This year, the pandemic flipped the world upside down. Between the new normal of quarantine and most individuals shifting to work from home, many people turned to streaming nostalgic and calming music and podcasts, according to Spotify. Now, more than ever, people seem to be looking for an escape from the chaos through music, which is what new Biola University Professor of Music Therapy Ronald Borczon says Christmas music can do for people.
Christmas music can cause the brain and body to experience calmness and peace, according to Borczon. We sat down with Borczon to hear his thoughts and expertise on the therapeutic qualities of Christmas music.
Here, Borczon explains the psychology behind memories linking with music and how people can find peace through music year-round.
What is it about Christmas music that brings people so much joy?
There’s a couple things. First of all you can look at the structure of the music itself. That is most all Christmas music is in major keys. The melodies of Christmas music have been ingrained in us. So they’re part of who we are from childhood. Of course new Christmas songs come out and they’re played often so much that they also get ingrained in us. Even though Christmas time can be stressful for some, what people often do with Christmas music is that it allows them to escape. It allows them to get their mind off the stress and into the music.
The other thing is our memories. Memories are intricately entwined with music. You may have a song that when you hear that song it puts you into a certain emotional state because that was the song “this” happened, or in the background, “that” song was playing as you learned something good, and so every time you hear that song it’s good. So when you think of Christmas songs, every year since you were a child, you hear those songs. But, when you’re a child, you hear that music constantly in the home. And, if these memories are good memories, which we hope they are, they automatically bring out those endorphins in your brain that help you feel good.
There is so much joy surrounding the holiday season, but also stress, especially this year. How can music help with reflecting on the emotions tied to the Christmas and New Year season?
Emotions go both ways with the music. For some people, their childhood wasn’t so good, and they heard the music and so the music kind of puts them in a sad state. The music can do two things: it can induce the stress because now you’re thinking more about it, or like I said before, it provides moments of escape. And sometimes it’s a cognitive decision on your part, which way you want to go with that music. You go “oh my gosh, I’m starting to feel nostalgic about this” and your brain is starting to put out these chemicals that increase the nostalgia. You can just say, “You know what, I’m not going to do that, I’m going to focus on good stuff. I want to focus on what’s going on...what's good.”
Now in this current day and age with COVID, people are becoming creative with how they are going to do Christmas. I think of New York and people on Fifth Avenue out shopping in the snow, and it’s not happening. When you’re in those groups of people shopping, and you feel that energy of shopping and goodness and people are buying for other people, that sense of giving also creates wonderful chemicals in your brain to help you feel better. And you have that combined with Christmas music overhead, even though it’s a stressful time of shopping, there’s also a sense of goodness within you because you want to give to others.
Have you seen positive effects of Christmas music on people?
One of the great positive effects is when people are together singing the Christmas music. There’s great research on how singing in choirs or singing in groups really helps bond the group as well as helps you feel better, so this is one way of singing in groups that really promotes a sense of togetherness, a sense of purpose, as well as the physical action of singing. When you have to sing, your brain goes into all these different areas to create sound, to create melody. If you see an MRI of the brain when someone’s playing music, it’s just lighting up everywhere. Some say it’s lighting up like a Christmas tree when you’re playing or singing music. So all those things are happening in the moment when you’re singing in a group. So it’s really a good thing.
What are ways we can receive the same calmness and therapeutic peace received through Christmas music throughout the whole year?
That’s a conscious decision. You have to find out what is calming for you. I would make a playlist of maybe just two or three songs or pieces of music that bring you a sense of calm and do breathing, do prayer, do meditation to that music so that your body learns that this music helps this response in you. It might even be part of a Christmas tune interwoven...there’s a great piece by Respighi of the “Three Botticelli Pictures,” and the second one is the “Adoration of the Magi,” and within that piece, there’s this sense of Christmas music in it that’s just beautiful. And maybe finding two verses that you’re going to repeat about God’s grace and God’s peace within you, and that becomes part of it for you, as part of the prayer are those biblical verses of God’s calmness that he bestows on us.
Any closing thoughts?
If you celebrate Christmas the way it is supposed to be celebrated, as the celebration of the birth of our Lord, what greater occurrence in humanity has occurred than the birth of Christ? And when you sing these songs about the birth of Christ, not like “Jingle Bells,” but you know, “O Holy Night” and “Come All Ye Faithful.” Just think of the words of “Come All Ye Faithful,” “joyful and triumphant to Bethlehem, come let us adore him.” I’m getting chills just thinking and you know repeating, “come let us adore him, come let us adore him…” That’s where the magic is. In singing praises to celebrate the birth of our Lord.
One final question: What is your favorite Christmas song?
“Come All Ye Faithful.” That, and “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Interview conducted by Sarah Dougher, media relations assistant. For more information, contact Jenna Loumagne, assistant director of strategic communications and media relations, at firstname.lastname@example.org.