What Makes It Sound Like Christmas?

Every year, music theory enthusiasts begin to ask the same question: “what makes it sound like Christmas?”

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As you can see, this discussion recurs every year in /r/musictheory.

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:

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!

“What makes Mariah Carey’s song sound so incredibly Christmassy? Aside from the sleigh bells, of course.” This last line in the Vox video is done as a throwaway joke—”haha, gotta have sleigh bells in Christmas songs, obviously!” Well, yes! You do! That is actually what makes it sound Christmassy. I would argue the only thing contributing more to its Christmas sound is the lyrical content and all its allusions to Christmas imagery (stockings, Christmas trees, fireplace, snow). Why focus so much on harmony—which is not different in Christmas music than in comparable pop styles—when we could focus on what really distinguishes this music from other genres?

Do We Know It’s Christmas?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WesKXdaWBq0

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is a charity single by the supergroup Band Aid that was released in December of 1984. It was meant to raise funds for the famine in Ethiopia. This song is also among the worst Christmas songs of all time, not only due to the musical content but for spreading some harmful reductionist representations of Ethiopia. But it’s a Christmas song nonetheless. So what makes it sound so Christmassy?

Harmony-wise, this track is completely unremarkable. The chords of the verse are F–G–C (IV–V–I in C major), in the prechorus, you have Dm–G–C–F (ii–V–I–IV), and in the chorus we’re back to F–G–C (IV–V–I).

I’d contend that, like a lot of Christmas songs (including Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”), these harmonies don’t sound particularly Christmassy. Instead, Christmas themes are communicated through the lyrics—that is, by repeating the words “Christmas” and “Christmastime” over and over—and also through the heavy use of synthesized tubular bells. 

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” features that grand old synthesizer, the Yamaha DX7. I reached out to Midge Ure, one of the song’s writers of Ultravox fame, on Twitter and he confirmed that the DX7 preset called TUB BELLS is the source of this infamous bells sound.

TUB BELLS analysis

Here is the TUB BELLS sound isolated, playing an octave C3–C4, the same sound that you hear at the very beginning of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”.

Today I don’t have time to get into all the details of this timbre, but if you’ve never heard what’s so special about bell timbres before, well, now you can. In general, bell timbres are special because the overtones that resonate when you strike a metal bar are totally different than the regular harmonic series that you get from a vibrating string or column of air. Bell timbres do not follow the harmonic series—they are inharmonic instruments.

Here’s another spectrogram image, this time for just a single note, C3. (For info on how to read a spectrogram, click here.)

tub bells 2.png

Since most of you probably don’t immediately know how to translate Hertz into pitch names, I’ve made a transcription in traditional notation of what these partials are.

bells-series_0001

If you’re familiar with the harmonic series, you can see that that series of notes is quite different. If you’re not familiar with the harmonic series, well, here it is:

regular-series_0001

The harmonic series has intervals that progressively narrow in a predictable fashion. Each frequency is a multiple of the lowest (fundamental) frequency. But in the harmonic series for TUB BELLS, well, it’s not quite so predictable. Not every partial is a multiple of the fundamental, and the intervals are not progressively narrowing.

But what does it mean?

The Yamaha DX7 was released in 1983, and so the technology was still shiny and new by December of 1984. The synthesizing capabilities of the DX7 were especially renowned for being able to faithfully replicate percussive sounds such as tubular bells, glockenspiel, and the like, much better than other contemporary synthesizers.

So the TUB BELLS sound in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is actually carrying a lot of semiotic weight! DX7’s TUB BELLS immediately inform the listener that 1) this is a Christmas song and 2) this is an ’80s Christmas song.

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?

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Beat of a Different Drummer?

(Is this title too dorky? Be honest.)

(…Actually, don’t tell me.)

In my dissertation research I’m turning toward drum machines. It’s a natural extension of my ’80s sound inquiries: if the Yamaha DX7 was so important to the ’80s sound, drum machines like the LinnDrum and the Roland TR-808 were at least equally important.

Analyzing the timbre of drum machines using my existing apparatus has revealed how biased toward pitched phenomena theories of timbre really are. For example, so many theories of timbre are completely preoccupied with overtones/partials and their relative loudness. (For more info on spectrogram analysis, check out the first half of this blog post.)

harmonica
This spectrogram is of a harmonica synth playing a melody. Time is on the x-axis in seconds. Pitch is on the y-axis in Hertz (higher Hz = higher pitch). The bottom line of this spectrogram, at around 500 Hz, is the fundamental pitch. Colloquially we just call this “the pitch.” The parallel lines running above the fundamental are the partials of this sound. You don’t hear them as separate notes, but instead you hear a change in timbre.

But for many percussion instruments, drums and cymbals and such, you won’t see any partials like that at all. Even drums that are pitched don’t really have partials running in multiple parallel lines above it.

all sounds mono.png
These are samples from a Roland TR-808: bass drum, low tom, mid tom, high tom, snare, closed hi-hat, open hi-hat, clave, and handclaps. Notice how these are all just thick bars of sound, not at all like the parallel strands in the above example.

So it does us no good at all to talk about partials, how those partials compare to the ideal natural harmonic series, whether there’s vibrato, etc. Yet, that’s the majority of the focus of spectrogram analyses.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to start finessing how we can talk about timbre in non-pitched percussion instruments. For now, back to the grind…

’80s-inspired music

Last Wednesday I was a featured contributor to the podcast Pop Unmuted on an episode about ’80s music—listen here.

We are currently living in a kind of ’80s revival. Google “How do I make my song sound 80s?” and you can see hundreds of posts on online forums from amateur producers looking for an ’80s sound.

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The funny thing about this is that of course the ’80s was an entire decade of music, and there were tons of different genres and styles that were going on at this time. Obviously it would be difficult to name even a single characteristic that was represented in every ’80s style. And yet there’s something that persists in the collective memory of people today that can be called an ’80s sound.

How do we make something sound ’80s? When today’s millennials—who were only infants or children in the ’80s—recreate an ’80s sound, how does it compare to an authentically ’80s sound? What elements of the ’70s or the ’90s get misremembered as an ’80s phenomenon?  All these questions are discussed in the episode. Here’s a bit of my conversation with Scott Interrante and Kurt Trowbridge:

Megan: I think that a lot of the people who use, you know, “’80s-ness” in this way are younger people, like a lot of young producers maybe want to make music that “sounds ’80s”. And so they’re kind of creating this memory of the ’80s that they’re then putting into this music. And maybe they’re not so super familiar with what makes something sound ’80s authentically.

Scott: Right. Well, I think it’s also not always coming from the artist. You know, like, I don’t know that M-83 set out and said “We’re gonna make music that sounds like ’80s synth-pop,” or if they made music and then it was labelled as such. At this point, you know, I just mentioned, M-83 who really broke out in 2007? 08? So now we’re almost ten years past that—at what point do we just realize, “well this is what music sounds like now”? But we sort of continually put that ’80s label onto it, maybe against the artists’ wishes, maybe not in every case, but I do wonder where that label comes from.

We also discuss ’80s-style covers like Tronicbox’s remix of Ariana Grande’s “Focus”: what is authentically ’80s about this, and what’s not authentically ’80s?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwdacYfEvdU

Learn more about how we relate to the ’80s today by listening to the episode on Pop Unmuted.

I’ve been on the Pop Unmuted podcast a few other times, too—check out this episode on Max Martin, one of the songwriters behind the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and Britney Spears, or this episode dedicated to #FreeKesha, which I also wrote about a bit in another blog post.

header image credit: Igor Fuentes

Are We Not New Wave?

Today I finished reading Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s by Theo Cateforis.

I began the book to solidify my knowledge of earlier 1980s pop. My dissertation focuses on the DX7 which wasn’t released until late 1983. The genre of new wave, by comparison, grew out of punk and thus really begins around 1976 or so. Although new wave gets conflated with ’80s pop more generally, it’s really a “turn of the 1980s” phenomenon, as the title explains.


I’m investigating how the ’80s sound was understood in the ’80s as well as today. Cateforis also engaged with modern perception and nostalgia for the 1980s in his epilogue, where he quotes music critic Simon Reynolds’s 2002 piece for the NY Times. Reynolds declares that we are (were? 2002 was fourteen years ago!) officially in a period of 1980s revival in music, specifically with regards to a fascination with vintage synthesizers and an accompanying sense of retro-futurism. While vintage synths have fallen to the wayside somewhat in today’s pop, synthesizers generally are a permanent fixture. This opens up greater acceptance and maybe a better identification with the sounds of the ’80s.

Augmenting these musical connections to the past are ideological connections. As Cateforis situates new wave music within ’80s culture more broadly, the significance of irony as a central feature of new wave music recurs throughout the book: new wave artists tended to ironically appropriate or parody other preexisting icons and styles–a description that resonates with generalizations of today’s millennials, particularly a more hipster millennial. (That article, interestingly, seems to think the ’80s were very unironic–maybe this betrays the author’s more ’90s aesthetic.)

Surprisingly the irony of ’80s music such as the B-52s, of “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack” fame, is lost on some people of my generation. I watched an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race this season, “New Wave Queens,” where everyone dressed up in ’80s costumes and wrote songs in various new wave styles. The group doing a B-52s style were accused of overacting and being too earnest, doing a more Broadway show kind of vibe than a new wave vibe. Bob the Drag Queen complained, “that’s what they do! That’s how I thought of them,” or something to that effect. Bob totally misses the ironic aspect of the B-52s performance. While they are definitely dressing up in costumes and singing in an affected tone, it’s all with the subtext of irony. As Cateforis keenly observes in chapter 4, new wave often took the materialistic culture of the 1980s and turned it on its head by transforming cultural trash into fashion and art. (I’m not sure how pervasive or conscious this was in the ’80s, nor how it compares to today’s ironic hipster millennials.) I was screaming this at the TV during Bob’s comments (the judges didn’t correct her either!) so it was nice to read this somewhere else.

I also see resonances in the way that whiteness fits into new wave when comparing it to hipsters/millennials. Cateforis argues in chapter 3, focusing on the Talking Heads, that new wave allowed for a new kind of whiteness, or specifically an alternative white masculinity, in pop music, where the pop star could be nervous, geeky, smart, neuro-diverse, and quirky. This reflected the masculinity of many white in America as they broke away from a homogenized suburban commercialized culture. Many of these same features identify the millennial, always seeking out their weird coffees and honeys and going to therapy and whatnot.

I characterize millennials with my tongue in my cheek—that is, um, ironically. I self-identify as a millennial, and, at times, a hipster. (At other times, just a regular snob.) I see myself, in other words, in the target demographic of new wave music of the 1980s. Sometimes people assume I’m studying the ’80s because my advisor (a Gen Xer himself) told me to. Well, he did point me in this direction. But I’ve always had a soft spot for the ’80s, and I usually attribute it to my being a keyboard player, and keyboards featuring so prominently in ’80s music. But after reading Cateforis’s account of ’80s new wave culture, I realize now that there are deeper cultural affinities that help me identify with this culture I’ve never really lived through (another millennial-hipsterism!)… which brings me back to the question, “Are We Not New Wave?”

Keyboard Magazine in 1986

It’s funny what we identify with, and how we situate ourselves, when we research an era of the past. As part of my research for my dissertation, I spend a ton of time in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, looking at old magazines and seeing what performers, fans, and critics had to say about the Yamaha DX7. Right now I’ve focused on Keyboard magazine, targeted of course at keyboardists. In the process I also get a feel for what the culture surrounding keyboards in the 1980s was like.

In the April 1986 issue, many names are given on pages 6–7. The editors are Dominic, Tim, Bob, Ted, and David. Regular contributors are Richie, David, Bill, Jim, Tom, Steve, another Steve, Larry, Terry, another Bill, Allan, a third Steve, Bob, Don, Bobby, Dave, and Ruth (!). Writing letters are James, Nick, Clay, Gary, Ken, Jim, Woody, Jack, Glen, and Scotty. They’re writing about Nick, Alain, Jeffrey, Steve, David, and Joseph. Next month promises articles on Ivo, Wally, David, and Ralph. So then, we have forty-one men mentioned for every one woman on these two pages at the beginning of the April 1986 issue. It’s clear that Keyboard is not really a place for women. This is something I can’t help but notice as I, a woman, pore over every single page of every issue, thirty years later. Gender is not currently a focus of my research into timbre and culture in 1980s synth-pop music, but maybe in the future I might wonder what exactly this is about.

Also in this April ’86 issue, I was struck by the number of letters to the editor complaining about the featuring of Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran in the February issue. Here are some choice quotes:

“I have one question about putting Nick Rhodes on the cover: Why? Are you trying to raise sales by appealing to pre-pubescent girls? You are alienating your true audience.” –James C. Gladue, Ithaca, NY

“Who are you and Nick Rhodes trying to kid? … ludicrous and pretentious. I wonder if this fellow … can in fact read a C major scale, let alone play one.” –Nick Peck, Mill Valley, CA

More in June ’86:

“Nick Rhodes’s playing technique leaves much to be desired. … I doubt he could play scales on the piano. … Grow up, Nick!” –Steve Webb, Decatur, GA

“How I miss the good old pre-DX7 days. I am so sick of reading about these Fairlight freaks and one-finger virtuosos. As a performer, Nick Rhodes is a joke. Why don’t you interview a real keyboard player, like Rick Wakeman?” –Steve Cross, Bronx, NY

Advancements to synthesizer technology in the ’80s, especially sequencers and arpeggiators, made it easier and easier for less technically proficient musicians to make music together. Nick Rhodes likely is one such musician. Nevertheless Duran Duran’s music was immensely popular, meaning that Nick Rhodes was probably one of the best-known synth players at the time! But Keyboard is marketed toward keyboard players, and many of its readers are surely very technically accomplished musicians.

I don’t blame people for writing in. The ’80s were a time of extremely rapid change in the world of synthesizers and technology more generally. Change makes people uncomfortable and displeased, and letters to the editor are one venue in which to voice that displeasure. I just think the comments are very telling. They call out Nick Rhodes for a lack of technical knowledge—scales are mentioned twice as an exemplar of this. “Truth” is also appealed to twice—the first quote says that Keyboard is alienating its true audience, and the last quote holds up Rick Wakeman, a prog-ish session musician, as a true keyboard player. (And don’t miss the DX7-blaming in the last quote either! That quote going right in the dissertation, for sure.) There’s a lot to unpack, in terms of assumptions of “true” quality, imbued into these comments, but I’ll leave that to the readers.

To make things even more interesting, here are two letters that Keyboard publishes in defense of Nick Rhodes:

“Thank you for your superb cover story on Nick Rhodes. He is a great influence on teenage keyboardists, including me. …” -Clay Janes, Ft. Smith, AK

“… Nick Rhodes isn’t some amateur keyboardist who appeals only to ‘pre-pubescent girls’ on the basis of looks. … I am a 16-year-old girl, but I’ve been playing the piano for 12 years and synthesizers for the past few as well, so I think I know what I’m talking about.” –Diana Perry, Danvers, MA

These are the only two letters that they publish defending Rhodes, and yes, both of them are self-identifying as teenagers! My gut reaction is to question whether these letters are even authentic—I was on the internet as a teen, participating in some semi-anonymous forums similar to these letters to the editor, and I was very reluctant to identify myself as a teenager if it wasn’t necessary. But even if the letters are real, Keyboard still shows its bias through their selection of these letters. What I mean is that it’s hard to imagine that the only people writing in to support the Nick Rhodes story were people explicitly mentioning that they are teenagers.

To take a cynical view, it could be that Keyboard was attempting to distance itself from its own publication of the Nick Rhodes interview and downplay Rhodes’s status. But on the other hand, maybe Keyboard actually agrees the first letter writer—perhaps they are indeed trying to appeal to a new demographic! Maybe these letters from people self-identifying as teens are meant to evoke some compassion for the teenage viewpoint. It’s impossible to say but I’d prefer to think that my latter interpretation is true. After all, they’re the ones who published the cover story in the first place. But maybe my wishful thinking is borne of something more personal—I was even younger than a teenager in 1986 (i.e., definitely “pre-pubescent”!), and I’m now studying the dreadful (according to Steve Cross of the Bronx) Yamaha DX7, and studying Duran Duran (among others), so maybe I just identify with these teenagers that are getting implicitly made fun of by the presumably grown men writing the other letters.

header image credit: Phil Guest