Thursday, 1 December 2016

Christmas music (I wish it could be breakfast everyday)

Published in Shetland Life magazine, December 2016

I don’t want to come across as a grinchy humbugger. I really do like Christmas. What could be a finer way to spend time than relaxing with friends and family with good food and some drams when the weather is fierce outside?

But I’m not too keen on being force-fed Christmas for weeks in the run-up to the actual date. By far my the most irritating aspect of this is the mind-numbing genre of ‘Christmas Music’.

To qualify as Christmas music, there is a checklist: sleigh bells, church bells, children's choirs, insipid major melodies and/or lyrics which repeat the word ‘Christmas’, ‘snow’ or ‘santa’ as many times as possible.

It might sound a little extreme, but I find the way that music is often ‘used’ at Christmas to be an affront to its beauty and artistry. It is frequently music at its most unadventurous, formulaic, predictable, sentimental, puerile and repetitive, and it is the repetition that I find to be the most difficult to deal with.


Every human civilisation and culture has developed music in some form, and each of those forms features repetition - rhythmically, melodically, harmonically or vocally. Repetition provides symmetry, structure and balance, the basis for variation, and allows listeners to actively participate in the music by providing a map of landmarks through which they can navigate a piece.

As composer Arnold Schoenberg said: “Intelligibility in music seems to be impossible without repetition.” And Schoenberg should know as he spent his working life trying to break musical norms, but repetition was one that he couldn’t crack.

Furthermore, humans love to listen to the same pieces of music over and over again, year after year. This is known as the “Mere-exposure Effect” - a psychological phenomenon through which a preference to stimulus such as music is developed by becoming familiar with it. As a rule of thumb, at least 90% of the music we listen to is music we have heard before.

But familiarity can breed contempt. The brain also seeks out stimulation and new experiences, and once a piece of music has become too familiar it no longer provides us with an incentive to listen. To cut a long story short, humans get bored easily, and trite familiarity is a hallmark of the Christmas music.

There are, in terms of commercialised popular culture, around 25 staple Christmas songs that we must endure on an endless loop for most of December. There is no escape from it - on the radio, in shops, in pubs, on TV commercials, at parties. It seems to be the only option - it’s Christmas, so put on the Christmas tunes, over and over and over again or risk being labeled a killjoy.

And the formula works. The repetition of Christmas music, much like the reason Christmas now extends into November, is primarily for commercial reasons. Numerous studies show that shoppers are more likely to part with their cash if there’s Christmas music on in the background. It softens them up and gets them in the festive mood, and this festive mood translates into over-consumption.

But worry not, dear reader, there is a way to alleviate this malady. I’ve developed a coping mechanism, and it’s very simple. I mentally replace the word ‘Christmas’ with the word ‘breakfast’. This yields some mildly entertaining results such as ‘I wish it could be breakfast everyday’, ‘Driving home for breakfast’, ‘Breakfast time, mistletoe and wine’ or ‘Simply having a wonderful breakfast time’. Noddy Holder from Slade shouting ‘It’s breakfast’ is a personal favourite. Try it for yourself. It might help you make it through the festive.

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