What an upside down U — and science — say about how much you like Christmas music

Home Arts What an upside down U — and science — say about how much you like Christmas music
What an upside down U — and science — say about how much you like Christmas music

How do you feel when you hear Christmas music? Joyful and happy? Or so frustrated at the looming holiday season that you want to scream?

Here’s some scientific reasons why you might be inclined to crack out the Michael Bublé as early as November 1 or bah humbug any hint of a jingle bell.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before

Dr Amanda Krause is a senior psychology lecturer at Queensland’s James Cook University.

She says Christmas music can feel unavoidable because it is, by nature, cyclical. Like clockwork, as Christmas trees begin to fill stores, carols and contemporary Christmas tunes fill our ears.

Since 2004, when Google started collecting data, Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You has seen a massive spike in searches every year in December.

A graph showing blue spikes.
Google searches for Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas have consistently spiked every year at December since 2004.(Supplied: Google)

The returning nature of the tune is in juxtaposition to the fact that it really only gets played — albeit quite a lot — during one or two months a year.

This kind of short-but-intense period of listening could affect how much we enjoy Christmas music.

According to Dr Krause, when considering music, in terms of how much we do or don’t like it, it’s helpful to imagine it in the shape of an upside down U.

“The theory relates to how complex a song is and how much we like it,” Dr Krause says.

“Something that’s really simple, we don’t like very much. It’s at the bottom. Something that’s very complex and hard to understand is at the other bottom of the U and we don’t like it.

“But something that’s moderately complex is at that sweet spot at the top.”

An example of upside down U that can be used to determine how much we like certain music.
An example of upside down U that can be used to determine how much we like certain music. Songs that we enthusiastically enjoy sit atop the the upsidedown U.(ABC News: Widia Jalal)

However, where a song sits on the upside down U is not static: it’s consistently changing. Which is where Mariah’s annual Christmas invasion comes in.

“If you take Mariah Carey’s Christmas song, you’ve heard it a million times, you know it inside and out, maybe, it’s tipping towards the end of it’s not very complex because you know it so well,” Dr Krause says.

“But the same thing could be true of: ‘Oh, it’s been a year since we heard this and it’s so nice to hear it again’.”

The power of nostalgia

According to Dr Krause, one of the most powerful aspects of listening to music is the associations that we make.

“Beyond the notes and the melodies are the memories that we attach to them and those can be quite individual,” Dr Krause says.

It’s partly because listening to music stimulates almost every part of your brain’s limbic system, the set of structures that control emotion, arousal and memory.

“Those memories are quite long-lasting and that’s what gives music the ability to prompt memories, and nostalgia is a big part of that.”

Dr Krause says research shows that you’re most “open-eared” — or receptive — to music in your adolescence and early adulthood.

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