Within the broad genre of Christmas music, there are a few more specific subsections: the big ones, like “All I Want For Christmas Is You“; the classics, like “White Christmas“; and the ones that make you sad and happy at the same time, like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and “Blue Christmas.” And while there really is nothing like a Christmas jive, those nostalgic, lump in your throat, sentimental songs are often the ones we have on repeat throughout December.
But why are we drawn to stirring, seasonal music that makes us both happy and sad? Turns out, there are a few possible psychological explanations.
Music has a strong tie to nostalgia, which is why hearing a song from the ’90s can take someone directly back to elementary school, and why listening to certain Christmas songs can make people feel warm, fuzzy, and almost child-like. In a 1999 study, researchers examined people’s ability to recall memories after hearing a clip from a song. While they weren’t able to think of an exact event from the time when the song came out, they were able to recall the general emotion that they felt during that time. So, listening to some Christmas tracks might make you feel generally festive and happy, rather than remorseful about that one Christmas when you got dumped, because your brain has already created positive associations with the music.
Nostalgia is an intriguing sensation, because it can make you feel happy and sad at the same time.
But nostalgia is an intriguing sensation, because it can make you feel happy and sad at the same time. Interestingly, other studies have shown that listening to sad music can evoke feelings of comfort, which could explain why some people pick to listen to downer tunes (like Adele or Mike Posner). With Christmas music, in particular, the sad nostalgic emotions that you feel when listening to certain songs could, in theory, have the same positive effect as sad music.
Christmas music is also often structured in a way that makes it innately pleasing, according to Brian Rabinovitz, PhD, a neuroscientist at William and Mary who specializes in musical cognition. See, when you hear a song for the first time, its melody gets tracked in your brain’s prefrontal cortex. Your brain is then always searching for that melody, or a similar one, and when you hear it again it’s very satisfying, Dr. Rabinovitz explained in a press release for William and Mary.
Compared to other genres of music, Christmas music and pop tend to have very predictable melodic structures, according to Dr. Rabinovitz. And each time you listen to a song, the patterns become even more obvious: “Hearing something you know very well, you already have strong expectations. You’re making these predictions, having this moment of tension and then realizing the prediction was correct,” he said in the press release. When you combine this aspect with nostalgia, it’s a no-brainer why Christmas music makes you feel such a range of emotions.