The holiday spirit (or something) descended on The Washington Post, who have shared (non-paywalled, apparently) a statistical and neurological look at why Christmas music – and especially “All I Want for Christmas is You” – is the way it is:
Holiday music burrows into a sweet spot in our brains’ wiring, said Brian Rabinovitz, a lecturer at the College of William & Mary whose expertise is the neuroscience of music.
All music can stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers, he said, but holiday music can evoke treasured memories on top of that, courtesy of the brain’s filing system. Tonal patterns and autobiographical events are processed in overlapping regions of the medial prefrontal cortex.
That means that even though you might be into avant-garde jazz, death metal or emo, the rest of the year, you may involuntarily turn to mush when you hear “White Christmas” because your brain associates that song with baking cookies in grandma’s kitchen when you were 6.
They usually have short, repetitive lyrics and standard holiday themes. They don’t even really have to make a lot of sense. Mel Tormé’s “A Christmas Song” is just a litany of images: chestnuts roasting, Jack Frost nipping, carolers, mistletoe, yadda yadda yadda. And we love it.
[Berklee College musicology professor Joe] Bennett analyzed the lyrics of U.K. Spotify’s top 200 streams from Christmas week in 2016 and found 78 were holiday songs, most of which also show up on U.S. lists. The lyrics of those 78 fell into at least one — and often more — of eight thematic buckets. (He put an instrumental in a ninth category.)
Nearly all of the songs Bennett analyzed were in a major key, and 90 percent were 4/4 time, the most danceable time signature (4 beats to a measure, quarter-note gets a beat). They averaged a tempo of 115 beats per minute — “not frenetic,” Bennett said, “but it’ll get you a little bit of cardio.” (AIWFCIY is 150 bpm, one of the fastest holiday songs.)
Subtlety is not a requirement. Nearly half featured audible sleigh bells.
Rabinovitz provided a neurological explanation for why we like covers: They meet our expectations.
Our brains feel rewarded when they correctly predict what happens next, and if a prediction is wrong, we feel momentarily discombobulated. But if the surprise is not too drastic, he said, our brains might decide they like the change — and then they are often happier than if there had been no surprise in the first place. It’s why many of us like surprise parties and roller coasters even though they’re initially terrifying.
It works the same with music, Rabinovitz said. “You can have your prediction violated but find it wonderful.”
For instance, from the first raspy syllables of Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” you know you’re not hearing Fred Astaire’s version from the 1970 TV show, which was itself one of many covers of the 1934 song. The timing between words is different; some notes stay down when your brain thinks they should go up. But you also hear those sleigh bells and you know those words, and well, your brain decides that the Boss’s version is pretty darn good after all.