The Christmas score is generally like any other type of score except for one thing; Due to the well-known melodies, it is more open to re-harmonization. What does that mean exactly? Well, simply by virtue of the fact that everyone knows the melody, it is easier for the pianist to take more harmonic risks.
Christmas songs like Deck the Halls, Jingle Bells, Silent Night, and Joy to the World are so ingrained in our consciousness that few people have to think about the words or the melody. It’s a natural thing for most of us, at least in Western culture, to sing the lyrics and melodies without thinking at all.
That’s what makes it even more fun for pianists accompanying carol singers to take some really neat harmonic opportunities with the underlying chords. In general, it doesn’t matter what you do, and as long as you keep up, no one will get lost.
Christmas sheet music is often accompanied by chord symbols to help pianists choose their chords well. Of course, the more talented the pianist, the more interesting the options. This is why I like chord symbols on Christmas sheet music because it gives me a general guide to follow and makes it easier to add more chords to the mix.
How do you do this? Let’s take a song like Jingle Bells, for example. If we are in the key of F, the basic chord symbols in the chorus are as follows;
| F | | | | Bb | F | C7 | |
| F | | | | Bb | F | C7 | F |
Now, how would you go about re-harmonizing this simple chord progression? Most jazz musicians would know the answer to that question, but for everyone else the trick lies in something we call a 2-5-1 or II – V – I progression. This basically means that in front of each landing chord we can put an II – Progression in V being the one (I) the landing chord or destination chord.
If in the chord progression above you put a II – V in front of the landing chord Bb, you would get a completely new sound. What is a II – V? On the Bb scale (our landing chord) C is the second note of the scale and F is the fifth note of the scale. So the chord progression would be C – F – Bb. However, because the second chord of the Bb scale is a C minor chord, the progression would be noted like this | C- | F | Bb |.
Would you like to try something a little more complicated? Try adding sevenths to each chord. That means adding an interval of seventh, either a major or minor seventh to each chord, as reflected in the Bb major scale. Therefore, the final progression II – V – I, with Sb as the landing chord, would be scored as | C-7 | F7 | BbM7 |.
So how would the Jingle Bells chorus score if you used II – V in front of each landing chord? Like this;
| F | | | C-7 F7 | BbM7 | F | G-7 | C7 |
| F | | | C-7 F7 | BbM7 | F | G-7 C7 | FM7 |
As you can probably hear if you play these chords on the piano, the progression seems much more interesting and rich. So next time you pick up a Christmas music score, take a look at the landing chords and see if you can’t put an II – V in front of them. Your music will have a lot of extra color and everyone will marvel at your new ability. Merry Christmas to all!
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