Science of Christmas tunes and all that jazz

Is there a science behind crafting a well-loved Christmas hit?

US superstar Mariah Carey's 1994 holiday track All I Want For Christmas Is You is still one of the most popular Christmas songs worldwide, ranking first on Billboard's Holiday 100 chart this year.

It was streamed 44 million times the last holiday season, according to Nielsen.

But what makes it such a hit?

Journalism professor Adam Ragusea thinks its strong "Christmassy" feel lies in specific chords of the song, which are borrowed from Christmas classics such as Darlene Love's Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) and Bing Crosby's White Christmas.

In his 2015 article for Slate magazine, he pointed out a "dominant chord melting into a delicious diminished chord" in the first verse that gives it a classic and "cosy" sound.

He said it "(makes) a guy feel like he is snuggled by the fire, just back from the war, with a mulled cider in one hand and his other arm around Rosie the Riveter, ready to start a baby boom on Christmas Eve 1945".

He noted at least 13 distinct chords that resulted in a "sumptuously chromatic melody".

If there is indeed a science to composing the ultimate Christmas tune , it seems like Mr Ragusea has it explained.


But Singapore-born music arranger, composer and orchestrator Lenny Wee called it "bogus".

Wee, who is based in Los Angeles, told The New Paper: "It is a great song. But this (analysis) is a gross generalisation.

The chords he mentioned are used in a lot of jazz music in general, as well as pop songs.

"Then again, music is subjective. Most trained musicians will agree that the theory is just trying too hard to shoehorn a generalised formula to fit it."

Two local musicians The New Paper spoke to also begged to differ.

Tim De Cotta, who performs in local soul, jazz and funk groups TAJ and L.A.B, among others, said: "It is also the treatment of the song - through mixing and mastering - that lends to the overall vibe.

You can get a warm sound from sad chords, too.

This song was specially manufactured to create a 'Christmas' sound.

"It is not so much a particular chord that evokes that feeling. It is the borrowed elements from jazz and gospel music, the lyrics, and of course, those sleigh bells in the beginning."

Chew Wei Shan, of electronic duo .gif and rock act sub:shaman, said: "What makes it so popular is perhaps the fact that it was featured in a big movie such as Love Actually, which gives it a place in the hearts of so many people.

"The fact that Mariah Carey is such an established figure also helps the popularity of the song, even after over 20 years since its release."

This article was first published on December 24, 2016.
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