It's thought that repeated exposure to seasonal songs can be bad for your brain, but is there any truth to the belief?

If headlines are to be believed, such as one in the Independent on 6 November, people are being driven into poor health right at this moment - by Christmas music. And if you've ever worked in a shop during November and December, chances are you will have found Christmas music incredibly annoying.

But do the headlines actually have any basis in reality? In, you know, things like science and psychology.

Surprisingly, yes, according to Linda Blair, the clinical psychologist who is behind all the recent stories. Back in October, a Sky News reporter had the shock of hearing Christmas songs already playing in his local shops so went to Linda for an interview. She told him one key sentence: "People working in the shops at Christmas have to tune out [the] music because if they don't, it really does stop you from being able to focus on anything else."

Ever since, she has hardly been able to escape the topic. "It's ridiculous," she says. "I've been on radio shows in every country on the globe."

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Music has the most powerful impact on shoppers on all our senses
Linda Blair

Blair has investigated the issue and found that, "There's actually been no research on the impacts of Christmas music specifically." But there have been numerous studies on the impact of music in shops in general. Those are clear, Blair says: "Music has the most powerful impact on shoppers on all our senses. When the songs are targeted properly - when a shop gives its customers what they expect to hear - it really does get people to buy stuff. So, if you play classical music in a wine shop, sales go up. Or if you play romantic music in a florists, sales go up."

You need to make sure the music varies, and isn't too loud, but it's normally a simple matter of matching music to your customers' tastes.

There's one problem at Christmas, though: the fact the brain processes music emotionally, not rationally.

"There is always an emotional reaction to music depending on our memories," Blair says. "So that means if you play songs people associate with difficulties in their past, they'll have a negative reaction to it. And of all music, Christmas probably gives the strongest of those reactions. Shops really can't win on that one."

Music has the most powerful impact on shoppers on all our senses
Linda Blair

[LISTEN] BBC Radio 3 - The Listening Service: Repetition

What we ultimately hear can include the smells and sights and feelings of past moments
Elizabeth Margulis

Hearing Christmas songs on repeat shouldn't inherently be madness causing, says Professor Elizabeth Margulis, director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas. Margulis is the author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind and the closest you'll get to a world's expert in the joys of repetition.

"My work suggests that repetition can draw people into music," she says, "encouraging them to hear and move with it imaginatively rather than simply digest it as sounds out there in the world."

The first time you hear a song, it may largely be about the music, but the next countless times you'll instinctively think back, so, "What we ultimately hear can include the smells and sights and feelings of past moments too."

The problem, Margulis adds, is there's "an inverted-U shaped response to repetition". The first few times you hear a song, your love of it will grow, but eventually they’ll be a tipping point and there’s no going back. The more complex the music, the more listens it can stand up to.

How many plays can the average person stand a Christmas song? That's something Margulis can't answer, but would it be too much if you worked in a shop and heard the same 20 songs every hour, every day for a month?

"Oh, wow!" Margulis says. "That definitely sounds like more than enough to get someone over to the far side of the inverted U."

What we ultimately hear can include the smells and sights and feelings of past moments
Elizabeth Margulis
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Our studies show 93 per cent of employees want music in shops, and 80 per cent of shoppers
Paul Hillyer

Unsurprisingly, the people who decide what music gets played in your local shop do seem to know all this. MOOD Media is one of the world's largest suppliers of muzak - the music you hear in stores and when you're put on hold on the telephone (it bought the original Muzak company in 2011). It supplies 20,000 UK stores with Christmas music, according to Paul Hillyer, its UK head of creative.

"There's some evidence that staff in particular can find too much Christmas music overwhelming, but music in shops is generally positive," he says. "Our studies show 93 per cent of employees want it, and 80 per cent of shoppers. It's the standard CD with 16 tracks on a loop that you have going round and round that we think creates lot of complaints. Staff are busy and don't think to change it, so you just have the same songs all the time, all day…bombarding staff and customers."

Some stores do still use CDs (a call to a major supermarket revealed that, this year, they gave six CDs to its stores to play including a Michael Bublé Christmas album and a Now That's What I Call Christmas compilation), but MOOD typically now get stores to download a playlist overnight to use the following day.

This year, those featured 20 per cent Christmas music per hour in the first week of December, and that proportion will ramp up each week. They'll supply 100 per cent Christmas music to those who want it for the final days leading up to Christmas.

Our studies show 93 per cent of employees want music in shops, and 80 per cent of shoppers
Paul Hillyer
It'd be a good experiment if everyone just stopped playing Christmas music and saw what happened
Linda Blair

It’s all about trying to maintain variety, he says, although if every shop is playing Christmas music it's hard for any shopper to get a break from it, especially if shops are all asking for the classics.

"Ariana Grande did a great song called Santa Tell Me a few years ago, which is brilliant for stores with young customers, but a lot of shops want to keep things traditional," Hillyer says.

So what should shops do to stop driving people over the edge?

Linda Blair has an idea: just turn off the music entirely.: just turn off the music entirely. "There's a problem that people see two things together and think there's a cause and effect. So they hear Christmas music being played and sales going up and think one causes the other, when it's almost certainly the fact that it's Christmas that's actually causing the sales to increase.

"It'd be a good experiment if everyone just stopped playing it and saw what happened."

It'd be a good experiment if everyone just stopped playing Christmas music and saw what happened
Linda Blair

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