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What makes Christmas music so…Christmassy?

The chords and atmosphere of a cozy holiday night

Starting the day after Thanksgiving (and for some, as early as the day after Halloween), Christmas music explodes on seemingly every grocery store radio, every TV commercial soundtrack, and every station on your car radio.

Christmas music is a huge part of the holiday spirit, and it makes you feel like curling up by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate on a cold night.

So why does Christmas music have this effect?

Before we dive in, make sure to check out our 12 Days of Deals—with deals on some of our most popular PDF packages. Give the gift of jazz to someone you know or treat yourself with lessons and exercises to have you playing better in no time.

The nostalgia effect

One of the main associations for the sound of Christmas is a certain period in time, from the 1940s to the 1960s—where pop music was strongly influenced by another type of popular music, jazz.

Many pop songs closely followed jazz standard conventions, with several jazz standards reaching pop status in the early/mid-20th century.

A great example is “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin, performed by Bing Crosby. The song was released in 1942, as part of the musical film Holiday Inn (which also included Berlin’s “Happy Holiday,” another Christmas radio classic).

"Merry Christmas" from Bing Crosby
"Merry Christmas" from Bing Crosby

These songs evoke the classic mid-century Christmas vibe—just like you’d expect from A Christmas Story.

Similarly, the ‘60s album A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector solidified many of the canon Christmas favorites from artists like The Ronettes, Darlene Love, and The Crystals, with songs like “Sleigh Ride,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector
"A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector"

It’s also worth noting that elements of arrangement and the character of the day’s recording technology helped shape the sound of the special, uniquely American Christmas. There are often string and/or brass arrangements, sometimes with a dated audio quality that gives the same nostalgia as a crackling vinyl record.

Artists like Michael Bublé have had great success leaning into this style with a smooth crooner performance that hearkens back to these older favorites.

Maria’s Christmas hit

For decades, this American Christmas canon was somewhat fixed, without many notable additions. Some songs like Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” made it in, but never reached the universality of classics like “White Christmas” and other songs played in every store in the month of December.

That is, until 1994, when a certain song from Maria Carey broke in, making its own mark.

Since its release, “All I Want For Christmas is You” has remained a very popular Christmas favorite, with many considering it worthy of induction into the Christmas songbook—as in this video from Vox.

Writer Adam Ragusea raves: “In plain English, it’s a chord sequence that sounds ‘cozy.’ Carey’s song includes lots of other major-to-minor or diminished sequences that make a guy feel like he’s snuggled by the fire, just back from the war, with a mulled cider in one hand and his other arm around Rosie the Riveter, ready to start a baby boom on Christmas Eve 1945.”

But what is it about this song that makes it a modern classic?

The chord

It’s true—”All I Want for Christmas is You” has plenty of classic Christmas elements. The song starts with dramatic and sustained chords, punctuated by the clang of bells. As the song preps its verse, you can hear jingle bells pushing into the coming excitement.

The song has a few triplet figures in the rhythm that also recall older Christmas hits (like “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” from the aforementioned Phil Spector album).

But there’s something else at work to give Maria’s hit its holiday flavor that many jazz musicians can appreciate—the harmony.

The chord progression for “All I Want For Christmas is You” is much more colorful than you’d expect from a modern-ish pop song.

Most pop songs rely on three- and four-chord loops of major and minor chords, generally shying away from diminished chords, augmented chords, inversions, and chords with extensions like 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, and the like.

Here’s the chord progression from the intro:

G / G/B / C / Cm6/Eb / G/D / B7b9(b13) / Em / Cm6/Eb / G/D / E7b9 / Am7 / Cm/D / G …

The song starts on its tonic chord, G major. The second chord inverts the tonic, introducing a feeling of movement toward the next chord. The third chord, C, feels like an arrival from the G/B. But then, it introduces arguably the most important chord of the progression.

This next chord is a minor subdominant chord (AKA the minor iv chord). This minor iv is made even stronger by the addition of the 6th. The minor 6th chord (not to be confused with the minor b6 chord) is a minor chord with an added major 6th interval. Interestingly, the minor 6 chord can also be reinterpreted as the m7b5 chord in first inversion.

In this progression, the iv chord (Cm6/Eb) introduces the b6 note (Eb) in the melody, voice leading a nice chromatic movement to the next chord, G/D.

The next chord, the B7b9(b13) is much more colorful than one would expect from a pop song, acting as a secondary dominant into the following Em chord.

From there, the Cm6/Eb to G/D returns, followed by E7b9 (again, a nice touch of spice), resolving to Am7, followed by Cm/D, with a smooth resolution into G, our tonic.

The minor iv chord is definitely a star player in this progression. It adds a level of interest with some slight chromaticism and voice leading.

YouTuber and jazz pianist Charles Cornell posits the minor iv chord is so effective because it mixes happiness and sadness together. It’s a nostalgia chord, in these songs pulling from the same nostalgia we mentioned above. Many of the old show tunes and Christmas songs from the early 20th century (like “Have Yourself and Merry Little Christmas”) mix happiness and sadness together, through a feeling of nostalgia.

Happy Holidays!

As you go play some Christmas music of your own, be sure to check out our 12 Days of Deals! Today’s deal, Scales for Jazz Improvisation, is a great way to get your improvisation skills up to where you want them, whether you’re playing over Christmas tunes or standards.

We’ll see you again soon!

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