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Inside A Classic Christmas Song

Around this time of year I like to take a look at one of the Christmas songs that are perennials. The holiday classics have a place in our lives unlike any other songs. We hear them – more or less the same ones –  every year. Their listeners cut across all demographic boundaries. And every kind of artist from every genre imaginable preforms them… They’re truly standards, if only once a year.

I wish I had one in my catalog!

Recently I heard my friend Julie Kathryn do a beautiful rendition of ‘O Holy Night’ at a gig in NYC, and she made me realize what a great song it is. I’m not a religious person, but I don’t let that stop me from enjoying great music with religious themes, of which there is a ton, going back centuries.

‘O Holy Night’, 170 years old, is a good example of introducing a well-chosen note or two from outside the main scale (something I’ve written about here) to spice up the melody. This can also lead to some powerful harmonies – which is really what hits me in this song.

‘O Holy Night’ has been sung and played by thousands and thousands of different people… so obviously there’s no one way to harmonize it. I’m just going with my own choices here (presented in the key of ‘G’).

(For the time-signature-interested, I’m counting this in 4/4 time, though it’s usually performed with three 8th notes counted inside each quarter note – also known as 4/4 = 12/8; or quarter note = 3 eighth notes.)

Make a point of singing and playing this through; you’ll be glad you did. Here are the chords, starting where the vocal starts:

|| G | G C | G | G D | G |
| G | G C | G | Bminor F#minor | Bminor |
| D | G | D | G | Eminor | Bminor | Aminor | Eminor |
| G D | G C | G D | G | D | G C | G D | G ||

The melody reminds me of Irving Berlin and Billy Joel, both great at using melodies that consisted mostly of chord tones (triads), but who also knew when to get away from them. This is how the melody of ’O Holy Night’ proceeds.

Except for one note, the melody stays in the Gmajor scale. The exception happens when, leading into and setting up the first minor chord (a Bminor), there’s a C# instead of a C (on ”It is the night”). This creates some real color and drama.

Another of the song’s high points is when the harmony goes into the key of Eminor for 4 bars. Now, Eminor is the relative minor of Gmajor (the Aminor & Bminor chords are also in Gmajor), so technically it’s practically staying in the same key. But ears are not technical and, when the Eminor section comes in, it’s again very dramatic.

And don’t forget the big high note, 3 bars from  the end (on “Di-VINE”) that’s a very satisfying melodic denouement. Then all of it – melody and chord – resolves back to ‘G’.

Very smooth and simple-sounding. But it’s also powerful and, as I’ve said, dramatic, lending excitement and a sense of grandeur (which mostly comes from the melody) to a recitation of one of mankind’s most enduring stories.

All in all, a beautiful piece of writing.

(You might also enjoy this Christmas song post.)

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2 responses to “Inside A Classic Christmas Song”

  • My absolute favorite “religious style” Christmas Carol.
    Thanks taking a closer look at it.
    One thing: somehow, all my life I hear the F#m chord as F#m7. I’m actually surprised to know it a pure F#m…
    Tony, Happy Holidays to you & yours!

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