Pray tell me, have you walked into any shop since the 1st of December and not heard the incessant cheerful, carousel like tinkling sounds of Christmas songs that seemingly have not changed in decades and decades of passing? We’ve all been crooning to Wham! Or doing our best whistle note to Mariah Carey, perhaps dancing around to Slade and Wizard or spilled our whiskey as we’ve raised our glasses and grumbled along to the Fairytale of New York. Love them or hate them, but you cannot avoid Christmas songs throughout December, so feel for the retail workers who have to work hours on their feet stocking shelves, serving customers and keeping a happy smile, all the while being driven mad by the same loop of repetitive festive cheer on the tannoy. While they may bemoan this annoyance, can it actually be damaging for someone to listen to such unrelenting Christmas joy for hours and days on end?
While many shops deliberately bombard us with Christmas music in order to increase retail sales, psychologist Dr Victoria Williamson has researched the detrimental effects on retail workers as they actively try to drown out the sound of festive cheer in order to stay focussed. While certain types of music can increase and enhance completion of tasks, it has been said that music you expect to find in popular culture interferes with cognitive function and therefore impacts the efficiency and speed of multitasking. So, where Christmas songs are concerned, that are filled with catchy lyrics we all know off by heart, it’s nearly practically impossible to drown out something so memorable and catchy when trying to get on with the daily workload. While listening to instrumental music such as classical music can help us focus, songs that we are likely to sing along to will distract us no end and overall stop us from completing the tasks with effectiveness.
Dr Williamson also explains the ‘mere exposure effect’ whereby at first, we may love a song as it provides a positive connotation or memory, but gradually over time this adoration will decrease until it becomes an annoyance. She calls this a U-shaped relationship as our emotional response to certain music evolves and changes the more we listen to it. While at the beginning of December we may all be buzzing over hearing our favourite Christmas songs on the radio, by the time the festive season has peaked, we’re ready to bury them for another year through sheer frustration. And that’s not just at Christmas. The chart burners may initially blow your mind, but the more radio play they receive, the more likely you’re going to switch them off. Unless you’re a teenager, in which case it is evidenced that this period in our lives is when we will become most nostalgic about the music taste we have and the songs we hear.
Research backs up the changes regarding the chemical and neural impact a song has on the brain and how it processes music. When we listen to music we can vitalise the levels of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin which put us in a good mood – depending on how you respond to a song, depends on how your brain relates when hearing it again and again. And depending on the song, there is no set relationship path. We may hate a song and grow to love it or vice versa. However, Dr Michael Bonshor who is an expert in musical psychology at the University of Sheffield explains two reasons why we may become fed up with a song, either through overexposure or through the complexity of the song and how it triggers certain stimuli in the brain. Over time, the influx of emotional response to a song may be lessened. meaning we simply enjoy it less, or a song may be too simplified and therefore our brain will find quicker resolve in which to forget it than to remember it.
But can music actually psychologically damage us? Well, in a nutshell there is little evidence to say it can severely damage mental health although it can invoke fear and distraction or enhance pre-existing negative emotions such as stress or anger. And of course, let’s not forget that if you have to actively block out certain music in order to complete tasks, your focus and energy levels will drop quicker and your mood may take a turn for the worst. However, it’s all open to interpretation. One person may be able to listen to festive songs all year round and not for one second become tired of its frivolous joy, while another may hear a slight tinkle of a sleigh bell and be ready to commit a serious crime. So, the best treatment I could provide? Like everything in life, expose yourself to Christmas tunes in moderation and you might still be in the happy camp singing along to Bing Crosby come the 25th of December.
Katie Bagshawe is currently pursuing her MSc Psychology degree Sheffield Hallam University after completing a BSc Computing degree from the University of Cumbria. After acting as her father’s carer in his final years with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, she has become impassioned to do research in the Psychological impact of Progressive Lung Disease and hopes to continue doing a PhD in the same research area. You can connect with her on Twitter @KBagshawe
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