Why Do Christmas Songs Sound Christmas-sy?
The one factor that makes us want to cozy up by the fire and put lights on the tree.
December 16, 2021
For many, the holiday season is characterized by four things: food, cold weather, family, and Christmas music. SoCal radio stations like KOST 103.5 start playing holiday music as early as November 1st. The instantly recognizable tunes and universally-loved holiday songs are a jarring difference from the “Feel Good of the 80s, 90s, and Today” that KOST plays during the year.
So, what makes Christmas music sound Christmas-sy?
Music is created by the use of melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre, and—in the case of most Western music—lyrics.
In regards to melody, there is no singular chord or chord progression that makes a song fit to play ‘round a tree. Outside of “iconic or recognizable musical motifs,” there is no singular chord or chord progression “that makes you think ‘Wow! This is Christmas!’” according to San Dimas High School Band Director Daniel Sandt. Many media outlets claim that there is one “Christmas Chord” that is found throughout holiday music, from Berlin to Carey. But, if there was such a chord, “virtually every musician, composer, or musicologist has yet to find it,” said Sandt.
Harmony is an essential component of Western music. The first songs created were hymns. Before Patti Page and barbershop harmony, Hildegard von Bingen and Gregorian monks layered voices on top of each other to create harmony. Unlike a specific melody, Sandt admits that harmony is integral to Christmas music, at least older songs: “The first Christmas songs were hymns and the choral music of ‘O Holy Night’ or ‘Joy to the World’ are reminiscent of that.”
To most readers, this will be the first (and most likely only) time timbre is referenced—the distinctive delivery or sound quality of a specific note, sound, or voice. Timbre is what distinguishes Adele, Miley Cyrus, Beyonce, and Whitney Houston from each other despite all four of them having the same vocal type. Vocal quality is imperative to many-a-holiday songs. It is why Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas” sounds dramatically different from Gwen Stefani’s. In Sandt’s opinion, Crosby’s “sonorous, low, and velvety” baritone voice and Mariah Carey’s “rich low notes, strong belts, and clean higher voice” are arguably Christmas-sier than Meghan Trainor’s “pop-y and basic” mezzo.
To Sandt, one of the most central parts of Christmas and Holiday music, in general, is the lyrics. Dozens of holiday items are mentioned throughout Christmas songs that instantly let the listener know what it is about. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart” are much more Christmas-sy than Nat King Cole or George Michael’s voice itself. “I think lyrics and, to be honest, jingle bells or bells, in general, are so important,” explained Sandt.
But, above all the aforementioned elements of Christmas music, the most important and overarching reason as to why Christmas music sounds the way it does is nostalgia. Sandt says that “these songs are so ingrained into our psyche that Christmas music will sound like Christmas music will sound like Christmas music, no matter what.” Christmas and the holiday season are inextricably and inseparably linked to Americana. Songs from 1500 CE that have been recorded innumerable times are so Christmas-sy by virtue of being Christmas songs. Without the sleigh bells and explicit references to the holiday, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” would, undoubtedly, be characterized like her other uptempo love songs.
“In actuality, we’re just suckers [sic] for the past, the good times of the past,” says Sandt. “As long as we have some semblance of nostalgia from a song, and maybe a hint of the mentioned elements, it will be Christmas.”