Why do you love (or hate) holiday music?


The season is upon us and there is no escaping it.

“The Christmas Song” welcomes us to warmly lit restaurants.

“White Christmas” follows us down the bread aisle of the supermarket.

“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” amazes us everywhere.

What makes holiday music so inevitably popular year after year? Why do so many people love him and so many others hate him?

It has to do with nostalgia, say faculty experts from the Northeast.

“There is this wonderful classic discovery called the memory bump this is particularly true in music ”, says Psyche Loui, associate professor of creativity and creative practice of the North East as well as director of Music, Imaging and Neural Dynamics Laboratory (MIND), which studies the networks of brain structure and function that enable people to process music.

Left to Right: Deirdre Loughridge, Associate Professor of Music; Anne Hege, assistant assistant professor of music at Mills College; and Psyche Loui, associate professor of creativity and creative practice and director of the Music, Imaging and Neural Dynamics (MIND) laboratory. Photos by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University and courtesy photo.

“The music that evokes autobiographical memories the most tends to be the music we first hear in adolescence and early adulthood,” Loui explains. “So if you think about the music that you’re particularly likely to fall back on, it’s very likely that it’s in your late teens or early twenties.” It’s a remarkable, consistent result that tells us something about how our brains develop in life and how our emotions and memories mature.

The most popular Christmas carols seem to have been around forever. A 2019 analysis of The Washington Post showed that 22 of the 23 most popular holiday songs had been released in the previous century, with the exception of a 2011 Michael Bublé cover of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” originally written in 1951.

“I am a die-hard Christmas music fan,” says Deirdre Loughridge, an associate professor of music from the Northeast who writes songs and plays the cello. “One of the things I love about it is how these songs connect you to vacations and family time. It’s a way to connect with memories.

The attraction of warm memories also explains the enduring popularity of “It’s a wonderful life,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Rudolph the red nosed reindeer” (the 1964 animated version starring Hermey the Elf and Yukon Cornelius).

“I grew up listening to a Billboard Christmas hits album from the 1950s and 1960s, ”Loughridge explains. “I also like the Muppets versions of Christmas carols.”

Loughridge appreciates the way modern artists reinterpret holiday classics. A 2020 Grammy-nominated arrangement of “The Christmas Song” by Jacob Collier has become Loui’s favorite vacation room.

“The song evokes that cold winter feeling,” Loui says. “It’s funny, because I’m originally from Hong Kong so I had never seen chestnuts roasting over an open fire or a white Christmas before I was a teenager – but I formed this association anyway. Perhaps this is proof of the reminiscence bump: I moved to a new place that had cold winters in my early teens, just in time to form these formative memories.

Anne Hege, composer and assistant assistant professor of music at Mills College, appreciates how vacations allow traditional genres to emerge in public places.

“There are people who listen to choral music who normally wouldn’t,” says Hege, who directs the choirs. “There is a blur of the lines which is pleasant. “

Hege finds that his 4-year-old twins react instinctively by dancing to the music of “The Nutcracker”, even though they have never seen his ballet production. She and her husband add to the family mystique by bringing out old Christmas vinyls from their childhood to play this time of year.

“The record player was broken maybe three months ago,” Hege says. “It had to be fixed by December because it would be a much better vacation if it was usable. ”

Holiday songs encourage family and friends to sing along, sparking harmonies rarely heard outside of birthday celebrations.

“I was brought up as a choir singer and I love that it gives people the opportunity to sing together,” Hege says. “It’s one of the only times of the year that people start singing.”

“I love to sing ‘Deck the Halls’ because fa la la, la la la, la la la is so much fun, ”Loughridge says. “Last year, instead of a Christmas card, we did a cover of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’, my husband and I. We also did a short ‘Jingle Bells’ with our (aged 8, 6 and 1 year old), and our 8 year old played the drums on it.

The COVID-19 era has deepened associations with holiday music.

“This happened last year particularly as a pandemic vacation,” Loughridge said. “The songs that contained those ‘I’ll be home’ or ‘I won’t be home’ messages, many of which came from the days of the war where it was a very common experience – which seemed to be a sub- kind of Christmas music. “

Endless reading of Christmas classics for commercial purposes in shopping malls can be annoying, although Hege notes that the desire to avoid public places during the pandemic may reduce instances of musical fatigue. But that doesn’t change anything: just as some people love holiday music, others hate it with the same intensity, both for the same reasons, Loui says.

“I like it to a point, then I have to listen to something else,” Loui says. “When we listen to music, we always find associations between the sounds and our long-term memories. And we also form expectations about how the sounds are going to play out as they occur in each moment. So I think there are several levels of memory learning and associations that are involved.

“Holiday music scratches a lot,” Loui adds. “At some point, however, our brains need something new as well. And maybe this is the part where hearing that same song over and over again can get a little boring. So it’s this push-pull between wanting to hear vacation music and not wanting to hear vacation music.

For 11 months a year, popular music embraces the fresh and the new. Over the next few weeks, however, we will all be stepping back into the past.

“We tend to think of time in a linear fashion and always move forward,” Loughridge explains. “But there is also this cyclical aspect of time, and the return of holiday music is an experience of that.”

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