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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.
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 bonding.

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 again.

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 listening.

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.

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