Earlier today, I was directed to an article, written by Dan Levitin, speaking of the dissatisfaction shoppers have when listening to repetitive Christmas music. As a courtesy to those unfamiliar with his research on music, Levitin provides an in-depth introduction. Then he argues two seemingly contradictory constructs:
- We have evolved from listening to music in community to listening to music individually via iPods, Mp3 players, etc.
- Christmas music ought to be enjoyed within a communal setting.
Can both arguments exist? Initially I asked this question as seen in the article comments, but I believe I now understand his arguments and see this is no contradiction at all.
Repetitive Christmas Music
To understand the gist of this article, we must first understand Levitin’s definition of repetitive Christmas music and where people find it annoying.
Levitin explains he is referring specifically to those Christmas songs with which we are overly familiar: Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. To his definition, I would add store jingles written specifically for the Christmas season and played far too frequently through the loud speaker.
I worked at a discount retail chain from 1994 to 2000, and I still remember the store’s jingle:
- Make it more magic. Add a little ho, ho, ho …
If as a store employee, I had heard the song as many times such that I remember the lyrics approximately 20 years later, I can only imagine how shoppers must have felt.
Secondly, Levitin argues it is only the repetitive Christmas songs heard within retail establishments that are annoying to people.
Evolution in Listening to Music
Levitin draws upon his previous research and explains how our early ancestors used music to communicate and celebrate important events. These people would listen and/or sing as a community, and they enjoyed doing so.
Today, we enjoy music within a solo environment. From the invention of the Walkman to today’s iPod and mp3 players, we have found that listening to our favorite songs is best accomplished through headphones and ear buds. Certainly, this private listening ensures that we aren’t offending those around us, but Levitin believes listening to music individually holds greater meaning.
It is an evolutionary step. I would liken it to our computer use. I was drilled on correct penmanship in elementary school, and I loved to write almost the same as I do now. I had no difficulty writing with a pen or pencil, but now, having used the computer for 20 years, it is extremely challenging to handwrite anything. My hand hurts immediately, and my penmanship is very poor compared to years ago. Is it, then fair to say that we have evolved in this one form of communication?
Through my understanding of this analogy, I can better appreciate Levitin’s theory in our evolution in listening to music. Further as we are now individual listeners of music rather than communal ones, it is logical that listening to music in a communal setting can be challenging or, as Levitin writes, annoying.
Christmas Music Enjoyed Communally
Wait a minute: in one paragraph, Levitin argues our music listening evolution logically explains why we don’t appreciate music in a communal setting. In the next paragraph, he argues that Christmas music can only be enjoyed in a communal setting. How can this second argument be true when we’ve already been lead to believe repetitive Christmas music in retail settings is annoying?
I am reminded of Levitin’s chapter 7 from “The World in Six Songs”: Religion, or People Get Ready. Music, like Christmas songs, can be used to celebrate or commemorate a holiday. When music is employed as a method of celebration, it is best done within a group setting. Levitin explains in his book,
- Ceremonial music is almost always specific to place and/or time. Such music sung or played irreverently could be considered blasphemy.
It is therefore important that these songs be enjoyed and/or sung at the right place and at the right time.
Shoppers consumed by materialistic consumerism aren’t celebrating anything. We are obsessed with finding the perfect gift and will travel to multiple stores to find said gift. Television commercials and daily ads in the mailbox constantly remind us of how many shopping days remain until Christmas. Is it any surprise that we are stressed and frustrated before even entering a store? Certainly this is neither the appropriate place nor time for repetitive Christmas music.
We will find the Christmas spirit, but it will only come after we have lost that glazed obsession compelling us to buy gifts. And, when we have embraced the Christmas spirit, we can enjoy, rather than be annoyed by, Christmas songs whether with family, at a Christmas party, or at a house of worship.