You know you do it. We all do! Starting around mid-November, Silent Night, Joy to the World, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas all start creeping into our heads. We sing these Holiday tunes in the shower, in the car, or doing dishes. They just creep up without knowing it…but do we mind? Not usually because they make us feel SOOOO good.
Why do they have this power? Well…it is all science.
Brian Rabinovitz, a psychology professor at the College of William and Mary, did an important study on the reason Holiday music gives us the warm and fuzzies. A 2017 article by Cory Steig gives some insight to Rabinovitz’s study.
“There are areas in the brain’s prefrontal cortex that are tracking melodic structures independently of individual notes,” Rabinovitz said. “Once a particular melodic structure is tracked, it can essentially be saved as a memory.”
And the more that music is played, the more those expectations are enforced. It’s why popular music stations rotate through a series of top 40 hits. Why mainstream lyrics often contain only a few words. Why the same holiday classics inundate American airwaves each year. Anything that repeats a lot, Rabinovitz said, has a greater likelihood of making it into our musical structure memory bank.
Christmas music is often structured in a way that makes it innately pleasing…”when you hear a song for the first time, its melody gets tracked in your brain’s prefrontal cortex. Your brain is then always searching for that melody, or a similar one, and when you hear it again it’s very satisfying,” Dr. Rabinovitz explained.
“That area of the brain you might see active for the pieces you’re liking, that’s the same place you see active when you engage in any reward-inducing behavior, like using addictive drugs,” Rabinovitz said. “The phrase ‘sex, drugs, and rock n roll’ could be seen as describing a lifestyle — or simply a checklist of stimuli that activates this reward circuit.”
So basically, Christmas music is an addiction. But you can give yourself a break – it is way healthier for you than alcohol, cigarettes, or even chocolate.
“Hallelujah!,” as Handel wrote in the Messiah – (I bet you are singing it now, aren’t you?).