10:33 PM EST

Once again, Canada responds to what people want instead of what people buy. It is nice to know that there are still places that listen to the people instead of just to the pocketbook.

And, if anyone would take time to read something other than another banal text message, he/she would know about things like habituation and adaptation level theory. That is, for those of us with an education, it is obvious that Christmas decorations and music for more than a month before the holiday get old. Like white noise, you tune it out. Worse, you might start getting annoyed.

But, once again, Americans are too capitalistic and too stupid to exercise a little common sense. It won't be long before we've destroyed the holiday season completely.

  • 2 votes
Reply#58 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 12:36 AM EST

"holiday music must be beyond annoying, right into offensive."

And that's when I stopped reading. Waahh...I got 'offended'

  • 2 votes
Reply#59 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 1:08 AM EST

When i hear Christmas music in a store I do my best to block it out. in a store it annoys me. Same songs, same singer all for greed to help "put the customer in the holiday spirit." aka make them buy more. When I'm in my parents house for the holidays I love hearing it. Even if it's the same songs by the same singer because it brings back good memories. Except grandma got run over by a reindeer I will forever hate that song.

  • 1 vote
Reply#61 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 2:07 AM EST

My mother died on Christmas day a few years ago. I rather not hear Christmas music. I'm not going to be celebrating Christmas. I sure don't plan on setting foot in a retail store. They made enough money off of me through the years.

  • 3 votes
Reply#62 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 2:47 AM EST

That is sad. I wonder if your mom would want you to ignore a holiday you used to celebrate with her?

    #62.1 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 11:25 AM EST

    My oldest sister is dying from kidney disease. She has been working since she was 17 years old. Up until 2 years ago. She's only 54. As of now, She'll living with me. I applied for disability due to a injuries suffer from a accident. Were on the verge of being homeless.

    But anyhow

    My sister's doctor said, She's unable to work. She apply for disability 6 months ago. She send them all her medical records. Until SSI declares her disable. She doesn't qualified for medicaid or medicare. Which means; She's not able to get the necessary treatment she needs. Nor be put on the kidney transplant list.

    Doctor said, She needs to be on a dialysis machine. But the doctor won't do it because she doesn't have medical insurance.

    As you can see. I have more important things to worry about then Christmas.

    With that said, I don't think my mother would mine.

    • 2 votes
    #62.2 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 12:41 PM EST

    Cindy I pray those people at SSI will hurry the process along. I do know what it means to have to wait on them. I so pray that a good Samaritan somewhere will help you.

    • 1 vote
    #62.3 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 12:58 PM EST

    Thank you for your support and kind words.

    I'm at wits end. I even called the Kidney Foundation. They won't help unless she's already on dialysis.

    She worked most of her life working two jobs. It's not like she lived off of welfare.

    So many people think it's easy to get help from the Government. I can honesty say, it not that easy.

    People under 65 with no small children. Can not get medicaid unless your declared disable.. She did get qualified for the PAC Primary Adult Care. But that doesn't cover seeing a Specialist. Like a Kidney Doctor.

    • 1 vote
    #62.4 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 2:51 PM EST

    I understand that. Cindy i really will be praying for you and your sister. I'm so sorry you are going through such difficult times.

      #62.5 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 2:55 PM EST

      Hi Cindy. Yes, I see that you are going through a lot and I hope that you and your sister are able to spend some time together and enjoy one another despite the circumstances. To me, Christmas is an idea, a spirit. If you and your sister share fond memories, some loving moments, and a bit of faith together, then you are celebrating Christmas. It is sad that so many people (I'm not saying this about you) see Christmas as a commercial festival of consumption. They are completely missing the point.

      And I hear you all the way on the health care issue. This country is awful on a good day.

      All the best to you and your sister.

        #62.6 - Sun Nov 25, 2012 1:08 AM EST

        I stop buying Christmas presents years ago. I don't even send out Christmas cards.

        Don't worry, My sister and all will be spending Christmas together. After all, This may be our last Christmas together.

        Thanks for the support and understanding.

          #62.7 - Sun Nov 25, 2012 2:19 AM EST


          It's pretty clear your sister meets the requirements to be declared disabled.Forcing her to go without medically necessary treatment because the government is stealing from her despite knowing that what they're doing may well cost her her life is the kind of thing that,I know,goes on all the time when those doing it think the patient has zero personal power/is too weak and overwhelmed to fight back.

          I've noticed that the times white collar should-be felons DON'T get by with what they're doing to your sister are when enough other people find out about what they're doing.From your posts,you seem to have quite a bit of experience writing on the 'net. Have you thought of starting online petitions and/or a Facebook page to force your state to hand over the Medicaid your sister qualifies for, and to force the physician to help her get the medically necessary dialysis?

          Web sites like nbcnews, cbsnews, and yahoonews will usually post it if you send them an eye-catching article that you've written up, with a headline such as "Dying Woman Has Dialysis and Medicaid Withheld" or "Kansas City Physician Withholds Necessary Dialysis From Indigent Woman"

          Something else to consider:Most bigger cities have at least one health care system that serves indigent patients (Kansas City has Truman Medical Center.) If you don't live in a town that has that,know that social workers in hospitals, home health,hospice,ect. are VERY good at getting the government moving when a patient qualifies for benefits.Hope I've been some help :)

          • 1 vote
          #62.8 - Sun Nov 25, 2012 11:01 AM EST

          KC, Thank you so much for your suggestions. (Hugs)

          Writing a article may very well be the way to go. I'm thinking, I should send it to my local newspaper also.

          It's a shame that so many people think it's easy to get help. I know first hand that's not the case.

          Here's women that worked all her life. End up having a medical condition by no fault of her own. Now she's unable to work. Unable to get medicaid or medicare. Plus SSI is taking their sweet time declaring her disable. Even though she has the medical proof. The doctor even said she's unable to work. Even stated her kidney's are the size of a football. My sister has Polycystic Kidney Disease. There's so many cystic's on her both kidney. One doctor said, It looks like a bunch of grapes.

          But if your a alcoholic or drug addict. You will surely get the help you need. Doesn't make sense.

            #62.9 - Sun Nov 25, 2012 1:36 PM EST

            Some families have had horrific Christmas experiences with nutcase relatives or people coming down with cancer or dying in car crashes. Is it necessary to shove this music down their throat when it's not even December yet?

            Whatever happened to anticipation? Whatever happened to kids frantically looking forward to Christmas in the weeks before?

            The music on November f*cking 15th is nothing more than a commercial grab-stab. It trashes the spirit of the holiday for both religious people and your average family who just wants to have a nice time together and not be aurally-slammed.

            • 2 votes
            Reply#63 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 3:04 AM EST

            Deck the Halls with Mastercard and Visa...falalalala....etc. That's WHY they play it- make no mistake....come and buy stuff you don't want, and things your friends and family don't are getting sleepy.....follow the lights.......

            Just always remember this: Jesus was a Jew. They have a different calendar and stuff.....there's no way Jesus could have been born on December 25th on OUR calendar, every year. It simply isn't possible. The point is- Christmas is about you going to Best Buy and "ripping some b*tch's hair out" to get at the TV that's on sale. It doesn't really have anything to do with Jesus at all....and this subliminal hypnotism is all part of that plan. Sorry for ruining Christmas...

            • 2 votes
            Reply#64 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 8:16 AM EST

            OMGAWD..the world is filled with wonder its going to he)) in a hand basket!!

              Reply#65 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 8:23 AM EST

              My top 5 Christmas discs:

              1: GREEN CHRI$TMA$ by Stan Freberg and Daws Butler (Capitol). The Dynamic Duo of Freberg & Butler put the commercialism of Christmas in its place. (The flip side, "Stan Freberg Presents The Meaning Of Christmas", leaves no doubt as to where the irreverent Baptist minister's son's heart was on the subject.)

              2: MERRY XMAS EVERYBODY by Slade (Polydor). The hard rockin' funsters' eternal UK hit. If you're not smiling by the time Noddy Holder yells "IT'S CHRISSSSSSSSSSST-MASSSSSSSSSSSS!!!" at the end, there's no hope for you, my friends.

              3: I WISH IT COULD BE CHRISTMAS EVERYDAY by Roy Wood's Wizzard (Harvest). Second only to Slade's chart-topper in the perpetually-rocking British Christmas singles.

              4: STEP INTO CHRISTMAS b/w HO HO HO! (Who'd Be A Turkey At Christmas?) by Elton John (DJM). From the sublime to the ridiculous, all on the same record. Nobody could do Christmas records in the 70s like the Brits, I'm tellin' ya. "WELLIES!!!"

              5: SANTA AND THE SATELLITE pts. I & II by Buchanan and Goodman (Luniverse). Just because you can't leave this one out.

              Well, those are my top 5. You may have your own. Enjoy them, whatever they are.


                Reply#66 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 10:24 AM EST

                Armstrong floor and ceiling stores used to have an annual record album, featuring the pop singers of the day--no rock and rollers, though. My parents made a special trip each year to get a copy. Now you can find the records at garage sales.

                  #66.1 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 10:58 PM EST

                  What I don't understand is why people talk about Christmas being all about Christ's birth, even though the date is wrong, and yet the rest of the year he is ignored. People don't follow his teachings at all. If they did they would realize he didn't say anything about celebrating his birth BUT he did say to keep remembering his death. His life taught us much about God but his death saved us, giving us the possibility to live forever, it gave us the needed mediator to have a relationship with God, but that is another aspect that is ignored. People want their ears tickled allowing them to only do what feels good for them, this way they don't have to remember all the other things about Jesus life and ministry and what he taught us that he wanted us to do, how he wants us to conduct ourselves, how we need to have a relationship with God, his Father, as he did. Instead it is all about music. Really???

                  • 1 vote
                  Reply#67 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 10:25 AM EST

                  I don't believe that His birthday is Dec. 25, but I don't think that he minds our celebrating it, especially when the effort to feed the hungry, cloth the naked and visit the sick and afflicted is redoubled in the darkest time of the year (in the northern hemisphere, anyway).

                    #67.1 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 11:10 PM EST

                    As Christ fed the poor, huddled masses, we remember the poor and the unfortunate during the coldest months of the year. I think Christ would've approved our gift giving and spirit lifting for this time. I think he would've chased the money changers out of the temple though.

                    Remember those who are in need. We're all in this together.

                      #67.2 - Sun Nov 25, 2012 12:02 PM EST

                      Complain complain grumble grumble.....ah the internet, therapy for the masses...

                      • 1 vote
                      Reply#68 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 12:04 PM EST

                      Wow! the Department of Redundancy Department.

                        #68.1 - Sun Nov 25, 2012 11:57 AM EST

                        I listen to Christmas music year around

                        • 1 vote
                        Reply#69 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 2:00 PM EST

                        The best way to listen to Christmas music is variety. Don't listen to that local station which plays the same stuff over and over. Streaming Christmas music offers so much more variety. Country Christmas music to jazz, traditional, A Capella, etc

                          Reply#70 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 2:01 PM EST

                          I love Christmas, I love Christmas music. Every year I get up on Christmas morning, load up the CD player with Christmas tunes, and enjoy it all DAY. It is part of what makes the DAY special. I absolutely, unequivocally, no ifs-ands-or-buts do NOT want to listen to it for an entire month (or longer). Any more than I would want to eat turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberries every meal every day for a month. A big part of what makes anything special is the fact that it is not an ordinary, everyday experience. Those stores and radio stations that have gone so far over the top with the Christmas music are just degrading the experience.

                          • 1 vote
                          Reply#71 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 6:13 PM EST

                          As a music teacher, I need to prepare 3 performing groups for the annual holi...oh who am I kidding, Christmas concerts. Then I have at least 2 of my own for groups I perform with. By the time Christmas actually arrives, I want to puncture my own ear drums to keep from hearing any of the syrupy stuff at all. When I retire from teaching, I plan on going to a place that doesn't celebrate the holiday for a thorough palate cleansing.

                          • 1 vote
                          Reply#72 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 6:37 PM EST

                          My first year of cashiering, the store played some nice Christmas jazz, some Sinatra, Peggy Lee, soothing songs. The next year, and the years after, it was ARGH! Brash tinny cover Christmas pop songs, with dogs barking "Jingle Bells" from time to time. The only classic songs were Alvin and the Chipmucks' "Christmas Don't Be Late," and "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas."

                            Reply#73 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 10:51 PM EST

                            I love hearing Christmas music in the stores. It wouldn't be the same trying to shop in a store that wasn't playing the music. It is a shame that some stores are going away from displaying Christmas decorations in favor of generic winter decorations. The season wouldn't be the same without the music, the decorations and the TV specials. I'm perplexed that some people seem to think Christians are attacking them because stores and businesses and schools play Christmas music and display decorations and wish people a "Merry Christmas!" None of that has ever seemed threatening to me.

                              Reply#74 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 10:53 PM EST

                              I blame the stores for playing the same crap over and over again. There's actually quite a bit of GOOD Christmas music out there, original songs and underrated gems that don't get played. So the same songs are heard over and over again at Christmas time. It's a shame, too. There's a ton of great Christmas music that doesn't get heard nearly enough.

                              • 1 vote
                              Reply#75 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 11:20 PM EST

                              Thats why I walk around with headphones on listening to The Surface of the Sun.

                                Reply#76 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 11:34 PM EST

                                Wanna talk about weather outside that is frightful.

                                Sunshine - The Surface of the Sun.


                                  Reply#77 - Sat Nov 24, 2012 11:40 PM EST

                                  I have a soft heart for Stan Boreson's Christmas Carols. "Walking in My Winter Underwear" "The Christmas Goose" "All I want for Christmas (is my upper plate)" "I Just Go Nuts at Christmas" and many more.

                                  • 1 vote
                                  Reply#78 - Sun Nov 25, 2012 11:53 AM EST

                                  I love christmas! It's the best non-christian's revenge for putting up with their pompous asses the rest of the year. I LOVE to watch their stress, resentment, debt, ill-tempers, glaring lack of good will toward men. I LOVE to hear how they are almost done shopping for gifts, as if they are in a gun to their head state of obedience. I LOVE to hear them agonize over housecleaning, cooking, shopping, parties they're obligated to attend. I LOVE the late Sept hounding from Wal-Mart, Macy's Best Buy, to buy, buy, buy, not ending till Feb's after christmas deals. I LOVE the headless chicken-ness of it all. And I love to hear them go through it while crying how it's not worth it.

                                  BUT, what I love most -- is how they forget Jesus, who in his lifetime shunned the acts they do - now - to celebrate him.

                                  • 1 vote
                                  Reply#79 - Sun Nov 25, 2012 8:04 PM EST

                                  "Blue Christmas" performed by Porky Pig

                                  "Jingle Bombs" by Achmed the Dead Terrorist

                                  "Jingle Jingle Jingle Here Comes Kris Kringle" performed by Richard Nixon (really)

                                  "Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire"

                                  "Leroy the Redneck Reindeer"

                                  "Dirty Deeds Done with Sheep"

                                    Reply#80 - Mon Nov 26, 2012 2:45 AM EST

                                    Who has problems with a little baby? On youtube: Scientists" Jesus rose from the dead" Astounding Proof!

                                      Reply#81 - Mon Nov 26, 2012 8:22 AM EST
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