“This is your brain on Christmas music”: Local professor studies neuroscience of holiday tunes

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – Christmas music is inescapable this time of year. According to science, there’s a reason why, and it has to do with memory.

In a new study, local neuroscientist Brian Rabinovitz tackled the neuroscience of Christmas music: why radio stations play the same few classics every year, how we recognize different versions of one song and why it’s so ubiquitous. A musician himself, he is currently serving as a visiting lecturer in the College of William & Mary’s Department of Psychological Sciences and will teach a course on musical cognition in the spring.

Rabinovitz’s specialized field of study deals with memory and what makes people remember or forget songs. Specifically, he studies how the brain gets information from music, stores that information and makes sense of it. When we hear a song for the first time, the brain searches a “catalog” of musical structures it’s been building since we first listened to music.

Rabinovitz says whether we enjoy that new music is contingent upon whether we can predict patterns in the new music that align with what we have stored in our catalogs.

“Typically, the music that’s very niche, that’s less popular, is stuff that is really challenging and doesn’t give you those resolutions you expect,” said Rabinovitz. “Then you look at Christmas music or almost any pop song and you get very clear resolution. It goes exactly where you expect.”

This is why Top 40 radio stations play the same few songs over and over again, why most popular songs have repetitive lyrics and, of course, why we hear the same Christmas songs every year. According to Rabinovitz, anything that repeats a lot has a greater likelihood of making it into our musical structure memory bank.

Although we might hear all the Christmas classics, they’re rarely ever the same rendition. As long as the rendition stays within predictable patterns, Rabinovitz says the listener will still experience pleasure by guessing what comes next.

“That area of the brain you might see active for the pieces you’re liking, that’s the same place you see active when you engage in any reward-inducing behavior, like using addictive drugs,” he said. “The phrase ‘sex, drugs and rock n’ roll’ could be seen as describing a lifestyle – or simply a checklist of stimuli that activates this reward circuit.”

The circuit Rabinovitz speaks of, called the mesolimbic pathway, is what neuroscientists connect to pleasure and reward, and it dates back to prehistoric times. Scientists say the earliest humans relied on this system to reward them with dopamine when they found food or found a suitable mate, and such reinforcement ensured their survival.

That same region of the brain is also activated when we hear a song we like. However, our processing doesn’t take place in a vacuum, Rabinovitz says, and there are additional associations that are activated when we are exposed to certain pieces of music.

So, sorry, “Jingle Bells,” even though science says we should all love you because you have a repetitive and recognizable pattern, some people just aren’t that into you.