Why "The Little Drummer Boy" Is So Annoying

That’s the subtitle, amusingly similar to a complaint I recently made to an innocent conference worker at the Chicago Hilton, of a fun, light read by Daniel J. Levitin in The Wall Street Journal, which begins:

Do You Hear What I Hear?

December. Joy, goodwill toward men, long lines, the unwanted wet kiss from a drunk co-worker at the office party. Along with the candy canes and mistletoe, music will be there in the background wherever we go this month, as sonic wallpaper, to put us in the right festive mood. No holiday music is more annoying than the piped-in variety at shopping malls and department stores. Can science explain why the same song we enjoy singing with relatives or congregants drives us to visions of sugar-plum homicide when it blares across the public-address system Chez Target?

Our drive to surround ourselves with familiar music during life cycle events and annual celebrations is ancient in origin. Throughout most of our history as a species, music was a shared cultural experience. Early Homo sapiens coupled music with ritual to infuse special days with majesty and meaning. Before there was commerce, before there was anything to buy, our hunter-gatherer ancestors sat around campfire circles crafting pottery, jewelry and baskets, and they sang. Early humans didn’t sit and listen to music by themselves — music formed an inseparable part of community life. So much so, that when we sing together even today, our brains release oxytocin, a hormone that increases feelings of trust and social bonding.

Part of what makes this social bonding “stick” is the fact that music literally sticks in our ears. The Germans, Levitan happily tells us, have a name for the phenomenon of having a piece of music stuck in your head: Ohrwurms (ear worms). And, as Levitan also observes, it’s just a short sleigh ride over the river and through the woods to Madison Avenue, where decades have been spent perfecting the art and science of ear worm exploitation. Did you know that classical music makes people buy more wine, and order more food?

But as smart as those Mad Men are, many of us tire quickly of the wall-to-wall a-wassailing. Muzak in the mall is bad enough, and I imagine a special circle of Hell for those who make this stuff even catchier by turning it into a commercial. Levitan tells us it’s not just the ubiquity. It’s that holiday music is too simple to sustain constant repetition. Especially when the song itself features such relentless droning as “The Little Drummer Boy.” This is why classical music works so well — it’s complex. And well-known classical works, by their very familiarity, often provide exactly the balance of novelty and universality that marketers are looking for.

He also speculates on the effect of today’s de-socialization of music in the age of personal listening devices like the iPod. The communal aspect of music sharing is still there, but it takes place online, not face to face. For the iPod generation, I imagine the subtle, ritualistic pressure of holiday music might have a special annoyance — in its subliminal admonition to take of the ear buds and join the party.