Mind & Body

What Makes Christmas Music Sound Like Christmas?

When it comes to music, Christmas is unique. There's no other season that has such a monopoly on a repertoire of songs. Sure, New Year's has "Auld Lang Syne," and Halloween has "Monster Mash," but that smattering is positively dwarfed by the amount of music that's reserved exclusively for Christmas. When you hear a Christmas song, you know it. But why? What is it about Christmas music that makes it so, well, Christmassy?

Plucking Holiday Heartstrings

One big reason Christmas songs remind you of Christmas comes down to psychology. Christmas is associated with a lot of sensory stimuli that only show up one time of year: the smell of gingerbread, the taste of candy canes, and, yes, the traditional Christmas playlist. Year after year, the only time you're exposed to those things is during the holiday season, so you begin to associate them with Christmas. This is called classical conditioning.

You're probably familiar with Pavlov's dog: Ivan Pavlov rang a bell every time he fed his dog until the dog just needed the sound of the bell to start drooling, since the dog had learned to associate the bell with dinner. In this case, you're the dog and the bell is Christmas music. You've associated the sound of "Jingle Bells" and "White Christmas" with all the other elements of the holiday season. At the same time, those songs hold a special place in your memory because of the age you were when you heard many of them. Just as your favorite bands from high school still hold a special place in your heart, a phenomenon known as the reminiscence bump makes the memories of holidays from your youth — and the music therein — more vivid and important than others.

The Most Musical Time of the Year

When it comes to new Christmas music, songwriters use this rush of nostalgia to their advantage. There's a reason that the opening chords to Mariah Carey's 1994 hit "All I Want For Christmas Is You" sound a lot like Phil Spector's 1963 song "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and the harmonies have echoes of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" from 1942. Likewise, musicians will use church bells, trumpet fanfares, and orchestral strings to remind you of holiday hymns or Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker." High-pitched instruments like sleigh bells and glockenspiel, meanwhile, evoke thoughts of falling snow or children's toys. And since many classic Christmas songs were written in the jazz era, jazz-inspired chords help link new songs to an older holiday tradition.

And of course, there are the classic rules of writing a song that sticks in your head: simple melodies and chords that lend a sense of familiarity before throwing you a surprise once in awhile. Writing a great Christmas song is no different than writing a great song for any other time of year, except for one thing. It's not enough to get it stuck in your head. It needs to nestle deep into your happiest holiday memories, too.

To get further behind the scenes of classic Christmas music, check out "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas" by Ace Collins. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

The Chord That Makes "All I Want For Christmas Is You" Sound So Christmassy

Written by Ashley Hamer December 7, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.