Christmas music: What makes a holiday song? Not just sleigh bells, right? - Reverb

Christmas music: What makes a holiday song? Not just sleigh bells, right?

When you hear Christmas music you know right away what it is. But why? What makes a holiday song? Is it the structure? The lyrics? The instrumentation? Or maybe how we’ve been trained.

When you hear Christmas music you know right away what it is. But why? What makes a holiday song? Is it the structure? The lyrics? The instrumentation? Or maybe how we’ve been trained.

Eryn Hoerig, frontwoman of the vintage Denver pop band the Jekylls has always loved holiday music. And last year, after being invited to contribute to The Dom and Jane annual Christmas show on Mix 100.3, she finally got her chance to write a holiday song.

“I was like, ‘I’ve been waiting my whole life for this moment,’” she said.

So, she sat down and wrote a seasonal song in less than an hour. It came easily to her, she said. Being inspired by a lifetime of nostalgic love for Christmas music and specifically the sounds of the ’60s, Hoerig knew exactly what she wanted.

But, what was it that she wanted? What exactly makes a holiday song?

“When I was approaching the whole Christmas genre, I realized that it’s an art form trying to say the same thing in a different way,” Hoerig said. “I was trying to write something that feels fresh, but also feels familiar.”

Beginning every year by late October, radio stations, malls, waiting rooms, and our own iPods are ringing with sleigh bells, choirs, elements of jazz and classical music and references to snow and giving. These are the sounds of the holiday season in American culture. And the reason many of these elements of music are associated with the holidays is because that’s how we have been trained.

“What evokes holiday music in our minds is determined not just by how it sounds, but our own personal history with how it sounds,” said University of Colorado-Boulder music theory instructor Kris Shaffer.

Think of it this way: The elements of holiday music are often heard in religious works: bells, choirs and strong solo voices. For pop music listeners — who may not attend a church or listen to religious music often — these sounds only sneak into their regular listening rotation this time of year. So they come to be associated with the holidays.

But, holiday music spans a range of genres, and Shaffer said that association can be explained for jazz and classical-leaning seasonal songs.

“I think for a lot of people when they hear a choir and orchestra together they’re not going to think of Mozart. Most of the times when those genres invade popular music it’s during the holiday season,” Shaffer said. “That’s the only association that many Americans have with that style of music nowadays.”

The same goes for mid-1900s music and jazz. We associate Bing Crosby with the holidays based on his popular recording of “White Christmas” or Duke Ellington because of his many famous seasonal compositions.

“That holiday schema is going to be activated in the brain when they hear something like that,” Shaffer said.

There are outside factors at play, too. Since the months of November and December bring shopping, lights, parades, presents, family, parties and much more, these memories and experiences add to our relationship with seasonal music.

“Our brains are trained to associate music with all the other factors associated with the holidays, too,” Shaffer said. “If we were to hear that style in July it wouldn’t have the same association.”

It’s the same reason why we associate songs like “The Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful” with patriotism.

If someone from another culture heard what we consider a holiday song or a patriotic song, it could have completely different meaning.

While that might give an idea of why we think of certain tunes as holiday songs, what makes us return to specific tracks each year? What makes “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” so special?

“It’s a complicated question, because it opens the larger question: What makes any song memorable?” said Tom Riis, director of the American Music Research Center at University of Colorado-Boulder. The key to these famous holiday songs follow the same formula as any pop song you’ll hear over-and-over on the radio: They’re wildly accessible to a large audience thematically, melodically and structurally. This accessibility is also part of the reason you see so many artists from different genres covering these songs every year.

“Nothing is more successful than success,” Riis said. “ ‘Joy to the World’ was written over 200 years old now. But hey, it’s been working ever since.”

That’s why during a given holiday season you could hear “Joy to the World” sung by Faith Hill, Mariah Carey, the Supremes, Andy Williams, Charlotte Church or Whitney Houston — maybe even within the span of a day. And what’s more, most people won’t get sick of it, either.

“It’s like any sort of repetitive activity,” Riis said. “There’s something comforting about doing something over and over again.

“We’re talking about an emotional connection to stories. What those stories are doing are creating worlds that we can live in. It’s a very powerful force and its a preservative force. You never quite get back to that perfect Christmas you had when you were 10.”

And that’s how a song gets stuck into our collective holiday playlists: it’s simple, easy, successful and it becomes a tradition that connects us to a familiar past. Songs being written today or a decade ago might take time to fall into this repetitive rotation and be the next “Jingle Bells,” Riis said.

So, back to Hoerig and her band’s first Christmas song, “First Song About Santa.”

It doesn’t have sleigh bells, there is no choir and it’s rooted in a ’60s surf-rock sound. But, somehow it still feels like a Christmas song. Could it be the obviously holiday-themed lyrics? Or could it be that the band saves the song to play in December and that’s when listeners first heard it?

Or maybe it’s because when Hoerig was writing, she was inspired by “A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector” with music performed by Darlene Love, the Ronettes, Bob. B Soxx and the Blue Jeans, and the Crystals.

“You almost never hear a Christmas song that doesn’t makes you feel a certain way,” Hoerig said. “You’re aiming for familiarity without redundancy.”

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