Let’s be honest: Christmas songs are unique. There’s no season of the year that has the same touch of melody as that of Christmas; and those lovely melodies of the festive season is always awe-inspiring that gives you a sense of relief. Well, other seasons of the year have similar songs that ignite such feelings, but what’s so special about Christmas music that makes ‘em sound so Christmassy?
Related media: Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning
The Christmas Effect
The main culprit to blame why Christmas songs remind you of Christmas come down to (you guessed it) psychology. Of course, everything you’d ever experience has some sort of sensory stimuli, and that of Christmas songs only show up during that time of the year — the smell of gingerbread, the taste of candy canes, and, of course, the traditional Christmas playlist. Year in year out, the only time you encounter such things is during that festive season, so you associate them with Christmas. This is known as classical conditioning.
Let’s consider Pavlov’s dog: behavioral psychologists Ivan Pavlov demonstrated this better with the ringing of a bell every time he wanted to feed his dog until the dog eventually associated the sound of the bell to dinner time, since then the dog started drooling whenever it heard the bell rang. In our Christmas music scenario, you’re the dog and the bell is Christmas music. You’ve associated the sound of “Jingle Bells” with all other elements of the Christmas festive season.
In addition, those melodies have had a special effect on your mind since you first heard them as a child throughout your life. Just as the sound of your favorite Beyoncé songs have on you whenever you hear it play. This is a phenomenon known as the reminiscence bump, it makes memories of your past holidays — and the music you hear — more special and important than others.
Making Christmas Music
Also, songwriters take advantage of this psychological effect when composing Christmas songs. There’s a reason behind why most Christmas songs sound similar to one another. For instance, the opening chords to Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” sound much more like “Jingle Bells,” or Phil Spector’s 1963 song “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” and echoes the melodies of classics like Irving Berlin’s 1942 “White Christmas.”
Meanwhile, musicians also use church bells, trumpets, and orchestral strings to trigger those nostalgic moments of your favorite holiday hymns with high-pitched instruments like sleigh bells and glockenspiel to evoke thoughts of your winter childhood memories. Most Christmas songs were written during the jazz era, so jazz- inspired chords are really good at triggering your Christmas nostalgia.
*And of course, there are the classic rules of writing a song that sticks in your head: simple melodies and chords that lend a sense of familiarity before throwing you a surprise once in a while. Writing a great Christmas song is no different than writing a great song for any other time of year, except for one thing. It’s not enough to get it stuck in your head. It needs to nestle deep into your happiest holiday memories, too.
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Sat, Jul 13, 2019.