In so many cases, when we’re wondering “what makes it sound ____?” where ____ is Christmas, or metal, or Irish, or whatever, the answer lies not so much in the harmonies, but the timbres. Timbre is probably the most immediate aspect of our musical experience. Why shortchange it in our analyses?
Every year, music theory enthusiasts begin to ask the same question: “what makes it sound like Christmas?”
Vox.com has incurred the wrath of Twitter’s musicologists after posting a video focusing on Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” that suggested that iiø7 chords are what make it sound Christmassy. The video begins by stating the research question, “What makes Mariah Carey’s song sound so incredibly Christmassy? Aside from the sleigh bells, of course.” They then proceed to discuss the harmonic content of the song and how the harmonies signify Christmassy-ness.
Vox’s declaration that iiø7 chords sound Christmassy irritated musicologists for many reasons, perhaps best summarized thusly:
Protip: if your argument comes down to a type of chord having magical powers, you're doing it wrong
In the Vox video and in all those reddit posts, and indeed in much of beginner music theory, there is an obsession with finding explanations in the harmonies, specifically, of a song. This is a reflection of the overall bias in music theory: we focus on teaching harmony most of the time. Curiosity about how harmony elicits emotions is natural in this context. It only becomes problematic when this discussion really leads to the exclusion of other music-analytical domains that are more relevant to the track’s signification—namely, timbre!
I assigned this track for analysis in my pop music seminar, and wanted to share my own thoughts on how this track relates to the concept of fragile tonic and motivic unity.
In my pop music analysis seminar last Wednesday, four of my students presented on harmony and form in four songs that I had chosen. Being a huge Sufjan Stevens fan, I couldn’t help but toss in one of his newest songs along with the more standard Beach Boys and Beatles tracks: “Should Have Known Better,” from the 2015 album Carrie & Lowell.
From the first time I heard “Tik Tok”, I’ve had a special place in my heart for Kesha’s music. I was immediately fascinated with her sung style flow, which I jokingly refer to as Sprechstimme. Her self-awareness and satire makes her trashy style highly appealing.
Two of my karaoke standbys are Kesha’s “Dinosaur”, from her album Animal, and “Sleazy”, from her EP Cannibal. Both are more deep cuts—”Dinosaur” was never released as a single, and “Sleazy” was a B-side to “We R Who We R”—and most often my friends haven’t heard them before, and immediately roll their eyes at my selection because they assume Kesha’s music is just trashy boring pop. As far as I can tell, though, every time I win over some new Kesha fans with these two tracks. They’re catchy, but moreover, they’re funny!
One technique Kesha uses to create humor in her songs is through garden pathing.