Most of the year, we love musical variety. But at Christmas, we come back to the same hits time and time again. Is it just tradition? Or is there something more?by Chris Lochery / December 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
Cast your mind back over the last quarter-century of pop music and you’ll see that it spans quite a range. In those 25 years rave and new jack swing have given way to Eurodance and Britpop, UK garage and tropical house, hip-hop, trip-hop, grime, R’n’B, emo, nu-metal—and that’s without touching on any of the standard studio pop of boy bands, girl bands and balladeers.
Yet, despite all of the changes we’ve seen, the staples of our Christmas party playlists have remained practically identical.
Slade. Wizzard. Wham! Shakin’ Stevens. Mariah Carey. Even when people branch out and have an “unconventional” favourite, you’re still going to be taking your pick from The Pogues, The Waitresses, The Pretenders, Jona Lewie or Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
From January to November, we can’t get enough variety in our musical diet. But for one month of the year we seem content to limit ourselves to an oddly small selection box of festive hits.
Why are the same Christmas songs so irresistible to us, year after year? What qualities do they possess that warrant repeated plays? And how have they managed to capture the spirit of the season so successfully?
To see if there was anything that could possibly explain it, I cracked apart fifty festive songs—from carols, to jazz standards, to classic pop tracks—to see what was there.
It probably won’t come as any great shock to learn that most Christmas songs are written in a major key. Major keys are renowned for sounding jubilant, happy and celebratory, which very much squares with the prevailing sentiment of the season. However, what might surprise you is the full extent of it.
Obviously, all the big hits are unabashedly happy: “Merry Xmas Everybody,” “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” Wonderful Christmastime” are all in major keys.
What’s curious though is that even the self-consciously maudlin Christmas songs—the ones about heartbreak, war or famine like “Blue Christmas,” “Lonely This Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Stop The Cavalry,” “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”—are all major too.
In fact, unless we’re going to count Chris De Burgh’s “A Spaceman Came Travelling” or Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s” Power Of Love” (which has an extremely tenuous claim to being a ‘proper’ Christmas song, quite frankly) you really have to go back a hundred years to find a standout minor key Christmas composition: “Carol Of The Bells.”
Studies have shown that our general taste in music has become sadder, slower and generally more miserable than it was 50 years ago. 2017 in particular was one of the bleakest years in pop music history, with more minor key number ones and songs in downbeat tempos than normal.
With all that doom and gloom in our ears all year, it makes sense that we’d gravitate towards major key music during the season of goodwill. And if the music we’re making these days is less upbeat, it’s no wonder that we’re continually drawn back to the songs of yesteryear.
Let The Bells Ring
From the tubular chimes of Band Aid, to the sleigh bells of Winter Wonderland, to the jingling of Jingle Bell Rock, we have conclusively proved that we are total suckers when it comes to bell-based percussion.
You can barely move in the Christmas discography without bumping into a clanger of some sort. Bells are absolutely everywhere, refusing to let a quaver go by unmarked. For the most part they’re supposed to be evocative of Santa’s sleigh (with the occasional bit of church campanology) and their hypnotising effect on us is so profound that the simple addition of bells into a regular pop song can trick us into mistaking it for a full-blown festive classic.
For example, there was a conscious decision taken by the record label to add bells into the mix of East 17’s “Stay Another Day”—a song that’s actually about the heartbreak of suicide—to make it fare better in the competitive Christmas charts.
It worked a treat. The song has very little in the way of seasonal flair otherwise yet it managed to beat Mariah Carey’s undisputed classic “All I Want For Christmas Is You” to number one, and became one of the final songs to make it into the official Christmas canon (since we apparently stopped taking applications in 1994).
The Most Wonderful Time
Most pop music we know and love is written in a basic 4/4 count. Naturally then, it follows that the vast majority of Christmas songs are written in 4/4 too—but there’s an interesting exception.
A handful of our well-loved Christmas classics are written in 12/8. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “Lonely This Christmas,” “Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)” and everyone’s problematic fave “Fairytale Of New York” all work to that relatively rare time signature.
Not only that, but there are a couple of non-festive songs that were Christmas No.1s which are also in 12/8 too. “Too Much” by The Spice Girls. Alexandra Burke’s cover of “Hallelujah.” Last year’s Christmas No.1, “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran. All 12/8.
What is it about 12/8 that feels so seasonal? Western pop music might be in 4/4, but a lot of our most cherished Christmas traditions stretch back to 19th century Central Europe, an area famous for its 3/4 waltzes.
12/8 effectively acts as a compromise between these two time signatures, and therefore these two traditions. With four sets of three quavers in each bar of 12/8, you get your regular, radio-friendly 4/4 pop beat as well as the sort of triple-count found in both a classic Viennese waltz and in a lot of carols (“Away In A Manger,” “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings”).
It’s the perfect blend of old and new. A nod to tradition while keeping things modern.
All of this raises an interesting question. If the hallmarks of a successful Christmas song are so obvious, why hasn’t there been one that’s really gripped the public imagination in the past 25 years?
It’s not as if Christmas albums aren’t still big business. Every major artist worth their salt has done a cover of “Santa Baby”, or released a non-specific holiday album in late November—and they continue to do so. Sia, one of the world’s most successful and well-respected songwriters, put out a whole album’s worth of original Christmas material last year, but you can safely bet that Chris Rea is going to see more season-specific airplay than she will.
We’ve never been so granular about the production of music than we are in 2018, so why doesn’t this sort of theoretical nuts-and-bolts approach produce any massive modern hits?
Fundamentally it seems to come down to tradition. In much the same way that we buy Quality Street in December in amounts we’d boggle at in August, we have the things we like in this season and nothing will swear us off them. Every year, people complain about turkey being dry. Every year, people eat it. Every year, people complain that the BBC schedules are dreadful. Every year, people watch it.
While pop music styles change rapidly around us, Christmas is the one point in the calendar where everyone appears to have agreed on a fixed playlist. Jingle-heavy, major key pop with a little swing in its step.
Why would we ever ask for more?