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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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