The Greatest Christmas Song, in Theory
At 52, surprise is one of the best gifts I can get anymore. Ten seconds into a song on the radio — heck, five seconds — I usually know how the whole damn thing is gonna go. Same with novels, movies, news stories, even human conversations. So few surprises left.
Kurt Vonnegut captured this in a passage about his sister Alice, an artist:
Alice, who was six feet tall and a platinum blonde, asserted one time that she could roller-skate through a great museum like the Louvre, which she had never seen and which she wasn’t all that eager to see, and which she in fact would never see, and fully appreciate every painting she passed. She said that she would be hearing these words in her head above the whir and clack of her heels on the terrazzo: “Got it, got it, got it.”
It’s a source of some despair, this receding frontier of surprise. I’d planned on a lot more music listening and book reading and movie watching before Death, which — aside from timing and method — is the least surprising thing of all.
Fortunately there are compositions, books, and movies that can still give me that experience of the unexpected, even the hundredth time I hear or read or see them. Unconventional choices keep reaching me, and I can still feel the curve as it pulls away from the easy, mundane choices that could have been made. I still get the dopamine pellet.
Christmas is the death of pleasant surprise. I love the holiday itself, but oh gawd the clichés we hang on it. The boxes in the basement might just as well be labeled “THIS AGAIN.”
Even Christmas songs that used to move me get murdered by numbing annual repetition in commercials, as sonic wallpaper in stores — even in my own living room. I used to think Carol of the Bells was this great, original thing. Now, through no fault of its own, it makes me stabby.
There are exceptions, a very few Christmas songs so well made that no amount of repetition has been able to dull my fantods. (So far, anyway — check back when I’m 72 and mainlining Conlon Nancarrow to feel something.)
Oo — that got dark fast. Just kidding about the despair, Mom! But I do find the bar for genuine surprise gets higher as you age. Music theory is my particular thing, especially harmony, so that’s where I look for the hidden gems. Finding one in a desert as trackless as Christmas music is a special thrill, and one song is exactly that gift for me — “Christmastime is Here” by Vince Guaraldi.
Let’s walk through the first minute of this great, great song.
After a 6-bar intro (with hints of harmony to come), the kids come in with the melody. The melody in music is like the protagonist in a story. You identify with it, follow it through the landscape of the piece. You wish it well, but not too well. Nobody wants a story where the hero never leaves the hot tub.
So here’s the hero of “Christmastime is Here” (10 sec):
Just as simple as it could be on its own.
One of the main things that “happens” to the melody in a piece is the harmony. Nothing has a greater effect on the emotional contour of the music. There are a hundred different ways to set this particular tune harmonically, and each one creates a different emotional landscape for the melody to walk through.
The first chord is the usual one — the tonic triad, the chord on the key note. We’re in F major, so it’s an F major chord. The tonic triad is the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the scale, F-A-C. But as much as anything, jazz is about extending traditional concepts in music. Phrases are longer or shorter than normal, beats are divided and grouped in unusual ways, the accent is thrown to beats that are usually not emphasized.
As for harmony, you don’t get too many simple triads in jazz. In addition to the scale notes 1-3-5, you’ll often get an added 7, sometimes 9, sometimes more. It makes a more complex sound:
When the melody comes in, Guaraldi puts the first measure (“Christmas time is”) over Fmaj7. That’s jazzy, but it also runs the risk of sounding hokey. A lot depends on the next chord (when the kids sing “here”). He could just keep the F chord — it fits with the melody just fine — then move to the usual suspects after 4 bars. After the F chord, C is the most likely chord you’ll hear (more on that in the next post). B-flat is next after that. These aren’t bad choices, just…predictable. Sometimes that’s what you’re going for: Silent Night in the key of F uses three chords: F, C, and B-flat.
Here’s what “Christmastime” could have sounded like if Guaraldi phoned it in:
It doesn’t suck, but it also has no surprise.
Guaraldi took the road less traveled. Not only does he not choose one of the usuals for the second chord, he doesn’t even choose a chord that’s in the flippin’ key. The chord he chose is a warm, luscious, unexpected Eb#11. It’s unexpected, but it isn’t wacky — it’s as smooth as a baby’s bootay. The reason for that is something called voice-leading: The new chord is on another harmonic planet, but every note was arrived at by a single step from a note in the previous chord.
Here it is, stripped of drums and kids:
There’s so much more — for extra credit, you music theorists can find the B half-diminished 7th and Gb#11 (‽), both of them bootay-smooth from voice-leading — but Christmastime is here, so it’s time to close the computer.
Not you! First enjoy the whole thing without the adorably out-of-tune kids. Merry Christmas.