What Makes It Sound Like Christmas?

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

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?


“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.


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:


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?


“6 Inch” transcription

All aboard the Lemonade train! 🍋 🚂

I tweeted a few days ago that two tracks on Beyoncé’s Lemonade remind me of Sufjan, and that 3:22–3:44 of the track “6 Inch” is classic Sufjan. I say that because of the harmonies and the background vocals, which are actually sampled from an Isaac Hayes song, “Walk On By.” I’m still working up a full analysis, and digging up Sufjan tracks to compare it to, but as a teaser, here’s my transcription of the section in question. I left out Beyoncé’s lead vocals—she’s singing another iteration of “six inch heels, she walked in the club…”

6 inch_0001

header image credit: https://flic.kr/p/8MWW8d

Should Have Known Better

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.


I chose this song because we had looked over the handout to Mark Spicer’s forthcoming paper, “The Question of Tonality in Pop and Rock Songs.” In this paper he coins the term fragile tonic, a tonic which is sounded in the song in question, but only weakened somehow, usually weakened by being in inversion. Crucially, a fragile tonic reflects the lyrics in some way, usually a kind of tenderness or vulnerability. One example Spicer uses is Elton John, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”

“Should Have Known Better” is the second track on Carrie & Lowell, an album that Sufjan has stated was written to help him cope with the death of his mother Carrie (interview here). He had an atypical relationship with his mother, as she had several mental health problems, and left the family when Sufjan was only one year old. After she left, they saw her only sporadically. For a few years, Sufjan lived with her in Oregon, while Carrie was dating Lowell. The lyrics of the album are saturated with references to Carrie and to the state of Oregon, and this track is no exception.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 7.33.37 PM

The song is split in half by an instrumental interlude at 2:38. In the lyrics above, this is after the fifth stanza. In the first half of the song, the lyrics are consistently depressive: “my black shroud” is repeated each stanza, for one example of the tone. The harmony reflects this brokenness by employing the fragile tonic technique. My transcription below gives a harmonic reduction of the chords and a guitar melody. This progression is repeated throughout the introductions, verses, and interludes of the first half of the piece.

first half_0001.png

The opening E minor tonic is considerably weakened because it’s in second inversion. There is a root-position i chord in the fourth measure of this progression, but here it’s weakened through the use of an added sixth (you could even argue that this is not a i chord at all, and say instead that it’s a vi7 in first inversion). The succession of the chords also weakens the status of the i chord in measure 4: approaching the tonic chord by root motion down a third makes the first chord (III) sound stronger than the second (iadd6). While the lyrics talk of a stalled or incomplete grieving process, the harmony sounds likewise unsettled.

The chorus (0:55–1:18, 2:15–2:37) modulates to G major for about four measures. The modulation is always set to the words “Be my rest/vest, be my fantasy,” presumably directed toward the mother. G major as tonic is confirmed with multiple IV-V-I progressions. This harmonic motion is much stronger than anything we heard in the verses. This conclusive and common progression might signify the “rest” in the lyrics, and the comfort and stability that a mother can bring.


After an instrumental that begins at 2:38, the lyrics become more positive, communicating an acceptance of what is past, and finding joy in everyday comforts (“the neighbor’s greeting,” “my brother had a daughter,” etc.). The instrumentation is more fleshed out. Before 2:38, there’s only acoustic guitar and vocals. But at 2:38, a rhythmic synth, banjo picking, and quiet synthesized percussion are all added to the texture. The song modulates permanently to G major, and the chord progression becomes quite conventional, like something you would hear in a Bach prelude.

second half_0001.png

The student of mine that presented on this piece is a lyricist and songwriter, and she focused more on the melody than the harmonies. She noted that although the new instrumentation, key, and chord progression can make second half of the song sound like an unrelated section, the lyrics clearly tie back to the first half—”I should have known better,” “I should’ve wrote a letter,” and references to “feeling” are present in both halves of the song. The same vocal motive is used every time “I should have known better” appears.

As I examined her detailed melodic transcription, I began to notice more motivic connections beyond this. The melody of the second half seems substantially different than the first on a casual listening, but a little side-by-side comparison reveals more connections. Below I’ve identified several motives in the first E minor half of the song and designated them with a letter.

first part melody_0001

The G major half reuses many of these motives. As I already mentioned, the motive continues to head off each stanza, but further, the rest of the melody is also made up of motives from the E minor half, shuffled around:

second part melody_0001

Most of these motives are altered when they reappear in the second half. I’ll enumerate what criteria bind each motive together.

  1. Doesn’t really change between the two sections. In the G major section, A tail <G, E> is sometimes appended (a’).
  2. Circles around the pitches A and B, but the goal is B. B begins at the end of the bar and crosses over the barline.
  3. The only motive that uses exclusively long note values. The rhythmic profile is quarter-quarter-half, with the half note on the downbeat of the measure. The high contrast to the rest of the melodic rhythms is enough to bind it together even when the pitches are changed. However, note that the line begins on D and ends on E in both c and c’.
  4. Defined primarily by a long string of syncopated notes and an overall falling contour. The d motive ends on A.
  5. (not used in the second half)
  6. Shared pitch content (if we skip over the pickups), ordering of pitches, and contour.
  7. (not used in the second half)
  8. (not used in the second half)

“Unity despite apparent disjunction” is kind of an old school music-analytical goal. The recycling of materials in any piece of music binds the piece together musically, helps the listener remember the music after only a few hearings, and helps to create catchiness and cohesiveness. But to turn to the poetic, maybe the reshuffling of motivic material  in “Should Have Known Better” is reflecting the shift in perspective that the narrator experiences between the first and second halves. The things being perceived are the same, but the viewpoint changes. The motivic materials are the same, but there is a new ordering and understanding of them.

This is the second track on the album. It can seem strangely placed, because the rest of the songs on this album are entirely depressing. Putting this track so early sounds a bit off-balance. The very end of the track slows way down with long synth chords and distorted piano? guitar? something acoustic.

As I said, I’ve focused on harmony and melody here because that was the focus of the lesson I taught in the seminar. But before I sign off, just a quick word about sound production in this track. It’s phenomenal! Listen to it with headphones. In the first half, the guitar and the vocals are both double-tracked, and one track is directed into each side. It’s as though Sufjan is really inside your brain as you listen to this. For me it really helps me empathize with the lyrics. In the second half as instruments are added, the “sound box” (to borrow Allan Moore’s term) widens, and the different instruments seem to form a semicircle around the front of the listener while Sufjan remains close to the ears. It’s just lovely. Interestingly, I’ve been told by representatives of Sufjan’s record label that he uses very outdated recording equipment—8 tracks and such—and Sufjan does seem to have an affinity for DIY sound sometimes. But the production on Carrie & Lowell is nevertheless exquisite. Give the whole album a good listen.

header image credit: Amy Nolan

Garden pathing in Kesha’s music

This is from my discussion on the “#FreeKesha” episode of the Pop Unmuted podcast for a special episode about Kesha’s music and the current controversy. 

Paul Lester: Ke$ha, are you satirising teen America, their voraciousness and bloodlust when it comes to consumption and sex?

Ke$ha: Absolutely! And you either get it or you don’t.

via The Guardian

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. The song “Sleazy” begins with Kesha singing this lyric unaccompanied:


Without the harmony underneath, a listener would probably assume this is in D phrygian, or at least I did initially. Setting a lyric like this in the phrygian mode connotes independence, attitude, meanness, and general bad-assery, a vibe that is totally common for rap music and for Kesha. But the bass line, backup vocals, and synthesizer that enter at 1:42 reveals that the tonality is something else entirely:


It’s in B-flat major! (Or B-flat mixolydian, whatever.) Kesha’s lyrics now take on an entirely different tone. The hook now sounds much more sing-song-y, like a lighthearted playground taunt. There’s a humorous aspect to transforming the tone of this hook from bad-ass to playground, and this sense of humor is totally in keeping with Kesha’s M.O.—completely satirical.

Justin London adapted the term “garden pathing” to describe musical events in his book, Hearing in Time (to describe “metrical fake-outs”; he keeps a list of metrical fake-outs on his personal website). But the term “garden pathing” actually comes from language. Garden path sentences begin with one meaning but then end with an entirely different meaning. Wikipedia gives the example sentence “The old man the boat”. Reading the sentence, we first assume “the old man” is a noun phrase. But after hearing no verb, we retrospectively re-analyze the sentence and realize that “man” was being used as a verb.

Dinosaur” begins with Kesha chanting the spelling of the word like a cheerleader: “D-I, N-O, S-A, U-R a dinosaur”. This is an example of a garden path sentence in Kesha’s lyrics: two meanings of “U-R/you are” are elided and functioning simultaneously. U-R completes the spelling of the word “dinosaur” and “you are” is functioning as subject-verb (I know, explaining the joke totally kills it). Garden path sentences are an effective way to generate humorous lyrics. Garden path sentences rely on readers to parse the sentences into chunks as they read left to right in time; music, which occurs strictly in time, can control the listener’s parsing of the sentence by altering the timing of the lyrics.

An even better example of a garden path sentence in Kesha’s lyrics is back in “Sleazy,” immediately after the completion of the first chorus (1:52)…but I’ll let you experience this one on your own!