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Why are festive songs such earworms?

By Dr Muiris Houston - 17th Dec 2023

festive songs

Christmas music, whether we think it’s good or bad, is usually more popular than it might deserve to be

For the first time ever, I experienced the run-up to Christmas in a warm climate. The youngest H offspring has decamped to Melbourne for the foreseeable and so Mrs H and I decided we should go and visit her in November. Included in our festive experience was a brief en route sojourn in Singapore.

Seasoned travellers will not be surprised to hear that it is presently monsoon season in Singapore. So, although there’s not much in the way of sunshine, the city state was wet and warm, with temperatures in the high 30s.

Being a shopping Mecca, Christmas decorations were in full-on mode. I saw the most beautiful silver-coloured Christmas tree, with a Chanel logo on top stretching to five stories in height, in one vast mall.

Over in Melbs (it’s what the Aussies call the place), there were few enough fully decorated Christmas trees on the streets. Which seemed kind of appropriate given the long, light-filled summer evenings, and the pleasantly warm temperatures.

But there was no such restraint with the Christmas music. It was everywhere: Shops, restaurants, and on the streets. To this northern European, it seemed very odd indeed.

However, it seems that Christmas music has a self -soothing effect. So, whether you live in snow-capped northern mountains or in sun-filled equatorial Africa, Christmas music works its magic.

According to Daniel Levitin, a Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal in Canada, research has shown that most people in Western countries use music to self-soothe.

“They know that there are certain kinds of music that will put them in a good mood,” he said. “Christmas music is a reliable one for a lot of people.”

Levitin says that listening to a song that has not been heard in a long time can transport a person back in time. And for those who find joy in Christmas music, the brain increases serotonin levels and may release the hormone prolactin.

Christmas music, like all forms of music, is powerful. But this genre is perhaps more potent than other forms of music because the holiday season itself is emotionally charged. It represents the ideals that most humans strive for like equality, tolerance, love, and tranquility. “For some of us, that’s an inspiring message,” Levitin notes.

Apparently, Yuletide music was originally sung to celebrate the winter solstice. These songs were performed in communal, secular settings and as early as the 3rd Century Christianity adapted Yuletide festivals for celebrations of the birth of Jesus.

By the 20th Century, secular Christmas songs like I’ll Be Home for Christmas and White Christmas came into vogue, bringing solace, particularly to World War II soldiers who were posted far from families and loved ones. These songs became popular during the war because people were seeking something traditional – some sense of family and peace – even as their whole world was being blown to smithereens.

Indeed, White Christmas by Irving Berlin is not only consistently one of the most well-known Christmas songs, but is the best-selling song of all time.

Christmas tunes are more likely to become earworm music. And because of the dominance of Christmas music in public settings, such as shops and bars or on the radio, we all get a lot more exposure to the same songs than we do at other times of year. So you could argue that Christmas music helps bring us together.

The pattern of liking for an individual song over time is thought to fit an inverted U-shaped curve. According to this theory, when we first hear a new piece of music we tend to not like it very much. But repetition breeds liking – and repetition both within a song and through repeated listening over days and weeks will usually increase our liking in a fairly rapid linear way.

That means a lot of Christmas music, whether we think it’s good or bad, will be more popular than it might deserve to be as it usually only gets aired a few months of the year. And by the time the first week of January comes around, the curve falls away rapidly as we become thoroughly sick of Christmas tunes.

Whatever my perceptual difficulties with celebrating Christmas Down Under, it seems Christmas music transcends this. So, when my daughter and her friends descend onto the beaches of St Kilda on Christmas Day, they too can experience a true spirit of Christmas.

I would like to wish a Happy Christmas to all our readers, especially to the many doctors from abroad who keep our health service alive while they themselves are separated from family at home.

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