Why Do We Love (and Hate) Holiday Music?

All I want for Christmas is "White Christmas" in my head.

Posted Dec 18, 2020

I love hearing and singing holiday songs. But even though I love this time of year, I often can hate holiday music too. Why do we love and hate the songs of the season?

Which Christmas song is your favorite? We should start with this question. It will tell us a lot about how we can both love the songs and come to hate them by the end of the season. I still enjoy White Christmas and Blue Christmas every year. I really enjoy listening to the music from the Charlie Brown Christmas special — that Vince Giraldi jazz holiday classic gets played every year in our house. I also have a soft spot for some songs from Christmas CDs my wife and I bought when our children were young.

But let me point out what isn’t on my list. I don’t have any holiday songs from the last 20 years on my list of favorites. Our list of holiday favorites is often about nostalgia. These songs remind us of our childhood or other important times in our lives. Even thinking about the holiday albums (yes, actual records) that my parents would play will remind me of my childhood home. I will remember lying in bed and seeing the oversized Christmas lights hanging on the eaves of our house.

Music is very effective in creating nostalgia (Janata et al., 2007; Schulkind et al. 1999). Nostalgia is both an emotional and a remembering response. But it’s remembering without a memory. Instead, nostalgia is calling up an earlier time period. Sometimes particular events may come to mind. But often nostalgia is a feeling of a time period. A warm glow, that can include a longing for the past. Music can work to remind you of the past and create nostalgia at any time of the year — just listen to songs from when you were in high school that you haven’t heard in years. And holiday music seems particularly effective in creating nostalgia. The winter holidays are often about remembering. For me, I am nostalgic for either my childhood or the glorious years when our sons were young. I enjoy our holidays now too. But the warmth of feeling from those other years is an important part of this time of year.

Of course, nostalgia isn’t always completely positive. We may long for a past we know we can’t ever recreate. And this year may be particularly hard. We won’t be with our family because of COVID. My mom died earlier this year, and so my nostalgia will be melancholic. I know that many people will have a similar experience — missing family to avoid spreading COVID or missing family members no longer with us. So the nostalgia of holiday music will be a warmth for the past and an understanding that the past is lost to us now.

So nostalgia, remembering, and just the joy of the music is why we often love holiday music. But how do we come to hate holiday music?

Let’s talk about having a song stuck in your head. Almost everyone has had songs stuck in their heads. Often, these are songs that we enjoy. But sometimes, songs that we hate can also become stuck in our heads. Interestingly, holiday songs are very likely to get stuck in your head at this time of the year (Halpern & Bartlett, 2011). Holiday songs are really great for becoming earworms — that is songs that repetitively play in your head. You know them well, so you can sing along and your memory can keep repeating the chorus for you. You are exposed to them frequently as well. We play them at home. We hear them on the radio. And every store is playing holiday music now. So hearing the song can get the earworm started and your memory will keep queueing it up (Hyman et al., 2013). That song gets stuck on repeat in your head. Actually, not the whole song. More like your mental record developed a skip and just a few lines can keep repeating.

But we love these songs, right? So how can having one stuck in your head be bad?

Even our favorites can wear out their welcome. In some of our research, my students and I have found that even songs we really like can become aversive when repeating in our heads (Hyman et al., 2015). If the song keeps repeating in our heads and if it feels like we have no control over it, then that song starts to feel intrusive. And this is why can we come to hate holiday music. We get sick of hearing the same songs repetitively, especially when they keep repeating in our heads. So I find that by December 26th, I am ready to have the songs put away for another year.

I know that a growing dislike of holiday music during the season, even songs we love, can be a real problem for some people. Some people are constantly exposed to the same songs. Anyone who works in retail hears a limited set of holiday songs playing on the store sound system. Those same songs cycle through the store through every shift of every day — sometimes starting in November (or maybe even October). No wonder Rudolph isn’t invited to play in any reindeer games — he has worn out his welcome. I also know that by the end of the season, professional ballet dancers become tired of Tchaikovsky’s "Nutcracker Suite." It is beautiful music. But not on December 26th. I have even known dancers who love the music and play it in the summer. But at the end of a run of Nutcrackers, they are more than ready to turn it off.

Ira Hyman
Source: Ira Hyman

Even the songs we love can become too much when they get stuck in our heads.

My advice? Enjoy the songs while they inspire nostalgia. And when you’ve heard enough, or when they are annoyingly stuck in your head? There are many methods for getting a song out of your head. The best approach to getting rid of an earworm is to just start a different one. Listen to other music. Enjoy your holidays.

References

Halpern, A. R., & Bartlett, J. C. (2011). The persistence of musical memories: A descriptive study of earworms. Music Perception, 28(4), 425-432.

Hyman, I. E., Jr., Burland, N. K., Duskin, H. M., Cook, M. C., Roy, C. M., McGrath, J. C., & Roundhill, R. F. (2013). Going Gaga:  Investigating, creating, and manipulating the song stuck in my head.  Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27, 204-215. 

Hyman, I. E., Jr., Cutshaw, K. I., Hall, C. M., Snyders, M. E., Masters, S. A., Au, V., Graham, J. M. (2015).  Involuntary to Intrusive:  Using Involuntary Musical Imagery to Explore Individual Differences and the Nature of Intrusive Thoughts.  Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 25, 14-27. 

Janata, P., Tomic, S. T., & Rakowski, S. K. (2007). Characterisation of music-evoked autobiographical memories. Memory, 15(8), 845-860.

Schulkind, M. D., Hennis, L. K., & Rubin, D. C. (1999). Music, emotion, and autobiographical memory: They’re playing your song. Memory & Cognition, 27(6), 948-955.