“O Come, All Ye Faithful.” “Joy to the World”. “What Child is This?” “Once in Royal David’s City.” “Silent Night.” And the list goes on.
Have you ever wondered why we feel such an emotional connection to Christmas carols compared to other types of sacred music? There seems to be that je ne sais quoi factor when it comes to Christmas music, but perhaps it is more quantifiable and physiological than we may think. I certainly consider myself to be a Christmas ‘junkie,’ as I love all things Christmas from tinsel to Tiny Tim. I love listening to King’s College, Cambridge sing their annual Festival of Lessons and Carols, and I always stop in the mall to listen to the beautiful harmonies of carolers. But it’s also in the humanity that we experience during this time of year, where people draw nearer to each other and to the divine, that we find the true magic of the season.
I find that we are instantly drawn to Christmas music for several reasons. First, it “comes but once a year,” so it is not as stale as other types of music that play year-round, and we yearn for the contrast that it provides. Secondly, it is almost exclusively positive in its language, and texts concerning nativity can be very comforting and can resonate with peoples from all walks of life. But there are deeper musicological reasons that can be considered, such as the constancy of diatonic relationships in Christmas carols, meaning that these pieces almost never stray far from predictable harmonic progressions and melodies. There is almost always a consistent key or musical home-base, and almost all are composed in major, or upbeat-sounding, keys. I always refer to G Major as the 'Christmas key,’ as several of our favorite Carols are composed or oft-utilized in G, and its sonic quality gives a shimmering feel. In fact, individuals who have synesthesia, or who can see colors in music, see G major as green, which complements the commercial color usually used for Christmastide.
I will admit, however, that these musical figures can certainly apply to other types of music as well, but I still think that there is one more argument to consider when it comes to music of the nativity. Because Jesus’ birth is at the heart of our Christian beliefs, I think there is an inherent aura of fascination surrounding music set to texts concerning the story, and our ears and hearts are magnetically pulled toward it. Whether it is a glorious rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” with organ, strings, and brass, a choir delicately singing “The Coventry Carol”, or a soloist performing “Mary, Did You Know” with guitar, I think our core beliefs revolving around the Christmas story create a visceral emotional connection to these sounds that is uncontrollable.
What are your favorite Christmas carols? Do you feel a similar experience when you listen to them compared to other types of sacred music? There may be more to it than meets the ear. Come to our annual Festival of Lessons and Carols on December 22, at 4 p.m. to join in the music of the season, and open your heart once again to the joy of Christmas.