Images of picture-perfect homes decorated for the holidays are already playing out in commercials across TV screens and in the numerous store flyers filling mailboxes every day. And it is only November 12!
In countless shopping malls and big box stores from San Francisco to Toronto, Canada, almost immediately after Halloween eve, customers have been enjoying--or enduring--the sounds of crooner Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and Carrie Underwood’s version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”.
For many customers, the sound of holiday carols stirs up stereotypical Norman Rockwell-like festive images of family and friends gathering together, gift giving, laughter and . . . joy.
For other shoppers—those in the enduring category, the lyrics of a song like Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” more aptly represent their emotions resulting from the audiological barrage of a premature return to the holiday season. With the iconic music creeping into store stereo systems earlier every year, the suffering can seem relentless.
The power of music has long been examined and tested in a variety of settings: in stores, in therapy (mental and physical), in hospitals and care homes. Music has the ability to calm and excite the listener. It also possesses the amazing knack of causing one to recall memories or emotions. Second, only to the human sense of smell, hearing is indeed powerful.
“[T]hink about a time when you caught a whiff, and that whiff took you back to a particular person, place, or time,” wrote Kimberly Sena Moore, Ph.D., in a 2015 article for PsychologyToday.com. “Smell, like music, has strong connections to our emotional memory systems.”
According to Amir A. Afkhami, MD, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and of Global Health at George Washington University, for individuals who find the year-end holidays emotionally difficult, the inescapable seasonal music can act as a trigger, bringing up feelings of “. . . some kind of disappointment, anxiety, or even sadness, depression, and suicidal thoughts”.
In her 2014 article, Why does music evoke memories? for BBC.com, writer Tiffany Jenkins explained the physiological perspective of music’s influence on human memory and emotions. “The hippocampus and the frontal cortex are two large areas of the brain associated with memory and they take in a great deal of information every minute,” she wrote.
According to Jenkins, retrieving memories is not as easy as simply assuming they will be available when we want them. “Music helps because it provides a rhythm and rhyme and sometimes alliteration which helps to unlock that information with cues,” she explained.
Sometimes, however, the memories or emotions unlocked by such musical cues are not happy ones. In an earlier 2013 article Kimberly Sena Moore wrote for PsychologyToday.com, she explained that music “can be painful and unwelcome. It can flood our memories and our systems with unwanted thoughts and feelings.”
Few humans consciously recognize the power of music on memory and emotions, Moore added. “It can trigger memories of happy times, of events, and of people that bring us joy. But it can also remind us of sad times, of times we were angry, in denial, struggling, and fighting.”
The emotions evoked by the next seven weeks of holiday music, then, can conjure up very complex emotions and, Moore suggests, “[f]or the rest of us that do not hold those associations, it may help to know . . . that not everyone will react with smiles and warm fuzzy feelings when hearing "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" piped through the airwaves for the zillionth time.”
Some retailers are finally taking advice like Moore’s and listening to customers’ opinions regarding holiday music. In a November 2014 article for CBC News, writer Geoff Nixon quoted Tammy Smitham, a spokesperson for Shoppers Drug Mart, on the seasonal music shift the Canadian drugstore chain was introducing.
“At Shoppers Drug Mart, you won't be hearing any Christmas music until December 1,” [Smitham] said. “It will make up half the music played in its stores ramping up to 100 percent Christmas music mid-month.” Following a collection of customer complaints, Shoppers agreed to stop playing holiday music in November, saying “it took customer feedback to heart”.
In last week’s Tampa Bay Times, reporter Christopher Spata wrote about the newspaper’s recent survey of the seasonal music activity of 25 of the U.S.’s 100 leading retailers. Best Buy stores were the first to begin piping out what Spata calls “the unwanted ear cheer”—even before Halloween, this year on October 22.
According to Spata, Target has historically “not played any music at all in its thousands of stores, holiday or otherwise. That changed this year as 180 newly-remodeled stores introduced background music.” Spata explained these stores will “flip to holiday tunes on Black Friday [November 24, 2017]”.
While it may be a positive start, Shoppers Drug Mart and Target stores are still the anomalies in a sea of retail shops and services already playing holiday tunes. So how does one survive the next two months if this music causes distress?
Later in his Christmas Blues article, Amir Afkhami provided some helpful suggestions for times when the effects of holiday music become too difficult to manage:
- Acknowledge the difficulties during this period: seek professional help with severe [holiday] depression when needed.
- Stay active; not isolated.
- Be aware and mindful of difficult family dynamics.
- Remember that advertising “hype and picture perfect imagery is fictional”; do not let it define your experience.
Amir A. Afkhami, MD, Ph.D., (December 23, 2011). Psychology Today. Christmas Blues. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/global-mental-health/201112/christmas-blues
Jenkins, T., (October 21, 2014). Why does music evoke memories? BBC. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140417-why-does-music-evoke-memories
Moore, K. S., Ph.D., (December 4, 2013). Psychology Today. Why Holiday Music Can Hurt. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-musical-self/201312/why-holiday-music-can-hurt
Moore, K. S., Ph.D., (December 23, 2015). Music, Smell, and Holiday Shopping. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-musical-self/201512/music-smell-and-holiday-shopping
Nixon, G., (November 1, 2014). Christmas music in stores: when is it too early? CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/christmas-music-in-stores-when-is-it-too-early-1.2817352
O’Kane, C., (November 9, 2017). CBS News. Christmas music may take mental toll, psychologist says. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/christmas-music-can-harm-mental-health-cause-stress-psychologist-finds/