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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It is the lack of variety that is at fault. There are hundreds if not thousands of good recordings out there but you never hear them. The record companies must force the radio stations and Muzak to play the same ones over and over and over.

And the "pop" Christmas songs really need to be played less. I can't stand Paul McCartney's "simply having a wonderful Christmas time". And George Michael's "last Christmas I gave you my heart" Gag!!!

How about some of the lesser known or totally unknown signers and artists getting some air play?

    Reply#83 - Mon Nov 26, 2012 10:16 AM EST

    You all any one is complain about Christmas and Christmas music and anything to do with the holiday and to tell you the truth i am tired of hearing all the little whiners cry and moan over stupid stuff. How about you spend Christmas with your families and remember what the Holiday is all about. Cuz while all you are whining about the music the money any everything else there is soldier half a world away wishing to sing those songs with his or her family. And for people that are offended by "merry Chirstmas" and such well i am Offended when all you say to me is Happy holidays. I am a Christan and damn proud to be one so i Celebrate Christmas So to all of you Merry Christmas. And if you dont like it get the hell out.

      Reply#84 - Mon Nov 26, 2012 10:41 AM EST

      Well,it's nice to see you've been into the Christmas spirit,TJ.

        #84.1 - Mon Nov 26, 2012 5:35 PM EST
        Reply

        I refrain from going into stores as much as possible during the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I hate the constant repetition, year after year, of the same songs. Thank goodness for MP3 players. Now I bring one loaded with the music I prefer, and can actually manage to stroll through the supermarket and get what I need without aggravation.

          Reply#85 - Mon Nov 26, 2012 11:55 AM EST

          See, this is why I save up all my vacation time for my little three-week escape to Puerto Rico every Christmas, so I can get away from all the droning Perry Como and Burl Ives shopper hypno-jingles, which would only serve to make the cold weather and dreary, short days grate me EVEN MORE if I had to stay here shovelling snow. To hell with that, I'd rather be drinking Zombies with old friends, dancing Merengue with a hottie on a boardwalk and working my tan in the tropical sun when Santa comes-a-sleighing.

          • 1 vote
          Reply#86 - Mon Nov 26, 2012 12:51 PM EST

          traditional christmas music is fine...just wait till christmas eve to start playing it.christmas day is fine then that's it till next year.....and don't even think about the crap some of the groups try to sing..

            Reply#87 - Mon Nov 26, 2012 4:13 PM EST

            the songs wouldn't be so bad if Christians would just act on them instead of being hypocrites.

            • 1 vote
            Reply#88 - Mon Nov 26, 2012 4:47 PM EST

            I'm all about it since the kids love it! But for sure after Thanksgiving & then let the Christmas songs begin!

            • 1 vote
            Reply#89 - Mon Nov 26, 2012 6:47 PM EST

            I don't mind listening to Christmas music so much except when it plays incessantly at the grocery store, the mall and so many other public venues. Hearing it endlessly drives me crazy. It's like an ear-worm that gets refreshed every time I step outside my house.

            • 2 votes
            Reply#90 - Mon Nov 26, 2012 11:44 PM EST

            Said it earlier on this seed and I will say it again, "Retailers, I love music, but I want to choose the music I listen to. Also sometimes I don't want to listen to any music. So please do us all a favor and silence the music. And while I am my rant, can't you limit using the P.A. systems for emergencies? Oh for the sound of silence.

              Reply#91 - Tue Nov 27, 2012 2:52 PM EST

              Shopping online solves the christmas music in the stores problem for me. But I still have to go the grocery store. I have a favorite radio station I can't listen to from november 15 thru december 25. It gets earlier and earlier every year. Since my name is Merry and my birthday in december, I don't even get to enjoy my birthday anymore! People have asked me if i changed the spelling for the holiday or if it is my legal name. I did't pick it, my parents thought they were being cute!

                Reply#92 - Sun Dec 2, 2012 3:09 PM EST
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