What Makes Music Sound Like Christmas Music? Hear the Single Most Christmassy Chord of All Explained

Dur­ing the past few months of this year, as in those same months of any year, we’ve been hear­ing a great deal of Christ­mas music. Some of the songs in the mix — “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein­deer,” “Have Your­self a Mer­ry Lit­tle Christ­mas,” “The Christ­mas Song” — few of us have ever known a time with­out, and oth­ers make it in because of their sea­son­al­ly themed lyri­cal con­tent. But cer­tain songs just sound like Christ­mas songs, some­how, and to under­stand what, in musi­cal terms, fills those com­po­si­tions with the spir­it of the hol­i­day sea­son, watch the five-minute Vox explain­er above that reveals “the secret chord that makes Christ­mas music sound so Christ­massy.”

First we should dis­tin­guish pop­u­lar Christ­mas songs from pop­u­lar non-Christ­mas songs, espe­cial­ly ones record­ed in the past half-cen­tu­ry. “Rock ’n’ roll songs (and the sub­se­quent pop songs influ­enced by the genre) may only con­tain three or four chords, each chord usu­al­ly being just a major or a minor — the two chord ‘fla­vors’ anal­o­gous to choco­late and vanil­la,” writes Slate’s Adam Ragusea. In con­trast, a selec­tion from “the Great Amer­i­can Song­book” might “use a Baskin-Rob­bins shop full of chords and chord fla­vors — 7ths and 9ths, half and ful­ly dimin­ished, var­i­ous inver­sions, and more” under melodies that “tend to include a lot of chro­mat­ic notes (the black notes on the piano when play­ing in the key of C major).”

In the era when most beloved Christ­mas stan­dards were con­ceived, song­writ­ers still made much use of that wide musi­cal palette, the son­ic col­ors of which had as much to do with jazz as with pop. But since the 1960s, writ­ers of pop songs  have used these now-exot­ic har­monies “to get a ‘clas­sic’ sound. For instance, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Hap­py Xmas (War Is Over)’ includes some notes in its choral parts that I think are intend­ed to recall the har­mon­ic vocab­u­lary of those 1940s Christ­mas stan­dards.” No coin­ci­dence, sure­ly, that Mari­ah Carey’s “All I Want for Christ­mas Is You,” per­haps the only Christ­mas song writ­ten in recent decades to attain the same pop­u­lar­i­ty as the old stan­dards, uses the same com­po­si­tion­al tech­niques.

“I count at least 13 dis­tinct chords at work in ‘All I Want for Christ­mas Is You,’ result­ing in a sump­tu­ous­ly chro­mat­ic melody,” writes Ragusea. “The song also includes what I con­sid­er the most Christ­massy chord of all — a minor sub­dom­i­nant, or “iv,” chord with an added 6, under the words ‘under­neath the Christ­mas tree,’ among oth­er places.” As in Irv­ing Berlin’s “White Christ­mas,” he notes, “the chord comes imme­di­ate­ly after a major sub­dom­i­nant chord, giv­ing the effect of a ‘bright’ major sub­dom­i­nant that you might say ‘sighs’ or ‘melts’ into a ‘dark’ minor sub­dom­i­nant spiked with a ‘spicy’ extra tone (the added 6), before the songs set­tle back into their ton­ic, or ‘home,’ chords.” And so we come to the unex­pect­ed find­ing — though hard­ly a dis­pleas­ing one — that a prop­er­ly made Christ­mas song has more than a lit­tle in com­mon with a prop­er­ly made Christ­mas cock­tail.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream 22 Hours of Funky, Rock­ing & Swing­ing Christ­mas Albums: From James Brown and John­ny Cash to Christo­pher Lee & The Ven­tures

Stream a Playlist of 68 Punk Rock Christ­mas Songs: The Ramones, The Damned, Bad Reli­gion & More

Hear Paul McCartney’s Exper­i­men­tal Christ­mas Mix­tape: A Rare & For­got­ten Record­ing from 1965

Gui­tarist Randy Bach­man Demys­ti­fies the Open­ing Chord of The Bea­t­les’ “A Hard Day’s Night”

The Moth­er of All Funk Chords

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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