It’s December and it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. But what makes a Christmas song sound ‘christmassy’? There are many ways to create that festive feeling, from the chords to the instruments.
Half-diminished seventh chords are used in songs like Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas is You and Irving Berlin’s famous White Christmas. A chord is three or more musical notes played at the same time, these are normally a part of the foundation of a song and serve as an accompaniment for the main melody line, which in most popular music is the vocals. An example of a half diminished seventh chord is ‘D minor 7 flat 5’ (Dm7b5), which consists of a D note, an F note, an Ab (A flat) note, and a C note, as pictured below.
These kinds of chords are not very common in most pop music from today, instead they are mainly seen in jazz. Some of the most popular Christmas songs are those like Phil Spector’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), which are older pieces. These songs are from a time when pop music was still heavily influenced by jazz. But since Christmas takes place every year, these songs continued to be played for much longer than other jazz inspired pop songs.
This has led to the association between this jazz inspiration and Christmas music. Some of the few newer Christmas songs that managed to reach the same level of success as the older Christmas songs, are the ones that carry on with this jazz inspiration, such as All I Want for Christmas is You. Adam Ragusea, a journalist who covered this topic for Vox, in their YouTube video ‘The chord that makes Christmas music sound so Christmassy’, says that the half diminished seventh chord creates a “classic early 20th century Christmas jazzy sound”.
The chord’s use in early 20th century jazz is another reason it feels like Christmas, because older music evokes the same feeling of nostalgia that Christmas can. But most importantly, the chord sounds like Christmas because its only lasting mainstream appearance is in Christmas music. However, this is only from a modern perspective. What else was at play that made Christmas music sound like Christmas at a time when other popular music contained this jazz influence?
Sleigh bells are now commonly used in Christmas music. This wasn’t the case when Christmas songs were focused on the nativity story. Nowadays, Christmas songs are more about love, family, and – most importantly – the stories surrounding Santa Claus.
Santa Claus rides in a sleigh, and sleighs are notoriously decorated with sleigh bells. This came to be the case because in 19th-century Europe, sleighs were a mode of transport used during the winter. Sleighs can be so quiet as they move through the snow, that some way was needed to let people know they were approaching. This is where sleigh bells, also known as jingle bells, came in, and their addition to regular sleighs meant they were an obvious addition to Santa’s sleigh.
Now that sleighs are used less often by us, but still by Santa, our main interaction with their bells is during the Christmas period. So, sleigh bells have become associated with Santa and winter, resulting in them being a useful component when trying to make a song sound like Christmas.
That time of the year
Victoria Williamson, who conducts research on the psychology of music at Goldsmiths, a constituent research university of the University of London, believes that listening to Christmas songs too early could ruin them for us on the day itself. This is because, while specific chords and sleigh bells might help, along with some themed lyrics, what makes a song truly sound like Christmas, is that we only listen to it at Christmas time.
Listening to Christmas songs at any time of year other than December could break that festive spell. So maybe it isn’t too wise to wish that it could be Christmas every day. The magic of Christmas, and its music, mostly comes from it only happening at a certain time of year.