What makes Christmas music ring … Christmas?

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It’s one of the most distinctive (or must-have, depending on your perspective) of the holiday season: Christmas music. The familiar collection of sentimental tunes begins to take over the airwaves and filter through the loudspeakers of cafes around Thanksgiving weekend and essentially becomes the soundtrack for the entire month of December. But what is it that makes Christmas music so distinct? While in some ways it might seem obvious, there are a few surprising characteristics of holiday songs that tell us as much about ourselves as they do about our winter traditions.

Joe Bennett, forensic musicologist at Berklee College of Music in Boston, attempted to answer the question back in 2017. He looked at the lyrics, tempo, vocals and other elements of the 78 most popular holiday tunes on Spotify. The most obvious aspect of what makes a Christmas song is, of course, its lyrics – and Bennett has found that the words used in these songs fit broadly into eight key themes, including “house,” “in love “,” party “,” Santa “and” snow “. But the concept that ties all the themes together, according to Bennett, is nostalgia.

“The world of a Christmas song, in terms of visual imagery, is the analog world itself: the roaring fires, the snowfall, the presents under the tree,” he says. “Even though people sell iPhones and PlayStation over Christmas, you don’t get that content in the lyrics. “

Sounds happy for the holidays

This nostalgia is also found in the technical aspects of the music. Of the songs Bennett analyzed, 95 percent were in a major key. “The main keys to pop music are a little more dated,” he says. “In contemporary pop, the repertoire is oriented more towards a minor tonality. Bennett adds that the predominance of the major key in Christmas music partly reflects the preference for “happy themes” during the cold holiday season.

Darren Sproston, director of the School of Arts and Media and associate dean of the University of Chester in England, gave a series of lectures on the history and character of Christmas music. He points out that this preference for a rhythmic holiday can be attributed to traditional Christmas carols, written for a performance in congregation.

“People have to pick up the melodies fast enough to be able to sing them in that community setting – but that’s also true for popular music and hooks meant to attract an audience so they have that ‘singing ability’,” explains Sproston. Whether it be “Come, all you faithful” Where “Santa is coming to townHoliday songs work best when we can sing them as a group.

Bennett found that the median beats per minute (BPM) for these songs was 115 – slightly below the popular music average, which tends to be 120 – and 90 percent were 4/4 ( not too different from most other pop songs either). music). Additionally, 38% of the songs included sleigh bells and 35% used a broken triplet rhythm, or “swing rhythm,” which has a random sound. (Think about cha-chung-cha-chung-cha-chung who continues to tap her toes throughout Mariah Carey’s “All i want for christmas is you. ”) It was a popular device in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in holiday songs produced by Phil Spector, including the 1963 album A Christmas present for you from Phil Spector In many ways, set the pattern for modern Christmas pop music.

Sproston notes that tubular bells (which evoke the sound of church bells) are also a distinctive feature, as is choral singing. “As soon as you present a choir, especially a children’s choir, you get that Christmas level,” he says. He points to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”, Which few would consider a Christmas song, which nonetheless dominated the UK charts during Christmas week 1979 – perhaps aided by its use of choral singing.

Our need for nostalgia

Another key characteristic of Christmas carols is that they are, with rare exceptions, the same songs from year to year. Those rare tunes that perceive and become “new classics” usually do so blatantly borrowing from the Christmas canon. Perhaps the most obvious example is the ubiquitous success of Mariah Carey, who “takes so much of those 1963 Phil Spector production values ​​and adds what at the time was a contemporary twist of the ’90s,” as the Bennett said. Beyond borrowing from the Spector playbook, the song even incorporates a few chords from “White christmas. “

A more recent example of this new borrowing from the old can be found in the work of Michael Bublé, whose songs accounted for 13% of those analyzed by Bennett. “Most of these [borrowed] the songs are from the Big Band era of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, ”Bennett says. “It’s the sound of the Rat Pack, but Michael Bublé uses autotune on his vocals and finds that perfect combination of contemporary pop production values ​​and traditional musical arrangements and hints of songwriting.”

While Bennett attributes this to warm nostalgia, every year Sproston comes up with another way to think about the allure of familiar songs: ritual. “Christmas is cyclical – we get together as a family for Christmas dinner and tend to eat the same Christmas dinner, we watch the same Christmas programs, those traditions are heartwarming,” he says. “It’s the ritual.”

One of the biggest holiday songs of this year, Ed Sheeran and Elton John’s “Merry Christmas, ”Maybe new, but he succeeds by sticking to the phrase. “They threw the book at that one,” Bennett says. “It has all the cultural references – by the fireside and mistletoe, plus the sleigh bells, of course.”


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