Christine, the lovely parish co-ordinator at our local church, smiles at me across the desk. I’m there to pay the rental charge for my piano studio, located in the church basement. But she has something else in mind.
“Are you around this Christmas?” She raises her eyebrows hopefully. “Are you available to play at the Christmas Eve service?”
Last year we were away, traveling at Christmas, but in previous years I’ve played my flute at the church on Christmas Eve, adding some shimmer to an otherwise quiet evening for the small congregation. Two years ago I also roped my children into singing, to the delight of the elderly ladies celebrating their Christmas worship. This year we don’t have any plans for Christmas Eve, so I willingly agree to perform something. I know I’ll need to plan music for a prelude, postlude, offertory and a solo during communion, in addition to adding a flute descant to the hymns.
What’s left to decide is the hard part: what to play. I’ll wait for the church music committee to tell me what the hymns will be, and then I can pick my incidental music from the remainder of the canon of Christmas tunes.
I have to confess, I am not thrilled about any of those tunes. I’ve heard and played them all a million times before.
As a child, I loved Christmas music. I started early every year, spending a large chunk of the fall belting out Christmas songs, often in the bathroom where I mistakenly felt no one could hear me. My very first book of sheet music, given to me before I could read music, and well before I started playing an instrument, was a collection of Christmas carols. I remember poring over the words, memorizing every verse. Later, after I started studying piano, the music itself was learned and played endlessly. The book, now battered and torn, still gets pulled out every year.
But after forty-some Decembers of listening to the same Christmas songs, I admit to being entirely bored by them. Silent Night? No thanks. O Come All Ye Faithful? Snore…. Even the slightly less common carols seem utterly mundane. However, I still have to pick at least four to play on Christmas Eve.
There are newer, less familiar carols. The problem is that no one really wants to hear them on Christmas Eve. It turns out that it’s a natural human phenomenon to prefer tunes we already know.
Scientists call it the Mere Exposure Effect: simply being exposed to something (in this case a tune) makes you like it more when you meet it a second time. The Mere Exposure Effect in music was first shown over one hundred years ago, and holds true for music of all styles. Research studies that look at this effect generally work like this: volunteers listen to a series of (usually unfamiliar) melodies. Then, later, they hear another series of melodies that includes some of the melodies they have heard before, and some new melodies. In this second listening period, they have to rate each tune on how much they like it. The results show that hearing a piece of music (even only once!) predisposes you to like it more than other music you have not heard before.
The Mere Exposure Effect tells us something about the different ways in which we remember music. And that’s because this effect holds true whether you remember having heard the tune before or not. If people are distracted with another task while hearing the music, they often don’t remember they’ve heard it before, but they will still give it a higher rating than tunes they’ve never heard. This shows that the mere exposure effect is dependent on our implicit, unconscious memory for music. In contrast, if we consciously remember having heard the tune before, this uses our explicit memory. So we might not remember having heard an unfamiliar Christmas carol before, but the more we’ve heard it, the more we’ll like it.
Researchers want to understand why this effect works the way it does: what is it about being exposed to something that makes us enjoy it more? One theory is the perceptual fluency model, which proposes that when we’ve been exposed to something before, our brains have an easier time processing the information. The first time we hear a new tune, we don’t know exactly what will come next, and so, whether we’re aware of it or not, our minds are constantly trying to guess what the next note or phrase will be. That’s a lot of work, and makes us feel as if the tune is difficult. When we’ve heard the music before, we might not remember exactly how it goes, but our brain does a better job of predicting the next note, and this is less work, making us like the music more.
A second theory is called the two-factor model. This idea is that our aesthetic rating of a piece of music is based on two things: our dislike for things that are too new or complex, and our boredom with things that are two simple or familiar. In other words, we like to be able to predict what will happen next, but if it is completely obvious what will happen next, that’s no fun. The two-factor model suggests that in addition to the mere exposure effect, there should also be a satiation effect, in which people start to dislike stimuli that they have been exposed to too many times. (As in... ahem… Christmas carols).
Studies looking for a satiation effect have had mixed results, depending on the stimuli used, but it looks like the more realistic the stimuli are, the more likely they are to generate a satiation effect. This was found for musical stimuli in a study from the University of Toronto (Szpunar et al., 2004). When the researchers in this study played computer generated atonal sequences for people, they did not find that the subjects got bored of them, even after 64 exposures. However, when the same experiment was conducted using excerpts of orchestral recordings, they found that people gave lower ratings to the excerpts they had heard many times.
Where does this leave me in my Christmas Eve music planning? Well, clearly I want to try to hit that sweet spot in the liking curve, by playing something that people have heard before, but not too many times. I’ll aim for less-familiar carols, and maybe include something that most people won’t have heard. They may not appreciate this year, but when they hear that tune again another Christmas, they’ll like it better.
Green, A.C., Bærentsen, K.B., Stødkilde-Jørgensen, H., Roepstorff, A., and Vuust, P. (2012). Listen, learn, like! Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex involved in the mere exposure effect in music. Neurol Res Int 2012, 846270.
Peretz, I., Gaudreau, D., and Bonnel, A.-M. (1998). Exposure effects on music preference and recognition. Memory & Cognition 26, 884–902.
Szpunar, K.K., Schellenberg, E.G., and Pliner, P. (2004). Liking and Memory for Musical Stimuli as a Function of Exposure. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 30, 370–381.