I’d dread to be a sales assistant at this time of year. Listening to the same jovial twenty songs in a shift is enough to make anyone want to cut their ears off. When I do brave up and take my earplugs out whilst doing the Christmas shopping, I can’t help but wonder how on Earth these songs sound so similar. And what gives these tunes that festive feeling?
A 2016 Vox YouTube video has resurfaced this year, claiming that one simple harmonic progression is what makes Christmas music sound “Christmassy”. It makes an interesting analysis of two popular Christmas songs, ‘All I Want For Christmas’ and ‘White Christmas’, stating that that one particular harmonic progression is what makes these songs sound so festive. (Watch the YouTube video below that discusses this harmony.)
In the spirit of this video, I thought I’d guide you through some other musical characteristics that give that classic “Christmassy” feel to so many songs that we love listening to in the festive period. I’ll be using some musical analogy at points, so I’ve linked in some YouTube videos that will explain what these characteristics mean.
QUAVER TRIPLETS OF SOME KIND
You’ll only find quaver triplets in Christmas music, and that’s a fact. Like what the Vox video outlines, ‘All I Want For Christmas’ has prominent quaver triplets in the piano part, as does ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ and ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ in different instrumental parts.
Another characteristic that makes festive tunes sound Christmassy is the use of AABA form. This structure was utilised in the early Christmas popular songs such as ‘Deck the Halls’; that’s why we feel nostalgic listening to modern festive songs that use the AABA form, as it reminds the listener of old Christmas pop songs.
Additionally, all Christmas songs are in a major key. Nothing can compare to the happiness and joviality of Christmas time, epitomised in the major keys of the Western classical tradition. Who wants to listen to sad festive music anyway? Christmas is about love, Santa, and consumerism; not about feeling sorry for other people.
The prominent jazz saxophonist Chet Baker famously once said “nothing sounds more like Christmas than a sleek sax solo”. There are numerous different sax solos in Christmas music, notably in ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’. Solos on synthesizers are also a distinguishable Christmas aesthetic, which you can hear in ‘Wonderful Christmastime’.
The popular Christmas songs ‘One More Sleep’, ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’, and ‘Santa Baby’ all use backing vocalists; another undoubtable Christmas characteristic. Nothing screams “we’re not good enough to be front-liners, but we can sure as hell sing in harmony” more than these Christmassy songs.
The tradition of using lyrics in Christmas music goes centuries back to the first Christmas carols. ‘Gaudete’, ‘O Holy Night’, and ‘Troika’, all classic Christmas carols, utilise choruses that sing words as opposed to the “ah”s and “oh”s that are commonly heard in the current popular music realm. Modern Christmas music ties onto this tradition, using lyrics rather than vowel sounds, again making the listener reminisce about the past.
So there you have it! Those are just a few musical characteristics that make festive music sound so Christmassy. Next time you’re stuck in a shop in December with blaring Christmas music playing through dozens of speakers, see if you can spot these characteristics in the songs!
*Disclaimer #1: this article is nonsense (as is the aforementioned Vox video); there is only one thing that makes Christmas music sound Christmassy, and that’s sleigh bells. (Lyrics that refer to Christmas and cold weather also help.)
*Disclaimer #2: just in case you’re a future employer of mine, I know that Chet Baker was a drummer and not a saxophonist.
Featured image courtesy of Jim, The Photographer, via Flickr.
Image use licence here.