WHAM; How to make a Christmas hit!

Our favourite Christmas songs are dusted off year after year. What makes it so hard to join the festive ranks?
16 December 2021

Interview with 

Daniel Müllensiefen, Goldsmiths University of London, Ian Cross, University of Cambridge, Conrad Godfrey, Sound Hypothesis


Christmas musician


Whether you're a fan of Slade or The Progues, the fact remains, that during this time of year many of us will listen to the same songs we played last year, and the year before that... and the year before that! Harry Lewis set out to see if he could get to the bottom of why novel Christmas music struggles to make it into the charts... 

Daniel - I would wonder whether you could answer this question empirically, with science and empirical evidence. One thing that you would have to do is define a Christmas song or a Christmas hit as you put it. Does it need to be commercially successful? Do you want to measure that by its position in the charts or the revenue it generates during a certain period. Then the second question is, does Elton John or Ed Sheeran, qualify as potential music for Christmas just because it's released at the end of November, or do you really mean Christmas music in terms of it has a Christmas theme?

Harry - Looks like I'm gonna need a hand. Luckily, Ian Cross emeritus professor of music and science at Cambridge University agreed to meet me at West Road Concert Hall to iron out the creases.

Ian - Good you could operationalise as effective in removing money from people's wallets. What it is about a song that does that is variety of things. It's the structure of the song, but it's also what it is up against what competition is up against. New Christmas songs have a real problem because they're up against an intense amount of competition from the songs that are trotted out year after year after year and flourish for the Christmas period.

Harry - And competition is further exacerbated by the length of the festive period.

Daniel - A summer hit can be popular in the Northern hemisphere during say June and September. The same song can be a summer hit and popular in the Southern hemisphere in other months. This is different to Christmas, which means that you have a lot of competition in these say six or seven weeks around Christmas.

Harry - That's not all.

Ian - In this country it's getting dark, it's getting miserable. It turns out that when it gets dark and miserable, we tend to prefer music that is not very arousing, often calm or melancholic. On the other hand, as it gets lighter, we tend to prefer music that is more arousing, more urgent, more intense. Now, Christmas is happening at the same time across the globe. Here it's getting cold and miserable in Australia. It's doing the opposite. It's getting sunny. Admittedly, it is bizarre to have Christmas on the beach in the 18 hour day sunshine.

Harry - This is something you've tried and tested.

Ian - It is, it's, it's very odd. Yes, but the same music is likely to pervade the environment. It might be that Slade's 'And here it is Merry Christmas' is a little more popular in Australia than it might be in the UK, simply because it's very upbeat, very arousing and it fits with the long days in Australia.

Harry - Firstly, a Christmas hit has to Christmassy and I'm not gonna be moved on that. Okay. I think the best thing I can do is catch up with a rather talented friend of mine. It's time to take a look at those popular Christmas hits and see what I can learn. Conrad Godfrey. He's a musician, YouTube curator transcriber, and he also sings in a barber shop quartet called Sound Hypothesis, they're are current UK national champions, you know, as you do.

Harry - Merry Christmas Conrad.

Conrad - Merry Christmas, Harry, come on in.

Harry - Thanks very much. Where's the piano?

Conrad - Through here.

Harry - Conrad tells me that a lot of popular Christmas music employs a compositional technique known as chromaticism. I better let him explain this one, eh?

Conrad - Chromaticism meaning the colour that you get when you introduce, if we're talking about the keyboard, it's going beyond the white notes and into the black notes to put it simply. White Christmas, for example, how does that go? It goes, I'm dreaming of a White Christmas. It goes completely out of key and explores loads of different kind of terrain.

Harry - Is that normal for popular music? This exploration of the keyboard?

Conrad - No, I would say it depends on what you're talking about. If we take a song like Justin Bieber's mistletoe, that's an example of a Christmas song that I would say actually is basically a pop song. I'd say one of the reasons for that is because it's not using a lot of this jazzy influence. It's just using very simple four chord progressions and the melodies staying very tonal. By simply for the chords he's playing, you could add in what, in the jazz world they call upper extension. Do something like this perhaps, make it a bit more Christmasy. Right.? It's the most beautiful time of the year, lights fill the streets spreading so much cheer, I should be playing in the winter snow...

Harry - Funny how that drums up nostalgia. It does, it feels more Christmasy to me.

Conrad - Yeah. Right, it does. It's sixties, fifties inspired orchestral sounds really, where there's so much hidden complexity. There's lots going on and you don't really notice this when you're listening to the song, all those complexities, all those complex key changes and rich jazzy voicings are hidden. I think that's what those nostalgic styles did so well. There's this other theme that I've noticed in some of these Christmasy songs when I was doing a bit of research that I don't really think I've heard anyone comment on, but it's actually this kind of trick of using descending major scale to evoke the sound of church bells on Christmas day. I think that songs, for example, like walking in a Winter Wonderland is the same thing, and have yourself a Merry little Christmas as well.

Harry - It's pulling on these themes that we associate as well with nostalgia with Christmas.

Conrad - I think you see that in quite a lot of arrangements. You should look out for that one, the descending scale to evoke the bells.

Harry - Conrad gave me some final advice. If you aren't gonna use his techniques, you're gonna need to throw in a lot of jingle bells or reference to this time of year instead, a little bit like Justin Bieber's mistletoe. I think what I'm learning is that tradition really plays on nostalgia. That certainly seems to be the case for Christmas music.

Ian - Now, there's interesting effect of what happens when you're exposed to music continuously, initially your preference for it increases, then it probably decreases because you've been overexposed.

Harry - Does that mean that when I was younger, I might love something by Boney M, but over the years that's gonna start to decrease and I might start to dislike the Christmas music that I did as a youngster.

Ian - That's possible. There's also another effect, which is that we tend to form quite intense affective attachments to the music that we heard in early teenage years when we were forming our identity. And that attachment to that music tends to persist, irrespective one might almost say, of quality.


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