Monday, 9 December 2013

What Makes A Christmas Song?

Yes, it's been a while since the last post.. blame that peculiar entity, the real world. But we're back now, and as mentioned in the last post, the last couple of months have been all about writing songs for the festive season.

So, what makes a Christmas song work? What makes it Christmassy, and makes the listener get that lovely warm fuzzy feeling, the aural equivalent of a woolly jumper with a big reindeer embroidered on it... Well, over the last few weeks, I think I've gained a little insight into that question, and I'd like to share it.

First off, subject matter. Snow, Santa, reindeers, presents - all the usual. It's always a safe bet. That said, the greatest Christmas song of them all, "Fairytale Of New York" contains none of these lyrical themes whatsoever, so in this business it's never totally cut and dried...

Okay, so onto the musical elements. First off, rhythm. There are no real surprises here, basically 4/4 and to a lesser extent 3/4 rule the roost - only to be expected when these are songs meant for communal (read - drunken) singing and festivities. Look for a healthy smattering of swung rhythms (Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody) and compound time signatures - 6/8, 12/8 and occasionally 9/8 make appearances. There seems to be something about the swaying, cascading feel of triplets that brings out the Christmas in all of us.

Next up, harmony - as you would expect, mostly diatonic, and tending to be based around the I, IV, V and vi chords. Wham's Last Christmas revolves around a I-vi-ii-V chord sequence (the ii of the key being the relative monor of the IV), Fairytale of New York - key of D, revolves around D, A, Bm and G, The Darkness' Don't Let The Bells End largely A, E, F#m and D. One notable exception is Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody" which manages to shoehorn a decidedly non-diatonic Bb into the end of the chorus... however, we can make sense of that by looking at the Bb chord tones: Bb (root, D (third) and F. The D provides a useful link, as it is the fifth of the home key of the song (G).

Key changes are also a popular feature for that subtle (or not-so-subtle) lift for a chorus. Again, The Darkness make use of this device as do Wizzard in their classic "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day" to lift the chorus. An interesting example of a "phony" key change comes in "Do They KNow It's Christmas

Finally, melody. Thirds are a big component of any vocal melody, and leaps of thirds are especially common in choruses, once again for a lift and something inherently "singable". A classic move is centering on the third for a verse while moving to the fifth for the chorus and resolving to the root for a perfect cadence.

For all the cheesiness commonly associated with Christmas songs, many do bear study as the intent to create something inherently catchy, simple and singable is a quality that we can all try and apply to benefit our songwriting. So dust off "The Best Xmas Album IN The World.. Ever!" and get to work :-)