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They aren’t just catchy earworms...there’s a science behind our favourite Christmas songs

There is a reason why Christmas songs are so popular

Sunday World

Year after year we love to listen to the nostalgic Christmas songs which bring so much cheer to many Irish people. Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas are one of the many favourites that get us into the festive spirit.

Hidden Hearing asked Peter Vuust, a leading neuroscientist in the field of music and the brain, explains why this type of music make us feel Christmassy and how these songs work their magic.

“One of the fundamental things that makes music work is the way it plays with our often-subconscious sense of expectation: The structure is determined by the interplay of major and minor chords. A very popular chord for Christmas songs is the D-minor 7 flat 5 - that sits right underneath when Carey sings ‘presents’.

“Minor chords are nostalgic or even mournful; something good expected to come to an end. That constitutes a solid Christmas feeling. The D-minor 7 flat 5 is a diatonic chord that almost has texture – like a well worn warm blanket smelling of cinnamon and cardamom.

“But take another Christmas hit - Wham’s Last Christmas - which is equally part of the regular Christmas soundscape, despite not conveying any Christmas message: ‘Last Christmas I gave you my heart but the very next day you gave it away’ – it doesn’t exactly allude to family reunion and warm bake. But it works really well, because of its minor-major composition that is repeated almost unbearably. Like the fairytale narrative of repeated challenges overcome.”

Peter Vuust is a leading neuroscientist in the field of music and the brain

According to Peter Vuust we have an instinctive knowledge of how music should sound - what note should come next, where the next beat will land, what is the next chord we're about to hear.

Whatever its origin, we carry a set of statistics in our brains so that any time we hear a piece of music, we're trying to predict what will happen next in it. The reason we think certain notes, chords and phrases sound comforting or nostalgic is actually because they land where our brains statistically think they should said Vuust.

The neuroscientist added: “Consciously we think the music sounds like Christmas. But really it is the happy vibes of our brain congratulating us on an accurate prediction. And what we see with the Wham hit is that the lyrics play no decisive role in how we emotionally perceive music; the lyrics of Last Christmas are audionotes capable of evoking warmth and that profound togetherness of Christmas despite the lyrics being the exact opposite. Sound matters far more than we think, it actively shapes our minds.”

Audiologist and Marketing Director with Hidden Hearing Dolores Madden agrees: “Our memories are composed by layers of multisensory impressions. What we hear combines with smells, tastes, sights, and the emotions of a moment to create a space in our memories.

“When we encounter one or more of these stimuli again, especially in a predictable sequence or combination, our memory is triggered. The more nuanced our ability to hear the full range of Christmas sounds, for instance, the more likely it is that we will feel what we call the magic of the season.”

Dolores Madden suggests all the sounds of the season play a role. The muffled footfall of a stroll through new fallen snow can just as effectively unlock your holiday memory banks as the crisp, bright overtones of Bing Crosby’s sleigh bells.

“The point is to love your ears.” Madden says “To notice and appreciate the richness hearing brings to your life, and to care for it should be on the top of everyone’s list. When counting our blessings this Christmas, the gift of good hearing should be among the top of the gratitude list.”


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