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Why We Can (Sometimes) Hate Music

Overexposure of a good thing can turn it bad.

andriano . cz/Shutterstock
Source: andriano . cz/Shutterstock

Whenever I’m home for Thanksgiving, our tradition is to “put up Christmas” the day after. We bring out the mimosas, pull out the trees, unload the boxes, put on the Santa hats, and get it all set up while listening to and singing along with holiday tunes.

Many people — certainly many of my friends and family members — continue to play those holiday tunes throughout the month. And there’s always that one radio station on the dial that plays festive songs 24/7, and of course now we have Spotify and Apple Music to compile holiday playlists, too.

What may go underappreciated, though, is that we have the option to turn off the tunes. We can hit pause, turn the player off, and enjoy the silence. Because let’s face it: We tend to hear the same songs over and over and over, and every once in a while, it feels good to have a break.

But do you know who doesn’t have that same option? Retail workers. A couple weeks ago, @edgarwright posted the following query to Twitter:

Question to people working in retail at this time of year: What Christmas song do you not mind hearing 100 times and which Christmas song sends you plunging into a psychotic abyss?

What followed was a long thread of users sharing their most hated (and most loved) holiday tunes, ranging from Mariah Carey to “Baby it’s Cold Outside” to… well, any and all holiday music. (See the full thread here.)

There’s something to the idea that overexposure can diminish pleasure — and it’s not unique to music. In the early 1970s, Daniel Berlyne published the landmark Aesthetics and Psychobiology, exploring the connection between physiological arousal and the arts. Part of the text included an exploration of the connection between arousal and pleasure; namely, that there’s a relationship between the complexity and familiarity of an aesthetic stimulus and one’s liking of such a stimulus.

To use music as an example, a song that's too complex or not familiar enough is commonly considered aversive. Think of the cliché about parents hating the music of their children’s generation — rock/rap/punk/metal — because it just sounds like “noise.” To those parents, that music is unfamiliar, and thus difficult to listen to and understand.

Conversely, music that’s too simple or overly familiar is commonly considered boring, even aversive. Those retail workers' experiences fall into this category. Overexposure to holiday music lends itself to too much familiarity, which leads to an aversion to a certain song, artist, or even a whole genre.

What’s worse is that those workers may not have a choice in what they’re exposed to. That holiday music, because of its overall positive impact on consumer behavior, is going to be played. And whereas shoppers are in the store temporarily, workers are there for hours at a time, day after day, week after week.

So what can retail workers do about it? There's no easy solution, but perhaps they could play a role in shaping the musical offerings at their store by suggesting it try...:

  • Rotating multiple playlists or CDs, with multiple styles like traditional and contemporary, as well as a combination of songs with lyrics and instrumental-only works.
  • Keeping the volume at a comfortable level. Music played too loudly can speed up the process of over-familiarization/dislike.
  • Allowing workers the opportunity to suggest their own playlists for consideration.
  • Challenging the status quo altogether and playing something other than holiday music. (Even shoppers may appreciate the aural break.)


Sena Moore, K. M. (2016). Understanding the influence of music on emotions: A historical review. Music Therapy Perspectives, 35(2), 131-143. doi:10.1093/mtp/miw026

Ward, M. K., Goodman, J. K., & Irwin, J. R. (2014). The same old song: The power of familiarity in music choice. Marketing Letters, 25(1), 1-11. doi:10.1007/s11002-013-9238-1

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