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!

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Volunteering with CUNY Citizenship Now!

While you will be enjoying the holiday season with your family, DACA young people will be living in fear that you will take away their right to work, their right to travel abroad and their right to be safe from deportation.

–Allan Wernick
Open letter to Donald Trump, November 24, 2016

Personal background

After the election, many of my friends have felt a motivation to begin taking actions and working toward social change. After I posted my own election reaction post, one friend of mine recommended a particular organization as a good place to volunteer: CUNY Citizenship Now, which is the City University of New York’s immigrant legal service program. Now more than ever, immigrants need support, even here in New York City, a place truly built on welcoming immigrants.

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Lerdahl’s Timbral Hierarchies

The real reason, I would argue, why timbre has been regarded as a secondary musical dimension is that, unlike pitch and rhythm, it has lacked any substantial hierarchical organization.

–Fred Lerdahl, 1987

Yesterday I read “Timbral Hierarchies” by Fred Lerdahl, originally published in 1987 in Contemporary Music Review Vol. 2. This article is post-GTTM (A Generative Theory of Tonal Music) and represents an attempt to explain how timbre prolongations, or at the very least timbral hierarchies, might be possible, in much the same vein as L&J-type metrical or tonal hierarchies.

This article is another curious entry in the outpouring of timbre music theory research that occurred in the mid-1980s (see also Cogan 1984, Slawson 1985). Since I wasn’t researching in the 1980s, I’ve wondered myself what the music theory community was like at this time, and what in the culture propelled this sudden interest in timbre. I presumed that this was due to a wider access to 1) spectrograms, a useful visualization tool for timbre, and 2) digital synthesizers, which allow for the level of precise control necessary in many perception studies. Lerdahl identifies out another possible impetus for a sudden rush to theorize timbre: “The issue has sharpened with the recent rise of computer music. There is now such an infinity of timbral possibilities that the need for some kind of selection and organization has become acute” (136).

I’ve found it funny in the past that I study 1980s popular music, and that so many of the existing articles and books on timbre research also date from the 1980s. But this quote in particular helped me realize that the unifying factor in all of this is rapid technological advancement.

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Listening

It’s a cliché to say this now, but the election results were a complete and utter shock to me. Maybe that makes me blind. I was in disbelief as the numbers climbed on the TV, dismissive of Florida when it went red (“typical Florida”), betrayed by my home state of Ohio when it followed suit, and bowled over as more and more Midwestern states voted for a reality TV star rather than the most qualified politician to ever run for president. I kept watching til 2AM waiting for things to change, before my friends and I began the slow process of coming to terms with our new reality. I slept for about five hours before waking up and scouring the internet for strategies Hillary might use to still eke out a win—something about recounts or the Supreme Court or something?—but of course there was no such path. This is really happening.

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I Want It That Way

This [lack of scholarship on drum machines] says much about the general ambivalence, if not outright animosity, that “rhythm units” have engendered through the years. Most famously, in the early 2000s, a 50-something pianist from Los Angeles, John Wood, began to sell a $1 bumper sticker that read “Drum Machines Have No Soul,” and quickly drew to him a fan base of similarly minded sulkers (Chamberlin). It is not always clear if Wood and other critics saw the drum machine as a cause or a symptom of the (perceived) displacement of studio musicians by electronic production, but like the equally maligned auto-tuning vocal software, beat boxes make for easy targets given their unmistakable sonic signatures.


That major pop artists and songs would rely on a built-in rhythm may seem like a creative shortcut but such criticism misses the point: what most of these artists valued was not just a particular pattern but the specific sound of it. Phil Collins, after all, was a drummer himself but he embraced the CR-78 to the point of demo-ing it for journalists (Rsdave). His use of the CR-78 suggested that Collins, like Sly Stone and disco producers before him, saw it as an instrument for aiding a larger musical vision.

 I found myself emphatically agreeing with a lot of this and applying it to a lot of other things beyond drum machines and autotune—synthesizers, samplers, lo-fi… hmmm.