Millions of us listen to nostalgic Christmas songs which bring cheer and get us in the festive mood. Music like Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas are uplifting classics.
So, why does this type of music make us feel Christmassy, and happy? Most assume it is the sentiment and storytelling that works the magic.
The audiology experts at Hidden Hearing, however, have a different explanation, drawing on brain function and the power of sound and our senses. Working with Peter Vuust, a neuroscientist in the field of music, the hearing specialists say it is the interplay of chords and how music sounds that shapes our minds and feelings.
Peter Vuust explains;
“The fundamental thing that makes music work is how it plays with our subconscious sense of expectation; that, and the interplay of major and minor chords. A popular chord for Christmas songs is D-minor 7 flat 5; think of when Mariah Carey sings ‘presents.’ It is a diatonic chord, almost with texture.
“Minor chords are nostalgic; maybe slightly mournful. They evoke reflection and convey that Christmas feeling, like a warm blanket smelling of cinnamon and cardamom.”
According to Vuust, people have an instinctive knowledge of how music should sound, and what note or beat to expect. When we hear a piece of music, we're trying to predict what will happen next in it. The reason we think certain notes, chords or phrases are comforting, or nostalgic, is because they are familiar, landing where our brains think they should, he says.
“Consciously we think the music sounds like Christmas. But really it is our brain’s happy vibes congratulating us on an accurate prediction, not taking any happy sentiment from the song.”
Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ is equally part of the Christmas soundscape, despite not conveying a warm festive message. ‘Last Christmas I gave you my heart, but the very next day you gave it away’ – it doesn’t exactly allude to family reunions, cosy fires or festive treats, Vuust agrees.
“This song works well, however, because of its minor-major composition, that is repeated almost unbearably. It is like the fairytale narrative of repeated challenges being overcome.
“What we see with the Wham hit is that lyrics play no decisive role in how we emotionally perceive music. The lyrics are audio-notes capable of evoking warmth and the togetherness of Christmas, despite saying the exact opposite. Essentially, sound matters far more than we think; it actively shapes our minds.”
Dolores Madden, audiologist and Marketing Director with Hidden Hearing, agrees that sound is a powerful stimulus we must value.
“Memory is layers of multisensory impressions. What we hear combines with smell, taste, sights, and emotions to create precious memories. When we can hear the full range of Christmas sounds, for instance, we are more likely to feel what we call the magic of the season.”
Emphasising how important it is to manage hearing health, Dolores Madden says all the sounds of the season are worth hearing.
“The muffled footfall of a stroll through new fallen snow, or crisp leaves, can effectively unlock the holiday memory bank, just as the joyous tones of Bing Crosby’s sleigh bells do. The point is to notice and appreciate the richness good hearing brings to our lives, and to make sure we protect our hearing, particularly as we age.”
Hidden Hearing is giving the GIFT OF HEARING to deserving recipients this Christmas. Ireland’s long-standing hearing specialists have €100,000 worth of the latest hearing aid technology, the revolutionary Oticon Own, to give away, totally free. To nominate a loved one, or for more information, check out www.hiddenhearing.ie or call 1800 844454.