Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
Everyone has a time of year when the regular grind comes pleasantly to a halt, and it’s time to think of family, friends, and the things that make life happy. Whether Christmas, Hanukkah, or most other faiths, people get in the mood through music, and most of us will turn to music we knew as a child to immerse us in that kind of happiness. Writing new holiday music can be tricky because it’s hard to break into tradition. Here are some tips:
- Your lyric needs to describe pleasant emotions right away. Set the scene, and make it something that you know people will identify with: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,/ Jack Frost nipping at your nose.”
- Songs should be a balance of traditional and innovative. With holiday music, because you are trying to invite yourself into the hearts of people who already have “their music”, the balance should be very strongly toward the traditional sounds and harmonies already established. So use mainly strong progressions (harmonies that strongly point to one chord as the tonic), with lots of circle-of-fifths changes, and modal mixtures, which will add a pleasant sense of melancholy to the song.
- Your melodies should stay away from static motion, and should feature many leaps amongst stepwise motion. The leaps should mainly be upward, and should happen on emotionally-charged words. (“Where the treetops glisten, and children listen..”)
- The form should be easily discernible. Holiday music with a message gets by nicely with verse-only formats. Music that speaks to emotional issues, such as the “I wonder if she’ll make it home for Christmas” type songs work well with a Verse-chorus-bridge form.
- Don’t get preachy. If you’re concerned, for example, that people don’t appreciate the real meaning of Christmas, tell your story in positive, happy terminology. Don’t use your song to preach, but rather use it to express gratitude and good wishes.
It’s hard to break into the holiday market, because so many people already have the songs that give them solace and comfort. But new songs appear every year, and so it is quite possible. Remember to follow the rules of good songwriting, including letting your chorus melody rest higher in pitch than your verse, and feature the tonic chord and note more often in your chorus than anywhere else.
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