Do You Hear What I Hear?
Holiday music is inescapable. Daniel J.
Levitin on the ancient drive to listen to familiar songs, the psychological
effects of music and why 'Little Drummer Boy' is so annoying.
By DANIEL J. LEVITIN
Updated Dec. 13, 2008 12:01 a.m. ET
December. Joy, goodwill toward men, long lines, the unwanted
wet kiss from a drunk co-worker at the office party. Along with the candy canes
and mistletoe, music will be there in the background wherever we go this month,
as sonic wallpaper, to put us in the right festive mood. No holiday music is
more annoying than the piped-in variety at shopping malls and department stores.
Can science explain why the same song we enjoy singing with relatives or
congregants drives us to visions of sugar-plum homicide when it blares across
the public-address system Chez Target?
Our drive to surround ourselves with familiar music during
life cycle events and annual celebrations is ancient in origin. Throughout most
of our history as a species, music was a shared cultural experience.
Early Homo sapiens coupled music with ritual to infuse
special days with majesty and meaning. Before there was commerce, before there
was anything to buy, our hunter-gatherer ancestors sat around campfire circles
crafting pottery, jewelry and baskets, and they sang. Early humans didn't sit
and listen to music by themselves -- music formed an inseparable part of
community life. So much so, that when we sing together even today, our brains
release oxytocin, a hormone that increases feelings of trust and social
Music is piped into public places in a cultural echo of
shared ritual and ceremony. As advertisers have long known, music can help to
oil the wheels of commerce. Songs can stick in our heads, giving the purveyor
of a catchy jingle many more minutes of air time than was originally paid for.
Whether our brains are reminding us that "When the holidays come along,
there's always Coca-Cola" or that maybe we haven't "driven a Ford
lately," the jingle rattles around in our synapses in a sometimes endless
loop -- a commercial played out in the most private of venues over and over
The fact that music does get stuck in our heads -- the
Germans call these Ohrwurms, or "ear worms" -- is a key
to understanding how human nature evolved. Evolution selected music as an
information-bearing medium precisely because it has this stick-in-your-head
quality; all of us are descended from ancestors who used music to encapsulate
important information. For tens of thousands of years before there was writing,
information -- such as which plants were poisonous or where to find fresh water
-- was encoded in song. Early Homo sapiens realized that setting words to music
made it easier to remember them; the internal constraints of music, the accent
structure and meter, not to mention poetic elements such as alliteration and
rhyme, made it more difficult to forget the words. Many of us have had the experience
of forgetting the words of a song, but we can usually recreate the missing
words because there simply aren't that many that will fit. So songs are
memorable because they are meant to be, no matter how irritating the
alphabet song can become to parents of infants or how likely you are to
strangle the next throat that warbles pa-rum-pum-pum- pum.
But if evolution is so smart, why do holiday carols become
annoying? When we like a piece of music, it has to balance predictability with
surprise, familiarity with novelty. Our brains become bored if we know exactly
what is coming next, and frustrated if we have no idea where the song is taking
us. Songs that are immediately appealing are not typically those that contain
the most surprise. We like them at first and then grow tired of them.
Conversely, the music that can provide a lifetime of listening pleasure -- whether
it's Bruckner 1 or Zeppelin II -- often requires several listenings to
reveal its nuances. And the best music offers surprises with each new
Holiday mall music is irritating because the sort of music
that appeals to people of disparate backgrounds and ages is going to tend to be
harmonically unsurprising. Unwanted sound in general (think of the incessant
drip-drip-drip in the night while you're trying to get to sleep) or unwanted
music in particular is not waterboarding, but it is a kind of torture. Don't
forget, the American military drove Manuel Noriega from his compound by
blasting him 24/7 with AC/DC and Van Halen.