Christmas music: What makes a holiday song? Not just sleigh bells, right?By Matt Miller | December 4th, 2014 | No Comments »
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.
âI was like, âIâve been waiting my whole life for this moment,ââ 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 â60s, Hoerig knew exactly what she wanted.
But, what was it that she wanted? What exactly makes a holiday song?
âWhen I was approaching the whole Christmas genre, I realized that itâs an art form trying to say the same thing in a different way,â Hoerig said. âI was trying to write something that feels fresh, but also feels familiar.â
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 thatâs how we have been trained.
âWhat evokes holiday music in our minds is determined not just by how it sounds, but our own personal history with how it sounds,â 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 â who may not attend a church or listen to religious music often â 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.
âI think for a lot of people when they hear a choir and orchestra together theyâre not going to think of Mozart. Most of the times when those genres invade popular music itâs during the holiday season,â Shaffer said. âThatâs the only association that many Americans have with that style of music nowadays.â
The same goes for mid-1900s music and jazz. We associate Bing Crosby with the holidays based on his popular recording of âWhite Christmasâ or Duke Ellington because of his many famous seasonal compositions.
âThat holiday schema is going to be activated in the brain when they hear something like that,â 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.
âOur brains are trained to associate music with all the other factors associated with the holidays, too,â Shaffer said. âIf we were to hear that style in July it wouldnât have the same association.â
Itâs the same reason why we associate songs like âThe Star Spangled Bannerâ and âAmerica the Beautifulâ 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 âWhite Christmas,â âJingle Bellsâ and âSanta Claus is Coming to Townâ so special?
âItâs a complicated question, because it opens the larger question: What makes any song memorable?â 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 youâll hear over-and-over on the radio: Theyâre 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.
âNothing is more successful than success,â Riis said. â âJoy to the Worldâ was written over 200 years old now. But hey, itâs been working ever since.â
Thatâs why during a given holiday season you could hear âJoy to the Worldâ sung by Faith Hill, Mariah Carey, the Supremes, Andy Williams, Charlotte Church or Whitney Houston â maybe even within the span of a day. And whatâs more, most people wonât get sick of it, either.
âItâs like any sort of repetitive activity,â Riis said. âThereâs something comforting about doing something over and over again.
âWeâre talking about an emotional connection to stories. What those stories are doing are creating worlds that we can live in. Itâs a very powerful force and its a preservative force. You never quite get back to that perfect Christmas you had when you were 10.â
And thatâs how a song gets stuck into our collective holiday playlists: itâs 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 âJingle Bells,â Riis said.
So, back to Hoerig and her bandâs first Christmas song, âFirst Song About Santa.â
It doesnât have sleigh bells, there is no choir and itâs rooted in a â60s 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 thatâs when listeners first heard it?
Or maybe itâs because when Hoerig was writing, she was inspired by âA Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spectorâ with music performed by Darlene Love, the Ronettes, Bob. B Soxx and the Blue Jeans, and the Crystals.
âYou almost never hear a Christmas song that doesnât makes you feel a certain way,â Hoerig said. âYouâre aiming for familiarity without redundancy.â