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Do You Hear What I Hear?

Along with the candy canes and mistletoe, music is there in the background to put us in the mood. A doctoral student at Houston’s UT Health Science Center, talks about research that helps to explain why Christmas music to our ears brings holiday cheer to our brains. Pat Hernandez has more.


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Nothing puts us in the holiday spirit faster than a song. It could be a standard like Jingle Bells, Sleigh Ride or Little Town of Bethlehem. The more familiar we are with a song, the more likely we have a memory associated with it. Joshua Gowin is a doctoral student in behavioral science at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. He says Christmas songs are something we can all relate to, a context specific sound event that unfolds over time.

“We don’t really listen to Christmas songs in July, but once we do hear them, it really primes into a lot of associations we have with the holidays. You start seeing Christmas trees, Christmas lights all around, and there’s a big synthesis of all these experiences coming together, and that’s part of what creates the Christmas experience for us.”

Gowin explains a brain imaging study that figures prominently in our song retention, beginning with the brain’s emotional response region:

“Just about anything that taps into your emotion, that’s gonna activate the limbic system. When you’re hearing a song, you’re gonna have this huge wave of emotional activity, and this is something that your brain is just going to pick up on just automatically. And then the precuneus is a region of the brain which is important in processing episodic memories, the memories for events and places in your life.”

He says Christmas songs growing up are lasting memories because kids are the center of attention with a visit to Santa and opening the biggest presents under the tree. Gowin admits that there is an subjective emotional bias that comes with Christmas songs:

“Not only do they have a really nice melody, they can stir up emotions just by itself, but they also oftentimes have really inspiring lyrics too.”

PH: “The Jose Feliciano tune ‘Feliz Nativdad’, sure does that for me.”
Gowin: “Oh yeah, I love that one too. That’s one of those ones where, even when you’re a kid, if you didn’t understand Spanish, you still got the impression right away that this is a guy that really wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.”
Gowin says Christmas songs that unite generations might have a lyric that is outdated, but the emotions they stir are timeless and relevant:

“It’s just the same hopes, and feelings and desires that we all have for having a white Christmas and sharing that experience with our friends and families and loved ones.”

Gowin’s favorite song is “Sleigh Ride.” I couldn’t get him to sing it though.

“I will say my favorite line is the one in the middle where they say ‘there’s a feeling that nothing in the world can buy, when they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie.’ that’s my favorite line in there.”

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