What Makes Christmas Music Sound like Christmas?

December 17, 2012

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing Christmas music here at London’s leading supplier of Corporate Event Entertainment and while it’s been nice to write about the best and worst Christmas songs, we haven’t spent much time on what actually makes a song sound ‘Christmassy’. Do redress this, we’ve enlisted the help of composer, pianist and tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music David Horne who was kind enough to tell us what he thinks makes a song sound festive.


First things first, a huge part of making a good Christmas song or piece of music is effectively  conveying the feel of winter “Many composers have successfully depicted winter scenes in music  [for instance] Vivaldi’s Winter from The Four Seasons, Schubert’s Winter Journey song cycle.” But what makes these pieces sound particularly ‘frosty’ – Instrumentation plays a massive part; “bells and sleigh-bells in particular evoke a yuletide feel, even when unintended; listen to the opening of Mahler’s 4th Symphony for example. Similarly, the glistening sound of the celeste in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet evokes the fantasy of the season in a way that a piano playing the same mysterious chords couldn’t.”

Much Christmas music trades on memories and associations we already have with winter and the Christmas season – the should of peeling bells for instance, bring to mind Church Bells even for those who don’t attend church at Christmas. But these allusions to the listener’s Christmas memories work on a purely musical level too; “quoting a Christmas Carol will add a festive flavour to the music, even in music as experimental as George Crumb’s A little suite for Christmas which features the Coventry Carol strummed eerily on the piano strings in this clip.”


But what about the music itself; are there any particular harmonies or keys that sound festive without relying on our memories of other sounds? “finding purely musical examples might seem harder; a good candidate for me would be the opening of Act II of Puccini’s highly popular La Bohème, which is set on Christmas Eve. The bright trumpet chords move in parallel motion at the outset, a technical musical device that was unusual for the late 19th century and gives a sense of carefree celebration (you can try this yourself playing triads moving up a piano keyboard on the white notes only), an apt depiction of the joys of the season.”

You can find out more about David’s work as a composer on his publisher Boosey & Hawkes’ website, more information on him is available on his page on the RNCM website. David is regularly commissioned and performed by major organisations in the UK and abroad, including Carnegie Hall, London Sinfonietta, the BBC Symphony, BBC Scottish Symphony, BBC Philharmonic, Hallé, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Scottish Chamber Orchestras. David also won the piano section of BBC Young Musician of the Year 1988.

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By Garreth Owen