25 Dec The Secret Ingredient to the Perfect Christmas Song
Christmas music is one of the greatest hallmarks of the start of the Winter holiday season. Songs like “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, “Last Christmas”, and “Winter Wonderland” fill homes, cars, and offices with holiday cheer. Christmas songs are comprised of countless themes and messages, yet all Christmas songs can be easily identifiable. So what music techniques do these artists capitalize on that make us coming back for more each year? What common ground do these classics have that link them together?
What is it about these songs that make them so… Christmassy?
Maybe it’s the string instruments we hear in Dean Martin’s “Let it Snow” or the percussion heard in numbers like “Last Christmas” and “Drummer Boy”? Could it be the electric guitar in “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Bell Rock”, or is it the legendary sleigh bells used in classics like “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”?
In order to get to the bottom of this “secret ingredient” it may be best to take a look at the musical work that has been considered to be one of today’s most popular Christmas songs; Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”. According to Nielsen, in the winter months of 2015, Carey’s classic was streamed a little under 45 million times! The following video explores the connection to her composition and other Christmas songs that came before it.
Adam Ragusea, a Journalist Professor at Mercer University who has a background in music and composition, is among many others who have sought to discover the mystery of the success of these Christmas classics. Ragusea argues that Carey’s song is a reflection of a “direct style study” of Phil Spector’s 1972 re-release of his Christmas album, “A Christmas Gift for You”. He makes a connection between the intros of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You”. Both Spector and Carey’s pieces are in 4/4 and start with a surge of triplets on each beat, each playing the same chord in each measure.
The most notable similarity between this modern day classic and the plethora of vintage Christmas numbers are the chordal progressions and chordal qualities. Classic Christmas songs had been heavily influenced by the jazz standard. Unlike the repetitive 3-4 chord progressions of Rock music, consisting of primarily major and minor progressions, the jazz influence introduces a wider range of chordal movement and musical “flavors”. This gives composer the opportunity to use major, minor, diminished, and augmented chords, in any desired inversion, and in the form of triads, 7th chords, and the jazzy 9th chord. Carey’s piece has been noted to have 13 distinct chords, but there is one chord in particular that has been deemed special. This “special” chord had also been used in Irvin Berlin’s “White Christmas”. When the sultry Bing Crosby floats across the word “listen”, we hear, as Ragusea describes it, this “melting into this delicious, spicy, warm, little diminished chord”. This ii (2) half-diminished 7th chord is also heard when Carey sings “underneath the Christmas tree”. This chordal sequencing seen in Carey’s piece is representative of the harmonic progression of the 1940s, reworked and reimagined.
While there are countless speculations as to what makes a perfect Christmas song, there are many other musical qualities, such as rhythm and phrasing that make up and define the Christmas song standard. What makes a song “Christmassy” to you? Share with us in the comments below!
Listen Now to Christmas Songs Produced by Demo My Song
Ragusea, Adam. “All I Want for Christmas Is Diminished Chords.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 18 Dec. 2015, slate.com/culture/2015/12/mariah-careys-all-i-want-for-christmas-is-you-a-musicological-explanation-of-why-the-song-sounds-so-christmassy.html.
Vox. “The Secret Chord That Makes Christmas Music Sound so Christmassy.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Dec. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xm4LO22-cyY.