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Classical Notes

Christmas Songs as Primal Need

Posted at 7:05 PM on December 16, 2008 by Gillian Martin (3 Comments)

Daniel J. Levitin is an interesting guy. He's a rock musician and record producer who decided to go back to school, earned a PhD, and is now a cognitive neuroscientist specializing in the effects of music on our brains.

He had a piece in the Wall Street Journal last week about Christmas songs. First, he addresses why we sing them:

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.

Then he goes on to talk about why we get annoyed by them as background music in shopping malls:

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...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.

He also has some interesting thoughts about what he calls "the great and apparent de-socialization of music." Read the whole thing here.

Comments (3)

"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."

Wait - so Mall X-mas music is bad because it appeals to a broad swath of the population? And music that appeals to a broad swath of people tends to be harmonically unsurprising?

This is backwards for lots of reasons. It's harmonically unsurprising BECAUSE it appeals to lots of people. The harmonies don't surprise us because they're familiar to lots of people. it's also a snobby statement, something like :

"The music that I like is harmonically sophisticated, so that makes me sophisticated to - not like those plebes at the mall!"

Holiday Mall music is irritating because it pushes an insincere and false Holly Jolly on shoppers - not because the harmonies are boring. (which they probably are, too. But some music with boring harmonies is great - see Vivaldi!)

Posted by Alex Coppock | December 17, 2008 11:57 AM

"Mall music" is disgusting because it takes familiar carols and takes all of the energy and meaning out of them. I recently decided to do my first figure skating program to " "Hark," the Herald Angels Sing" - from a CD of hymns. That music conveyed energy and meaning.

Recently we have been subjected to "Mall music" during our Adult Skating time. On the third day of this, I just asked to have it turned OFF. That music might be appropriate for sitting at a desk, but not for active skating!

Posted by Margaret P. | December 21, 2008 10:55 PM

Folks, it is not as if Zeus came down from Mt. Olympus and said that music in the mall must be
harmonically innovative, interesting and contain surprise. --- Simple and basic can be nurturing in its own way - and perhaps especially important this Holiday season with our nations troubles impacting people in such hurtful ways.

Relax and inhibit thoughts that deem your musical ideals any more valid than the next guy. (This is probably one of the most important peripheral lessons I learned while finishing my music graduate work at Bloomington, Indana.) My goodness, how seriously we take ourselves at times.

A quote from Bill Watterson of Calvin & Hobbes:
"Oh look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food and beer...
Who'd have ever guessed that product consumption, popular entertainment, and spirituality would mix so harmoniously."

May your holiday season be silly, profound, relective, mature and child-like. Blessings to all.

Posted by Chuck Blattner | December 23, 2008 4:53 PM