Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Wonder what makes your favourite Christmas song sound so Christmassy? Oscar takes a look under the harmonic hood of some classic festive tunes to investigate...
I'll be honest and say that I am sucker for a great Christmas tune - there's nothing quite like putting up decorations around the house with some Mariah Carey belting out in the background! Even if you're not a massive fan of popular Christmas music, most people have a favourite song during the festive season. Mine is the Nat King Cole classic 'The Christmas Song', which is one of the most beautiful ballads I've ever heard. So, I'm sure all of the Music students amongst you are itching to know 'what exactly makes these songs so fitting for this time of the year?'.
First things first: it's worth saying that we won't be examining the lyrics of the songs - it's pretty obvious that singing about Christmas related subject matter is going to get people into the festive mindset! Likewise, simply adding in some bells to the band is a rather unexciting (although rather effective, as I learnt on a gig this month) way to add in a dose of 'Christmas' to a number. With the easy answers out of the way, where do we turn next?
Let's start with a quick history lesson. If you think about the 'classic' Christmas tunes - "Frosty The Snowman", "Winter Wonderland", "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer", etc. - a vast majority of these songs were written around the 1950s (there or there abouts), a period where popular music as a genre was really starting to take off. The most common style of popular music during this era? Yep, you guessed it, Jazz. So what's the connection between Jazz and these much-loved Christmas tunes? Take a look at the first 8 bars of a chord progression I arranged for "Winter Wonderland" (this progression covers the opening lyrics "sleigh bells ring..." up to "...walking in a winter wonderland"):
Now I'm going to go into a little depth about how some of these chords work, so if you need to brush up on your Jazz theory, take a few minutes to check out my introductory guide to Jazz harmony before diving in. Up to speed? Great stuff. I'm assuming you know how our basic ii-V-I functions, so you've probably noticed the ii-V-I chain in the last 4 bars going iii-VI-ii-V-I starting in bar 5. It's a nice cycle of 5ths which leads us back to our I chord, Eb major. You might be wondering what the b13 means on the C7 - I'll get back to that!
What might be raising a few eyebrows is the first 4 bars: what are those chords in bars 2 and 4? In Jazz chord chart lingo, a small circle next to a chord denotes 'diminished' (and a circle with a diagonal line through it denotes 'half-diminished' - we won't discuss that today) which is essentially a chord built using minor 3rd intervals - so 'E diminished 7' would be E-G-Bb-C#. If you have a keyboard, try playing this chord. What do you hear? It sounds dark - those minor 3rd intervals create tritones (E-Bb, C#-G) which are naturally dissonant sounding to our ears.
Why on earth are these horrible chords in a Christmas song?! Remember how important V-I cadences and extended chords (such as a 'dominant 7') are in Jazz? These extensions help create additional tension and colour to the chord progression, which makes a simple V-I sound far more exciting to the listener. If we think about that Edim7 chord, it looks very familar to a dominant chord with the root of the chord taken out... have you worked it out? Edim7 is functionally very similar to a C7 chord (C-E-G-Bb) with an additional note, C#. This C# is what we would the b9 extension (think of D as the 'natural' 9th to C), and it's a very powerful chromatic extension to use on dominant chords to create lots of tension before resolving. You can think of bars 2-3 as essentially V-I with C7b9 resolving to Fm7. In a similar vein, the b13 (as seen in bar 6) is another chromatic extension (so C7b13 would have Ab as the b13) which helps generate a lot of interest. Why are we using the Edim7 instead of C7b9 (and in turn, F#dim7 instead of D7b9 in bar 4)? Take a look at the roots of the first 4 bars: it's a rising chromatic sequence (Eb-E-F-F#) which, alongside all this chromatic harmony, creates a really interesting 4 bars of 'tension and release' for the listener.
Phew, that was a fair amount of complex Jazz theory! You might be wondering what all this has to do with Christmas music. Well, in our typical 'pop' song which we hear on the radio or on Spotify, it's very unlikely (unless you're listening to artists such as Tom Misch or even Disclosure) that you'll be hearing lots of chromatic harmony on a regular basis. It's no surprise then that lots of Christmas songs tap into this harmonic difference by accentuating this Jazz harmony by going for a 'big band' or 'swing' style - see Michael Buble's outrageously successful Christmas album for comprehensive evidence.
Still not convinced? The Disclosure track I referenced above is a very interesting EDM remix of the classic Jazz standard "Fools Rush In". The lyrics (although admittedly containing the words 'angels' and 'wise men') are not terribly Christmas orientated, but many of the top-liked comments below the video note how it gets them into a Christmassy mood:
Now, there's plenty of other successful modern Christmas tunes which diverge away from this 'traditional' Jazz styling, but even these songs sometimes utilise aspects of chromatic Jazz harmony to help capture that bitter-sweet feeling so often associated with the festive season. Take a look at the end of the bridge of Mariah Carey's festive hit "All I Want For Christmas Is You" ... notice there's a ii-V-I going Am9 - D7b9 - Gmaj using the b9 chromatic chord extension we just spoke about!
So, there you have it. Perhaps Jazz harmony really is the secret behind making ordinary songs sound Christmassy... or maybe it's just using jingle bells. Either way, I hope you've learnt something new from this blog!
Still can't get enough of Christmas music? Have a crack at writing your own Christmas tune using some of the chromatic harmony we've discussed today - I'd love to hear anything you come up with, so be sure to comment below - or you can get in touch via our Facebook and Twitter!
Have a fantastic Christmas and a great New Year!
Blog Post Crafted by Oscar
Oscar studies Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Warwick.
When he's not studying or tutoring GCSE Maths and Science, Oscar plays saxophone and co-ordinates the Small Band division of the University of Warwick Big Band.
In 2017 he set up his own jazz function band, Mirage Quartet, and has been a keen collaborator and ambassador for Bromley Youth Music Trust