Does Christmas music turn you into the Grinch?

By Sandee LaMotte

Does Christmas music put you in the spirit of giving or turn your heart two sizes too small?

If you find yourself relating to a hairy, green, holiday-hating beast known as the Grinch when your ears are filled with the sounds of the season, you’re in good company.

A 2011 Consumer Reports poll found that almost 25% of Americans picked seasonal music as one of the most dreaded aspects of the holiday season, ranking just behind «seeing certain relatives.»

A survey this fall of 2,000 people in the US and Britain by Soundtrack Your Brand, a Spotify-backed company that says it’s on a mission «to kill bad background music,» found that 17% of US shoppers and 25% of British shoppers «actively» dislike Christmas music. Bah! Humbug!

Health benefits of music

When it comes to your health, science says music is good for you. Studies show that music can treat insomnialessen the experience of pain (even during dental procedures); reduce your heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety; boost your mood and reduce depression; alter brainwaves and reduce stress; help you slow down and eat less during a meal; help your body recover faster; and engage the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, remembering and making predictions. Many studies say the best type of music for health is classical in nature, full of rich, soothing sounds.

With all those positives, what’s the problem with Christmas tunes?

One reason you might find yourself cringing is oversaturation. Due to «Christmas creep,» music and decorations seem to go up earlier each year, much closer to Halloween than Thanksgiving. That gives you ample time to hear Mariah Carey’s hit «All I Want for Christmas is You» for what seems like the googolplex time before you get far on your shopping list.

It makes sense that too much of anything can cause annoyance, even stress, and put a damper on your holiday spirit, much like a certain famous «nasty, wasty skunk»: «You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch … you have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile … »

That’s certainly the case for retail workers who are forced to listen to holiday tunes on a seemingly endless loop in the workplace. Soundtrack Your Brand’s survey found that one in six employees believe Christmas music repetition negatively affects «their emotional well-being,» while a full 25% said they felt less festive.

Or … more Grinchy?

Putting aside the auditory attack on holiday retail workers, there’s another way to look at survey statistics: About 75% of us enjoy listening to Christmas music. And it’s not just baby boomer nostalgia that fuels those facts. According to Nielsen’s 2017 Music 360 report, millennials are the biggest holiday music fans (36%), closely followed by Generation X (31%) and then the baby boomers (25%).

Stores use music against you

Retailers are quite aware of those statistics and have learned how best to use our emotions to tap into our wallets.

Studies show that Christmas music, combined with festive scents, can increase the amount of time shoppers spend in stores, as well as their intentions to purchase. It turns out that the tempo of Christmas music plays a role as well.

Faster-paced pieces like «Jingle Bells» will energize shoppers and move them more quickly through a store than retailers might like. That’s why many rely on slower-tempo tunes, like Nat King Cole’s «The Christmas Song,» to relax shoppers and entice them to spend more time and money.

That makes sense to University of Cambridge music psychologist David Greenberg, who studies the relationship between our cognitive styles and musical preferences. He believes that how you think is an excellent predictor of what music you will like.

According to Greenberg, if you like to analyze rules and patterns in the world, like those that apply to technology, car engines and the weather, you’re probably a «systemizer.» If instead you enjoy focusing on understanding and reacting to the feelings and thoughts of others, you’re likely an «empathizer.»

Want to know your personal thinking/musical style? Take Greenberg’s in-depth quiz.

If you found yourself scoring somewhere in the middle, Greenberg says you’re a «balanced» thinker, and your musical choices will probably contain a mixture of high- and low-energy pieces.

«About a third of us fall into each grouping: systemizer, empathizer and balanced,» Greenberg explained. «But it also depends on gender. Females score higher on empathizing and males on systemizing.»

Just how does that apply to holiday music?

«Empathizers prefer mellow styles of music, soft rock, R&B and soul, music that is slower,» Greenberg said. «It can be sad or nostalgic and certainly has an emotional depth to it. That profile that matches many Christmas songs such as ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,’ songs with features that get you in the Christmas mood.»

A «systemizer,» he says, will like more complex, high-energy music. Examples include hard rock and heavy metal, such as Metallica, The Sex Pistols and Guns N’ Roses. It’s safe to say that most holiday tunes don’t fit into that category.

It’s possible, says Greenberg, that those of us who don’t like Christmas music from the start of the season might fall into the «systemizer» category. Or that you might prefer listening to the more upbeat hits on Billboard’s Holiday 100, such as this year’s No. 2, «Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree» by Brenda Lee, or No. 4, «A Holly Jolly Christmas» by Burl Ives.

So the next time the sounds and smells of the holiday season start to overwhelm you at your favorite retail store, relax. Understand that it’s all about personal style. Take a tip from the Grinch and let your heart grow — three sizes, perhaps?

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