What Is It About The Songwriting Of “The Christmas Song?”

A lot of work goes into crafting a phenomenal Christmas song. What is in the songwriting of The Christmas Song that got it so right?

Introduction

One of the most classic Christmas songs of all time, “The Christmas Song,” had a very surprising beginning. It was written in 1945 during a very hot summer by Mel Torme and Bobby Wells. It seems odd, doesn’t it, that a song only heard during the coldest part of the year was written during the hottest. This isn’t the only song associated with cold weather written in hot weather. Sammy Cahn and Jule Style wrote their classic “Let It Snow” on the hottest day of the year

Large Dimension Analysis of Melody and Harmony

If you’re like me, you melt when you hear that opening string section of Nat King Cole’s recorded version of “The Christmas Song.” It keeps your attention, leading you right to the opening lyric. But the tune and harmony itself are just as inviting, warm, and captivating. But why?

The Craft of Songwriting

Songwriting requires a certain skill set. A songwriter must have a grasp of the technical knowledge of the function of music. This includes a comprehensive understanding of music theory and a command of the elements of music: melody, harmony, rhythm, meter, timbre, tempo, form and pitch. This command enables a songwriter to manipulate these elements and create new and interesting combinations. When done well, the result is a well-crafted song, such as “The Christmas Song.” What follows is an examination of its melody and harmony. The combination of the melody’s motion and the harmony’s rich color make this yuletide classic a role model of exquisite songwriting.

The Melody

One sign of an interesting melody is that it has motion. While melodies made up of just a few notes can be good, it has the potential to be very uninteresting. It also requires more of the harmony. The harmony will need to carry that kind of melody to avoid stagnation. The tune in this Christmas classic is masterful in regards to motion. It’s like riding over gentle waves. Typically, tunes are written in 8 measure phrases. The Torme/Wells classic breaks these 8 measures up into 3 distinct phrases for the A section.

This type of motion is seen throughout the entire tune, although a bit more intense in the B section. Perhaps it’s the constant but gentle up and down motion, like the rocking of a boat on water, that disarms us. The tune makes great use of moving in a stepwise trajectory (as in moving up and down a scale). The opening notes of each phrase depart from that pattern with an octave or a seventh leap upward. As you can see from the diagram above, it’s like jumping in the air and floating back to the ground. It’s an ingenious melody that is effortlessly singable.

The Harmony

With such a great melody, one might expect the harmonic motion to contrast it with a more stagnantly supportive role. Nothing could be further from the truth. “The Christmas Song” is essentially a jazz tune. The harmony in jazz tunes is typically more colorful, which is achieved by stacking more notes on a chord (extended chords).

The addition of these stacked notes gives dimension and fullness to what would be an ordinarily basic and almost forgettable chord progression. Listen to two versions the opening phrase. The first audio clip is the chord progression using basic triads. The second audio clip uses the chord extensions. You’ll notice too that the harmonic rhythm changes on virtually every beat, adding to the momentum of the melody.

There’s not a basic chord anywhere to be found in the Torme/Wells masterpiece. While the song is in a major key signature it makes intelligent use of minor seventh chords, giving it an almost happy melancholy character. One would expect there to be an overall consonant, that is to say, pleasing quality as opposed to a more dissonant one. And we find this to be true. Although, from time to time, there are moments when the melody note clashes with the harmony. But these moments are so quick in passing and resolve so instantly that they are barely noticeable. Even in their brief manifestation they elicit more of a sense of romance than tension.

The harmonic motion itself is very logical most of the time. Largely diatonic in scope, there are occasional moments of chromaticism, a sliding downward motion by half steps. It’s interesting to note that these chromatic moments move in the same downward direction as the melody in those moments, as if they are both approaching the same springing off point for the next phrase.

A common practice in jazz writing is to harmonically follow the circle of 5ths. This tool helps musicians learn their key signatures and the order of flats and sharps. But beyond this practical use there lies another theoretical application. The circle is arranged in such a way as to exemplify the V-I relationship from one key to the next. This is the common way a melody and harmonic progression end. If you travel around the circle of 5ths you eventually end up where you started. For example, if you are in the key of C your goal is to end up on C. We see this pattern in “The Christmas Song,” with slight variations. The harmonic motion accompanying the lyrics, “will find it hard to sleep tonight”, is one example. Typically at the end of phrases is where one finds this pattern. It gives the music an almost domino effect as one chord bumps logically into the next until arriving at the final chord of the tonic or home key of the song. It’s at that moment one realizes the phrase or tune has come to an end and a feeling of satisfaction ensues.

Now couple all of this harmonic color and fluid melody with textual snapshots of holiday scenes captured in the lyrics and we have our Christmas classic. Is it any wonder then that “The Christmas Song” remains as popular today as when it was first heard? This song is superb model of well-crafted songwriting and has helped lead the way for many Christmas songs to be written and become classics. 

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