Whether you begin listening to your favorite Christmas songs after the clock strikes midnight on Halloween or if you reserve your listening until after the Thanksgiving turkey has been eaten, we can all agree that Christmas music is a beloved part of the holiday season.

There is something indescribable that happens inside of us beyond mere nostalgia when we hear a familiar Christmas tune, according to Biola University music therapy professor, Dr. Raquel Ravaglioli, MT-BC. Ravaglioli’s clinical experience includes pediatric medical, NICU, early childhood, individuals who are neurodivergent, behavioral health, and older adults. She shared her insight on why we love Christmas music so much, and what happens in the brain when we listen to it.

Is it just nostalgia?

Nostalgia is baked into Christmas music. When I hear “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” my mind plays the image of my older sister singing along, off-tune might I add, to the scene in the movie “Elf” when Buddy breaks out into song. That warm fuzzy feeling in my chest is not coming from the song itself but from the happy memories attached to it.

“Music can make us feel strong emotions because the auditory sense is the second strongest sense connected to our memories,” said Ravaglioli.

According to Ravaglioli, different feelings come up when we hear different music because the hippocampus — the part of the brain where memories are triggered — gets activated.

When you hear a song that triggers a memory, emotions are also triggered in an area of the brain called the amygdala. The strong connection memory and emotion have are both stimulated by the music that you would associate with that particular time, person or place.

This is a common sentiment, Christmas music reminds us of happy memories around the holidays that might not be recalled any other time of the year.

“Because music is attached to memories and emotions, it can change your mood. Specific to the field of music therapy, the iso-principle is a technique music therapists use to alter one’s emotional state. By first matching someone’s mood and then altering the music, the music therapist can gradually alter the music to reach a desired mood state,” said Ravaglioli.

So, Christmas music has the opportunity to change your mood, depending on your memories and associations with it. It is up to the individual to decide whether they want to engage in listening or singing along to Christmas music, but for a lot of people, there are positive associations attached to it.

Singing Christmas Carols Together Makes a Positive Impact

Christmas music has positive, connecting effects on people when they sing it together, whether it is in a choir or just singing in a group, according to Ravaglioli.

“Music can be used as a form of socialization and connection to others. Whether you listen to a song with someone, go to a concert, or are making music with others, these experiences connect human beings,” said Ravaglioli.

Ravaglioli explained that because music reaches every part of the brain, including the motor and sensory regions, you would see on a brain scan that the brain would be lighting up in all regions.

Find Peace in the Chaos

This sense of calm from singing together does not need to end with the holiday season. Whether you do not have a strong affinity for Christmas music or if it is far past the holidays, there are ways to receive that sense of calm by listening to music that calms you.

Music, year-round can be used to increase relaxation or decrease stimulation, according to Ravaglioli. She said that focusing on curating a music experience for a desired outcome can help people relax and feel a sense of calm.

Ravaglioli shared that her favorite Christmas songs are, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “The Christmas Song” and “Silent Night.”

This blog post was based on an article published on Biola News. Read the article, here.

Learn more about Biola University’s Crowell Conservatory of Music and the Music Therapy program.