Analysis: the science behind Christmas songs involves nostalgia, neural pathways, sleigh bells and, yes, Michael Bublé

It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas, everywhere we go. Over the airwaves we are constantly assured it is the most wonderful time of the year, even though we have to endure that Wizzard song at regular intervals. Even in the year of Covid, it’s unlikely you will have escaped someone bellowing 'IT’S CHRISTMAAAAAS!’ in your face, or totally avoided that person who explains that there are, in fact, many rivers flowing in Africa. Love it or hate it, Christmas music is a staple component of the festive season.

The chord that makes Christmas music sound so Christmassy

But can science explain our fascination with these songs? A large part of our affinity with Christmas songs is dependent upon neural pathways in the brain which link together music, mood and memory. Extensive brain research and neuroimaging studies have shown complex connections between the auditory cortex, which helps us process musical sounds, and the limbic system, which determines our emotion and behaviour. These can work together to develop associative learning, whereby strong emotions, either caused by or associated with music, can lead to long-lasting memories.

The relevance of this to festive songs is that most of us will have been first exposed to them as children, as we excitedly waited for the arrival of Christmas holidays, snow and Santa. As a result, many of us have forged a happy emotional association with this music from a young age.

Each year, the same songs stimulates the reward centre in our brain anew, recreating that child-like sense of anticipation and sparking nostalgic memories of Christmas, just like the ones we used to know. In fact, a  touching illustration of this deep-rooted music-memory association has been demonstrated in care homes, where Christmas carols and songs have been shown to benefit patients suffering from dementia.

Oliver Sacks talks about Alzheimer's disease and the power of music.

This nostalgia is also an important weapon for the retail industry at Christmas. Shops utilise a variety of psychological tricks to make us spend money and that is doubly true at this time of year. One highly-cited study in 2005 demonstrated that Christmas music caused shoppers to have a more favourable evaluation of a store, especially when combined with traditional Christmas scents, such as pine and cinnamon. It is also known that tempo affects shopping mood, so upbeat Christmas tunes are played in stores to make spirits high and encourage spending.

Less happy are the retail workers, however, who are subjected to the same Christmas songs on repeat play. It will come as no surprise for this group to learn that songs used in musical torture of prisoners in Guatanamo Bay included Christmas carols on permanent loop.

All Christmas songs feature sleigh bells and Michael Bublé, who emerges from his cave each year at this time to croon the classics

It is also worth remembering that the music-memory associations do not necessarily result in positive emotions. Sadly, many people do not have happy childhood memories of Christmas. Those who have experienced heartache or trauma at this time of year can also find the festivities very difficult.

Furthermore, various surveys show that a high proportion of adults actually dread the lead-up to Christmas, with all its financial pressures and extra responsibilities. For all these people, hearing Christmas songs begin on the radio can evoke a negative emotional reaction, with a detrimental impact on mental health. Unfortunately, simply avoiding Christmas music is not easy, as everyone who has already crashed out of the annual Whamageddon competition will attest. So please be understanding if some people don't feel like singing along with Mariah, Cliff and the rest. After all, in the case of Wizzard, they have a very fair point. 

Ultimately, this all helps explain why "Fairytale of New York" regularly tops lists of the best Christmas songs. Its combination of infectious melody and melancholy sentiments appeal equally to both the rowdy revellers and those weeping quietly into their drink in the corner.

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The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York"

By the time Christmas Day is over, though, even the most devoted Christmas fanatic will have tired of hearing the same old songs over and over. Psychologists cite this as an example of the 'mere exposure effect', a phenomenon whereby we initially react positively to hearing a familiar song, but repeated exposure ultimately results in more negative emotional response. So, although they've been played many times many ways, we are all relieved when we can finally tune out the Christmas tunes, at least until next year.

So, if we know so much about how music affects memory and mood, surely it would be possible to create the perfect Christmas song? That is exactly what forensic musicologist Professor Joe Bennett set out to do in 2017. He analysed 78 Christmas songs featured on Spotify's December charts to identify common elements. Predictably enough, recurring themes and words related to home, snow, love, parties and Santa. Melody-wise, 95% of the songs were in a major key, 90% were in 4/4 time and the median tempo was 115 beats per minute.

He also noted that around half the songs featured sleigh bells and 13% were sang by Michael Bublé. This was unsurprising as we know all Christmas songs feature sleigh bells and Bublé, who emerges from his cave each year at this time to croon the classics.

Armed with this data, and presumably with dollar signs in his eyes, Bennett then collaborated with songwriters to create the perfect Christmas song. The result, sang by the London Community Gospel Choir, was "Love's Not Just for Christmas". Of course, you’ve probably never heard of it as it didn’t even enter the charts because, well, it’s not very good. Still better than Wizzard, though.

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London Community Gospel Choir's "Love's Not Just for Christmas"

So much for science, then. In truth, there is a lack of robust scientific analysis about the effect of Christmas music on human subjects. It is almost as if there are more important things to spend science funding on. So, I'm off to drink mulled wine and listen to my Michael Bublé album instead. Have a Holly Jolly Christmas everyone.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ