Christmas Mystery #36

Musically speaking, it is often said that songs written in minor keys are sadder or more melancholy than songs written in major keys.  So why, if Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, are so many Christmas carols in minor keys?  Think about it.  There are a lot of them.  Here’s a list just off the top of my head:

  • “Carol of the Bells”
  • “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman”
  • “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
  • “Angels from the Realms of Glory”
  • “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”
  • “The First Nowell”
  • “O Holy Night”
  • “The Little Drummer Boy”
  • “I Wonder as I Wander”
  • “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
  • “We Three Kings”
  • “What Child is This?”
  • “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
  • “Silent Night”
  • “Away in a Manger”

There are also quite a few others that are less well-known.  The most probable (and most boring) explanation for this fact is that the original Christmas carols were or were based upon medieval liturgical music, which was usually written in scales most modern music theorists would classify as minor.  Later songwriters simply copied the style because it sounded “Christmassy.”

My own (wildly speculative, completely uninvestigated, and definitely unsubstantiated) theory is that the slightly dark and pensive mood created by the use of minor keys in these carols is, like the Christmas tree and the yule log, a throwback to Europe’s pre-Christian, pagan past, an expression of half-remembered rituals meant to get our cultural ancestors through the long, dark, winter nights.  Such rituals might not have been so festive in nature….

Happy Holidays!

3 thoughts on “Christmas Mystery #36

  1. JellyGirl December 18, 2008 / 8:05 pm

    As a music degree holder and music teacher, I thought I would point out that over half of the songs on your list are actually all in MAJOR keys, as follows:

    “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
    “Angels from the Realms of Glory”
    “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”
    “The First Nowell”
    “O Holy Night”
    “The Little Drummer Boy”
    “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
    “Silent Night”
    “Away in a Manger”

    I’m not sure what you are considering major/minor, but I guarantee you that anyone with a knowledge of musical theory will agree that those are songs in Major keys.

    However, I have often wondered about the minor/melancholy nature of some of those songs, especially “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The ‘tidings’ don’t sound too full of ‘comfort and joy’ to me! 🙂

  2. Matthew December 18, 2008 / 9:47 pm

    As a non music degree holder, I stand corrected. I’ve only had a small amount of musical training, and I guess a little learning is a dangerous thing. Still, they sound minor to my ear, especially “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “O Holy Night.” Is it just the intervals and chords used then?

    What got me thinking was “Carol of the Bells,” which I know is minor. The beat is so relentless that it makes “Christmas is here, bringing good cheer” almost sound like a bad thing. Come to find out it actually is based on a pagan Ukrainian chant.

  3. JellyGirl December 19, 2008 / 5:37 pm

    Without getting too technical: the majority of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is in a Major key, but you are correct if you were hearing the line “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light” in a minor key. That line is indeed minor. Similarly, “Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices” is also in a minor key. Yet again, the rest of the song is Major, and thus, it is classified as in a Major key.

    You are right about “Carol of the Bells.” Although I wonder if the music (which must have originally been written for bells, and as you said, in the Ukraine) came first, and someone added joyful Christmas lyrics later? In fact, that is the case with many of the well-known carols–someone added verse to an old familiar tune. Anyway, a very interesting subject which you broach. I just could not let a musical theory mistake slip by. 😉

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