Christmas is a time for music of all genres to flourish, be it traditional carols and wassails to ballets, pop songs or soundtracks. Although these types of music are vastly different, to us, the listener, we know they sound like Christmas. As we make the final preparations before family arrives and the joyous chaos begins, we are going to explore this Christmassy sound, and discover how we can recreate it in our own compositions. Guest article by Genevieve fisher.
First, I think it is essential that we acknowledge the role the Victorians have taken when creating the Christmas that we know and celebrate today. It is in this period we find most of the traditional Christmas carols that we still sing to this day. Both sacred and secular carols have similar themes and compositional techniques, giving them a ‘sing-along’ quality, which has carried forward into the music of the twentieth and twenty-first century. These techniques include a major tonality, regular phrase lengths, a moderate tempo, a simple melody in pitch and rhythm with easy intervals and a range of an octave. When writing a melody for Christmas-themed music, this may be a good place to start, as it can be heard in many soundtracks. Looking at the main themes of two of the most famous Christmas films, Home Alone and The Polar Express, the composers have used many of these features to create themes that scream Christmas. Below I have linked both soundtracks with the music below, and listed the features they include – can you hear them?
Somewhere in my Memory from ‘Home Alone’ by John Williams.
The Polar Express theme by Alan Silvestri
Any Christmas song, old and new, isn’t complete without something that dings, pings or jingles. This can be traced back to Pagan traditions when bells would be rung at winter festivals to warn off evil spirits. Throughout time, with the influence of Christianity, bells developed into a method of communication across communities, such as for weddings and special celebrations – one of the most poignant on the calendar being Christmas.
Church bells have come to be heavily featured in music we typically associate with Christmas.
Inevitably, these bells worked their way into the music of the holidays, particularly with Victorian carollers using handbells as they traversed the streets in December. Now synonymous with the Christmas sound, even music not originally written to sound festive has been adopted by the holidays, such as Prokofiev’s Troika, originally written for a soviet film set in summer! The prominence of bells in this piece makes it near impossible to not feel some form of the Christmas spirit when listening to this piece.
Troika from Lieutenant Kije (Prokofiev’s Troika in its original setting of a summer sleigh ride in the Soviet film ‘Lieutenant Kije’)
Troika (Prokofiev’s Troika performed by Berliner Philharmoniker)
One thing we can learn from this is that in order to get in the Christmas spirit when composing, we need to make the percussion section work hard! There is a diverse selection of instruments that can create the effect we need; a celeste (a bell piano, as heard in Tchikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker Suite), triangle, glockenspiel, tubular bells, hand bells, tambourines, and so many more.
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite).
As Christmas creeps ever closer and we get bombarded from every direction by festive films, TV, and music, keep an ear out for the remanets of ancient traditions and Christmases gone by in your favourite soundtracks, pop songs and carols. We hope this article may have helped any of you chasing the Christmas sound, providing a good starting point to turn any melody into a wintery wonderland. Have a fantastic Christmas, and we will see you in the new year.
Sources used to create this article;
This was a guest article written by Genevieve fisher. Thanks for checking out this post. Subscribe for more articles like this and to stay up to date with upcoming orchestra recording sessions.
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