by Karen Randle
The leaves are gone, and there’s a chill in the air. The holidays must be approaching! As a songwriter or musician, you’re probably getting bombarded by family and friends, asking if you know any Christmas songs and if you’ll play them at their respective get-togethers. You could break out the old “Jingle Bells” or “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” but those are boring and overdone. You need something original.
Writing a Christmas song isn’t much different from writing a song any other time of the year, but there are a few key things you should pay attention to. To really wow your friends and family this season, here are eight helpful tips for writing a great Christmas song.
1. Look to Your Own Traditions for Inspiration
Every family has their own crazy traditions, and they’re a perfect source of inspiration to get you started writing a great Christmas song. Not only are these traditions unique, but they’re also something you’re passionate about—which makes the writing that much easier. Plus, they’ll give your family a nice chuckle when they hear it.
Whether your family does an annual ugly sweater contest or a gift scavenger hunt, these silly traditions are the perfect jumping off point for creating a great holiday song. They’ll remind your listeners of all the fun they have during the holidays, which will get them more invested in the song and give them those warm, fuzzy feelings the holidays are all about.
2. Listen to Other Christmas Songs
“Jingle Bells” might be one of the simplest songs ever written, but there’s a reason it’s stood the test of time. Listen to a few popular Christmas songs to get some helpful tips and ideas.
One technique for inspiration is to listen to popular Christmas songs and pick out a few lines or words that resonate with you. Then, make a list of rhyming words to the phrases you picked. Pretty soon, you’ll have line endings for your entire song. All you need to do is fill in the rest.
3. Keep Your Focus Clear and Simple
Christmas songs are meant to be simple and fun for everyone. Not everyone is a seasoned musician who can follow along with complicated lyrics that cover a range of deep topics, so make sure anyone can follow along.
Pick a single, simple topic and stick with it. Meandering around and covering too many topics is a sure-fire way to lose your audience’s attention. One topic, one song. If you have a bunch of Christmas topics you want to cover, just write more songs!
4. Use Traditional Time Signatures and Song Structure
Christmas songs are meant to be singalongs, so stick with traditional time signatures and song structures. This isn’t the place to test out that new 7/4 melody you’ve been toying with (who do you think you are, Pink Floyd?).
Standard 4/4 time signatures are preferred for Christmas songs. You might be able to get away with some eighth-note based time signatures like 12/8 every now and then, but whatever you choose, make sure people can follow along. The simpler it is, the more people can join in.
When writing the song structure, keep the formal design clear. Include obvious verses and a catchy chorus. Throw in a bridge if you like. Just don’t get overly fancy, or you’ll lose your audience.
5. Give It a Nice Melody
The most popular Christmas songs all have one thing in common: they have a catchy melody. Catchy melodies make it impossible for people to resist singing along. Avoid sitting on one pitch for too long and include simple, stepwise movements that people can easily follow. Writing a great melody will make the difference between a happy singalong around the Christmas tree and strumming your guitar in the corner while people sip eggnog quietly.
6. Use a Major Key and Upbeat Tempo
The holidays are a happy time! Don’t gloom it up with a minor key. Most great Christmas songs use a major key and an upbeat tempo to keep things lively and happy.
According to a study conducted by the Berklee College of Music, 95% of popular holiday songs are written in a major key with an average tempo of 115 beats per minute. They’re happy, upbeat, and fun to listen to.
7. Harness the Power of the 7ths
If you’re looking for a more “warm and cozy” feeling for your Christmas song, throw in a few major 7th chords every now and then. 7ths give the song a longing, almost hopeful feeling. When the 7th hits, everyone will get a little teary-eyed waiting for the resolution. It’s a good way to keep the audience engaged and give your song a little more musical depth. Even non-musicians will feel it, even if they don’t know what it is.
If you need some ideas on chord progressions that use the major 7th, check out these songs for inspiration:
“Imagine” – John Lennon
“Old Friends” – Simon and Garfunkel
“Photographs and Memories” – Jim Croce
When you listen to these songs, you can almost hear the wistfulness and the memories behind them. If you don’t listen to the lyrics, they already sound like cozy Christmas songs you’d listen to around the fireplace with your family.
(And yes, I made this the 7th list item on purpose!)
8. Keep the Lyrics Light
Christmas songs are meant to be positive. Even the slow, longing ones that use major 7ths are still happy! Even if you think people have lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas, a song isn’t going to turn it around. If you get too “preachy” with the lyrics, it’s just going to turn people off.
Even if you have a more serious topic in mind, think of a positive way to convey it. Christmas is all about happiness and togetherness; make sure your song is in line with the spirit of the holiday.
Also, don’t forget to throw in a touch of humor every now and then. Funny songs are guaranteed to be fan favorites. Just think of the success of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” If a song makes someone laugh, they’re going to remember it.
Create the Next Christmas Hit
Writing a Christmas song isn’t much different from writing any other song. Just keep everything simple and happy, and you’ll have everyone singing your song around the Christmas tree in no time. Happy Holidays!
For information on the 5th Annual Christmas Songwriting Competition, go to: https://www.songwriting.net/xmas