NCC Chorus’ rendition of “Somewhere It’s Snowing” arranged by John Leavitt and directed by NCC’s Rosemary Haber.

It’s the season, and it’s upon us! Listen . . . open your ears . . . turn up the volume. Can you hear the “Fa-La-La’s,” the “Deck the Halls,” the “Hark, Hear the Bells?” Yep, it’s time! The Christmas season is upon us, and whether you like this time of year or not, what goes along with it is the glory of holiday music on the radio, TV, in shopping malls, restaurants, and of course, in your homes.

But why? As stated by Christian radio station Star 93.3: “We believe Christmas is the most joyful time of the year. It’s all about celebrating the birth of Jesus, the biggest event in human history, and the one that our entire faith is built upon! We don’t think it’s ever too early to celebrate that. Even though the music is different from what we normally play, the message is still the same: peace, love, joy, happiness, and goodwill to all mankind!”

In full Christmas mode, we hear holiday music right after Thanksgiving until December 25, and it never fails to lighten our spirits and brighten our moods. We have listened to them over and over from years past, and most songs have a psychological effect on us during this time of year, some glad, some sad. Memories formed when certain songs remind us of where we have been, with whom we shared, what we were doing, and of course, why it’s embedded in our hearts. It could be the modality of the song. Major verses and minor keys play a role in how we perceive our feelings today or our memory from years past. The tempos, lyrics, and melodies are simple and happy that they give us an extra burst of serotonin when played.

Holiday Music
Northampton Community Chorus directed by Rosemary Haber.

But can it also make you sad? It can be stressful for people, because paying the bills, grieving over lost relatives, all the work involved with decorating, wrapping, cooking, and baking . . . Christmas music can trigger a reaction of sad nostalgia as well. Many of us associate Christmas songs with happy childhood memories, but those of us who have had a rough upbringing or have experienced a loss during the season can experience a sad, lost, or stressed-out feeling as a result of this music. That is because our prefrontal cortex is less developed in childhood. That’s the area associated with early holiday memories either positive or negative, which are especially vibrant. Listening to too much of it can act as a nagging reminder to those who just aren’t quite ready to get into the Christmas spirit.

In my opinion, you can never get enough Christmas music. listen to it, sing with it, join a chorus and be part of it, keep Christmas in your heart and love the music of christmas!

Rosemary Haber

But let’s focus on the positive and why it’s innately pleasing, according to Brian Rabinovitz, PhD., a neuroscientist at the College of William and Mary who specializes in musical cognition. When you hear a song for the first time, its melody gets tracked in your brain’s prefrontal cortex. Compared to other genres of music, Christmas music and pop music tend to have predictable melodic structures. Each time you listen to a song, the patterns become more obvious: “Hearing something you know very well, you already have strong expectations. You’re making these predictions, having this moment of tension and then realizing the prediction was correct. When you combine this aspect with nostalgia, it’s a no-brainer why Christmas music makes you feel such a range of emotions.”

Holiday music is also the only set of songs we hear in the same context each year, making them especially nostalgic. Retailers know this and use it to their advantage. Holiday music and smell can cause shoppers to spend more time and money in stores. Slower tempo songs are especially good at this. Hearing Christmas songs on repeat requires your prefrontal cortex to work hard to filter out the music, meaning you have less decision making power to open up your wallet. So next time you feel especially nostalgic or guilty for spending too much money at the mall or online, it’s not your fault, blame the Christmas music!

Rosemary and Dick Haber
Rosemary and Dick Haber