As we approach the end of the year, the radio starts to light up with all of the classic festive treats, penned by the likes of Mariah Carey, Paul McCartney, Wham and Slade. If you think you can do any better than these jolly-holly Christmas giants, then read on to find how Christmas pop and Christmas carols work and how you can start making your very own Christmas music!
You can’t get away from it: from October all the way up to the big day in December, we are increasingly bombarded with Christmas music. If it hasn’t simply been based on a traditional carol, when it comes to the structure and content, most Christmas songs are actually normal pop songs. The studio production of Christmas pop doesn’t stray that far from the norm either, but what is absolutely essential for creating that festive vibe is the obligatory sleigh bells. Sleigh bells are simply what make Christmas ‘Christmas’. So strong is the power of these bells that you could probably lay them over the Darth Vader theme and create a new Christmas Number One in the time it takes to over-boil a pot of mulled wine!
Christmas pop is extremely listenable music and, maybe to a lesser extent, is music that you can easily sing along to. So, while a producer working with a good singer can easily write an elaborate melody, things shouldn’t get too complex. You’re trying to write something that, in terms of range, has a few little surprises – so not a sing-a-long-song exactly, but almost. Basically, you’re talking about all of the ingredients of any standard pop music. Also – since the subject matter is generally pretty positive when it comes to Christmas music, you’ll want to work with major chords.
Nine times out of ten Christmas lyrics are about emotions: about people wanting to come together (hopefully) in harmony. That warm and fuzzy feeling is what we’re after, so a ‘comfy’ feel in the melody can really help the lyrics along. For this kind of warm and cosy vibe, it’s best to look to one of the masters: John Williams (who wrote the score for Home Alone and Harry Potter, to name but a few), who often uses a lead note as his magic ingredient – like the B in the key of C.
Traditional Christmas music is, of course, very different from Christmas pop. Carols feature in Christmas movies, are often played by a grand orchestra or choir and, while most carols were written at the beginning of the 19th Century, there are plenty of carols written during the 20th Century that have since become part of the canon. Taking a good look at the differences between Christmas pop music and Christmas carols can give you a good guide to writing your own more traditional carols.
The Classic Carol Approach
While Christmas pop is generally made to be as listenable as possible, carols are written to be performed – whether you’re in church, on the street or in your living room. Imagine a classic brass ensemble with a trumpet, a horn, a couple of trombones and a tuba playing lilting carols while you do a bit of Christmas shopping. In Christmas pop, the focus lies on the vocals – usually a single voice – the focus of a carol is usually on the sound of the ensemble, like a brass ensemble. From a musician’s point of view, it can be a bit boring for an experienced tuba player to plod along to the simple bass notes in most pop music. If you’re playing as part of an ensemble on the street, then every instrument needs to be playing something interesting so you can bring in the crowd, making everyone stop and listen.
Traditional carols, therefore, go hand in hand with more complex counterpoints: melody lines that are written against each other to create a harmony. For example, with just three or four lines, you need to create both melody and harmony. This will ensure that your carol will work when played by a street ensemble, standing on a Dickensian street in London, dusted with snow and surrounded by candles while being shamelessly trolled by Ebenezer Scrooge.
Keep the Melody Simple
In terms of melody, it’s actually worth keeping things even more simple than you would when writing pop. Pop songs are sung by experienced vocalists but, most of the time, Christmas carols are sung by people who maybe only sing once a year – so it needs to be really easy. Here, you can use simple intervals, like fifths, thirds and seconds, which are relatively easy for non-singers to pick up. A great example of this kind of simplicity is the melody of ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’.
What Kind of Instruments Play Carols?
If you’re writing a Christmas pop hit, then the instrumentation can be whatever you want it to be (just as long as there are sleigh bells all over it). But when it comes to writing carols, it’s important to give things some more thought. Christmas is associated with a feeling of security; of comfort; of home and community. You could directly link this feeling to the musical instruments that people often have lying around the house, like a recorder or an acoustic guitar, maybe a piano. Also, if you do venture out on the street to do a bit of Christmas shopping, a brass band is a common sight – and for good reason. Woodwind instruments aren’t nearly as loud as brass instruments, and if you’re playing on a busy high street, you’re going to need some volume to pull in a crowd. Violins and cellos aren’t quite so practical since, unless you have maybe ten of them playing at once, they’re going to be pretty quiet as well. Also, lugging a cello and double bass around the city or town centre can be a pain for everyone. In short: if you want that authentic Christmassy feel, you’ll need brass instruments – maybe brass instruments backed up by a recorder and an acoustic guitar.
Where Can I Get Some Sleigh Bells?
From a production standpoint, the sleigh bells can demand a little technical thought. The sleigh bell samples included with a lot of keyboards and sound modules often sound like an afterthought, but good sample libraries (which you can use in DAW software) usually include a couple of samples but, if we’re being honest, that’s still not always enough. To get that definitive Christmas feel, it’s essential that your sleigh bell sound is the best it can be. The best, and probably the most fun solution is to just make your own sleigh bell sample library. If you have a set up you can record with (even if it’s just a USB microphone) you can record one or a loop of maybe thirty sleigh bell shakes and no one will even notice that they’re samples! Just note: there are bigger sleigh bells and smaller sleigh bells. The smaller bells won’t give you the sleigh bell sound you hear in your favourite Christmas films, but can add a really colourful extra layer of trebles to the recording of larger sleigh bells. The difference in the sound lies in the number of bells.
You’ve definitely heard this one before! This is an extended performance of Carol of the Bells with a really surprising arrangement by Barlow Bradford. Listen closely to the timbre, the details, the tinkling and bell strikes. That right there is the highway to Christmas!
We’ve already mentioned Mr. John Williams and his definitive Christmas score on Home Alone. You could definitely consider ‘Star of Bethlehem’ (below) a modern yet utterly traditional Christmas carol.
To finish, let us know in the comments which Christmas ditty you’ve heard so many times you can’t bear to hear it any more! Ho ho ho!”