Have you ever wondered what makes christmas music sound so christmassy?
I love this time of year when Christmas Music starts to infiltrate our every day life, whether this be on the radio, as we’re walking round the shops and just about everywhere we go. The holiday season always brings with it mulled wine, a mince pie, christmas tree, church bells and of course those all important Christmas songs littered with nostalgia.
So from Bing Crosby, Michael bublé to Mariah Carey.. what makes christmas music sound so christmassy?!
I think there are a few different aspects that make the perfect christmas song… let’s explore them.
Perhaps the most obvious aspect of any Christmas songs we listen to is the lyrics and the different themes that they cover. We will hear references to being at home, being in love, parties, Santa and snow! But what is the overall theme that brings all christmas songs together? Nostalgia!
All Christmas songs want you to think of those incredible christmasses past. Let’s take Irving Berlins ‘White Christmas’. The lyrics for this are extremely nostalgic.
Every good christmas song also makes reference to sleigh bells. My casing point above in White Christmas! Whether this be in the words of the song or simply just listening to the sleigh bells being played!
The most obvious song will be jingle bells – I mean, the clues in the title.
But you also hear them in almost all of the christmas classics in some form or another.
Almost all christmas melodies are written in 4/4 time. This is one of the most regular time signatures out there and with that means that christmas songs are easy to learn and sing along to. Rhythms are also kept very simple, sticking to crotchets (quarter notes), minims (half notes) and quavers (eighth notes).
Traditional Christmas songs were written to sign in congregations at church and so it was super important that melodies were catchy and easy to learn quickly. Imagine if we had lots of complicated rhythms to contend with, these pieces would be much harder to learn!
Take for example Ding Dong Merrily on High. We have simple lyrics in an easy to follow 4/4 time signature. This makes it easy to sing along to and learn the words!
Look at Rudolph the red nosed reindeer as another example. This is another classic from the festive season and again is written in the 4/4 time signature making it easy to learn and sing along to!
We’ve covered some of the simpler aspects as to why christmas music sounds so christmassy, but we haven’t talked about the more complicated and perhaps even more important aspect, the harmony.
Christmas music is there to evoke happy nostalgic memories and in order to do this most Christmas music is written in a major key. Major keys tend to be happier and more upbeat which of course is perfect when you want to evoke happy memories!
But keeping a piece of music purely in a major key would not easily spark nostalgic memories. To do this, composers will litter the music with different chords such as diminished chords, half diminished chords, minor chords and more. By adding in a mix of different chords like this you can create that sense of warm fuzzy christmas feelings from Christmases past.
Perhaps one of the most popular Christmas songs around is Mariah Carey’s ‘all I want for christmas is you’. This song is written in the key of G major but is littered throughout with different chords and the odd minor key .
The intro to this song starts in G major, moving to B major, C major, Eb major, E minor, back to E flat major, D major, A minor, D major and finally back to G major! This huge range of keys just in the intro builds up lots of harmonic tension that is resolved as soon as we make it to the first verse. Some might call this the perfect christmas song!
We also make use of a secret chord on the word ‘presents’ in the intro. On this word you will hear a half diminished chord. That’s a D minor 7 flat 5 to be exact!
This YouTube video explores the reason this chord makes Mariah Carey’s song sound christmassy! Give it a watch.
What’s your favourite christmas song?
Christmas music has so many classics and I think each and every song is special to someone.
What is your favourite song to listen to at Christmas? I would love to know!