Christmas has its own unique soundtrack – made up of the crunching of snow, the jingling of bells and of course, the time-old tracks played year after year. Adored by many, a guilty pleasure for others and a downright annual annoyance to some, there’s no escaping these festive favourites – and we’re taking a look at why the tracks of the season are such an important part of the most wonderful time of the year.
When considering Christmas music, our most beloved tunes fall into two categories – the big pop hits, and the traditional carols. In the former category, the two most common styles are the gentle, comforting reminder as to what the holiday season is all about (a la ‘Winter Wonderland and Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas), and the dancefloor fillers that play to the partying element of the festive period (see ‘All I Want for Christmas’ or Wham’s ‘Last Christmas). Both these types of tracks share the classically ‘Christmassy’ feel, but aside from the sleigh bells, it can be hard to pinpoint what gives a song this distinct sound. However, acoustic scholars have identified that many of the most beloved songs share similar characteristics. The introduction of Mariah Carey’s smash hit features a strikingly similar piano riff to Darlene Love’s 1972 ‘Christmas Baby Please Come Home’ – which in turn, shares a unique chord with the best-selling Christmas song of all time, Bing Crosby’s 1942 ‘White Christmas’. And while we might expect these song to trade exclusively in happiness, some scientists have even suggested that listening to sad Christmas songs can make you feel good. So whilst Mud’s ‘Lonely this Christmas’ may lyrically connote feelings of isolation, there’s an argument that figuratively the melody and tune instead acts as a form of emotional relief.
While these contemporary classics may encompass the festive season for many, for others, a choir singing in unison with a harmonious organ and horn remains the most powerful sound of them all – as most often heard in the traditional carol. These hymnal exaltations date back yet further than even Bing Crosby’s Christmas classics, with ‘Silent Night’ composed in 1818, and Good King Wenceslas’ dating back to a medieval dance first heard in the 1200s. While their popularity may have begun with religion, the love of these type of songs transcends the church – and you don’t have to be a worshipper to enjoy the nostalgia and joy of carols at Christmas.
Many listeners rejoice when the time comes to fire up the Christmas playlist, but there are those who breathe a collective groan – and this is down to a phenomenon known as the hedonic curve. On first few listens of a song, our liking for it grows. But as we overhear them, we reach the peak of the curve and this liking begins to dip again. The festive season is still relatively short, so many of us gain enjoyment from repeated listens throughout the period. But with increasingly earlier plays, and yet more plays as the years go by, there are listeners for whom the dip of the curve comes all the more quickly.
Christmas music trades on memories and associations we already have, often reminding us of our childhood, a loved one or a past experience. Whether it’s the rocking euphoria of Slade, the melancholy lyrics of Wham or the chimes of ‘Ding Dong Merrily on high’, music is the catalyst of our festive nostalgia – bringing back memories whether the song is liked or not. It’s not just for Christmas either, and other holidays such as Hanukkah (sung to the jolly tune of ‘Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel’) or Kwanza (the song of which perfectly captures the traditions of African culture) bring about equally powerful emotional responses. This sentimentality is what makes music such an important part of the holidays. So however you’re celebrating, you’ll enjoy the festivities with a seasonal song in your heart.