Holidays and Playlists

by Sarah Pearson

Whether you’re hosting a holiday shindig for your friends and family, picking background music for your workplace, or trying to brighten up the mood at the medical centre you work at, chances are you may have been tasked to create a “holiday playlist.”

In the age of digital streaming, it has never been easier to forsake the role of “DJ” and pass it over to an algorithm instead. Rather than hand-select your version of Silent Night and Jingle Bell Rock, and carefully arrange each song in the order you prefer, now with the swipe of a finger you can command a streaming app to play and endless mix of Christmas “favourites.” Spotify alone offers the choice of “Christmas Jazz,” “Christmas Pop,” “Easy Christmas,” “Classical Christmas,” “Country Christmas,”  “Gospel Christmas,” “Rock Christmas,” “Christmas rap,” “Indie Christmas,” and “Christmas Crooners” - and the list goes on and on.

Just a decade ago, faced with the job of making seasonal playlists, we might have carefully thought through the mood and tone of the music we were choosing, deferring to our favourite albums or even hand-selecting CDs from the public library. We might have gone to extra lengths to customize the songs for the people who will listen, bring back certain memories and avoiding others. “My cousin Jim just loves ‘O Come Emmanuel’!” “’Carol of the Bells’ will get everyone singing!”  “Let’s get the theme song from Home Alone – we loved that movie as kids!” “Better not put ‘Silent Night’ on there. It’ll make Joanie cry and she’s had such a rough year.” These types of considerations are lost when we choose to stream digital playlists.

If you’re going to use pre-made playlists for your holiday-themed background music, be it at work, in a care setting, or at home, here are a few considerations for adding a bit of the “music care approach” to your selection:

  1. Look through the track list before you play it. Major streaming apps should have the list of songs ahead. Are there any songs that you recognize and know might upset anyone? Christmas music can be ridden with emotions and memories, both happy and sad. Think carefully about who will be listening.
  2. Consider the style and genre of the playlist. Pop-style Christmas music, such as Mariah Carey’s famed “All I Want For Christmas is You,” will likely convey a more commercial-holiday feel, reminding people of being in busy shopping malls and watching the latest Walmart commercial. Jazz and crooner-style Christmas music, such as “White Christmas” sung by Bing Crosby, might invite memories of classic American holiday movies and snowy scenes of New York City. Choral arrangements of classic carols, such as Joy to the World, may create a sense of old traditions, particularly for people who grew up going to church. The same song can be performed in many different styles. Make a style choice that reflects the overall mood you want to create.
  3. Consider instrumental versus lyrical. When music is sung in a familiar language, it invites a certain cognitive focus of the listener. Our brains can’t help but focus primarily on the words, and the singer. Instrumental music, even when it’s a melody that’s normally sung, such as an orchestral version of “We Three Kings,” allows our minds to wander a bit more. We may focus on the music or drift away into thoughts or conversations. For this reason, much instrumental music tends to be more effective “background” music than sung music. This might be useful to keep in mind, depending on the mood you’re trying to create.

While the digital age of music has its enormous advantages for listeners, it also has its setbacks. Independent musicians are losing money through these streaming apps, which pay royalties to major labels but very little to individual artists, and it’s not a sustainable revenue model for independent musicians. Also, the more listeners turn to pre-made playlists, the less we connect with actual albums, which are crafted carefully by artists to create a flow, a story, and a musical arc. Albums are essentially pre-made playlists, with a consistency of tone and theme that can’t be beat with by a digital mixtape. This holiday season, whether you’re DJing your work party or gathering around with your family and friends over some nog, consider digging out an old Christmas album, or even purchasing a new one. Enjoy the story that the artist is sharing with you, their own sense of wonder and reflection about this season of the year, and how it invites you to create new memories that will live on for you in that album.

Sarah Pearson, MMT, MTA, RP, HonBA, is a music therapist working in oncology, palliative care, and mental health, and is the Program Development Lead for Room 217. She has a background in non-profit communications and copywriting, and performs regularly as a singer, choral artist, and songwriter.