Why don't people like Christmas music? Overkill.

Cover art for A Charlie Brown Christmas

Christmas music - like or don't like? The first response is often negative, though studies suggest that little of that has to do with the music itself. According to an NBC News story:

Endless loops of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or any tinsel-y tune can have a psychological impact known as the 'mere exposure effect,' says Victoria Williamson, Ph.D, who conducts research on the psychology of music at Goldsmiths, University of London. There's a U-shaped relationship between the amount of times we hear music that we like and our subsequent reaction to it, she says.

As Williamson puts it, at first we like music a bit, then we like it more and more until it hits a peak. And then we crash down -- we have overheard it. That's when boredom and annoyance at the repetition of the same sound hits home. "Anyone who has worked in a Christmas store over the holidays will know what I'm talking about," Williamson says. When asked why holiday music seems to have a polarizing effect, driving some people crazy while others like, or at least, can tolerate it, Williamson suggests that music's effect on us in any situation depends on our own psychological state.

Christmas music is certainly delivered in extremely concentrated doses, but Williamson's conclusions could also apply "Gangnam Style" and "Call Me Maybe." Christmas music isn't helped by its relatively small canon - probably fewer than 50 songs with hundreds of variations. Growing up, we likely only had a few Christmas albums that quickly came to feel obligatory in addition to overexposed (in my house, Anne Murray's Christmas album and Holiday Sing-Along with Mitch). 

Another part of the hostility is that Christmas music often feels like a form of manipulation:

"I think at first Christmas music is nice, it's nostalgic, and it gets me into the holiday spirit," says [Shana McGough, a] writer from Escondido, Calif. Then, "it gets old, and it can start to feel like a part of a giant sales machine trying to bleed me dry." 

In the U.S., that feeling is added to the sense of injustice that comes with Christmas music, decorations and sale items being out in retail stores before Thanksgiving. Even though Canada celebrates Thanksgiving in October, shoppers rebelled when Shoppers Drug Mart started piping in Christmas music in early November, saying that it was just too soon.

So why do it? Because it works. 

"We've shown that 'holiday appropriate' music combined with congruent 'holiday scents' can influence shoppers by increasing the amount of time they spend in a store, their intention to revisit it, and intention to purchase," says Eric Spangenberg, Ph.D, dean of the College of Business at Washington State University in Pullman, who has studied the  influence of music on holiday shopping.

He says that some types of music work better than others. "Slower tempo music slows down shoppers, and they spend more time and money in a store," Spangenberg explains. Faster-paced pieces move people through the store quicker than retailers would like.

So how do we solve this hostility to Christmas music? listen more broadly and with a more open mind. Recently, The L.A. Times' Chris Barton fell in love all over again with A Charlie Brown Christmas from 1965. Staying out of stores until you absolutely have to will help. To illustrate the breadth of Christmas music, My Spilt Milk has collected six hours of Christmas music on Spotify, most of which you likely don't know. See if this helps with your holidays.

This year, My Spilt Milk will give away a gift package of holiday music including A Charlie Brown Christmas. The winner will be drawn from subscribers to Condensed Milk, so sign up on the by 7 p.m. CST on December 20.