“The whole problem can be stated by asking, ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No.'” -Aaron Copland

Photo by M.J. Murphy

This post is partly in words, and partly in music because it is about my recent adventure in writing and recording a short instrumental Christmas piece. Download or Stream “Winter’s Promise”.

Instrumental music, that is, music without lyrics, is often said to have meaning, but as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and others have gone out of their way to point out, it really doesn’t, and can’t mean anything – at least in the same sense that a song, poem or novel can have a meaning. A composer can however suggest a literal meaning for their music by titling a piece with something that evokes a time, a place, a scene, an event, or emotion, but the music itself is, in the end, just notes and sounds. A title can hint at what the composer intends the music to be about, and sometimes, the power of suggestion will take over in the listeners mind.

Leonard Bernstein addressed this in an episode of his long running TV series Young People’s Concerts. The series ran from 1958 all the way to 1973. In one of his earliest shows, he played the opening theme from The William Tell Overture and then asked an audience of kids “now, what was that music about? The kids all yelled out “the Lone Ranger!”. Bernstein then went on to explain that the music was actually written long before the Lone Ranger show ever conceived. it was from an opera by an Italian composer named Rossini. The music had come to be associated with the Lone Ranger because it was used in the show, not because it was written with masked heroes of the American West in mind. So what happens when, a composer sets out to write a piece of instrumental music that is intended to mean something specific?

Even though most composers will admit that music doesn’t have a literal meaning, they often attempt to create specific imagery, emotions, atmospheres, and moods, and that’s at least pretty close to having what we call meaning isn’t it? Think of all the composers that write music for movie soundtracks. They are intentionally using sounds, textures and rhythms to evoke specific images and moods. Think about all that music written for special occasions: patriotic events, weddings, graduations, parades and holidays like, for example, the subject of this post, Christmas.

If you have ever tried to write a piece of music for Christmas, or for that matter a song for any holiday or special occasion, you may have discovered that it is harder than it seems. How exactly do you capture a sense of what the occasion means ? After all, we’ve just admitted that an instrumental piece of music cannot really be about anything since it has no words. The best you can do is try to capture the feeling or emotion in the holiday or event and attempt to put it into the music. So you consider the rhythm, the melody, the speed, intensity and dynamics of the piece and hope that when you’re done you’ve captured something that represents the essence of the occasion. But even still it will be a foggy kind of “aboutness”.

“Music is a language which the soul alone understands, but which the soul can never translate.” ~Arnold Bennett

So recently, when I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing a Christmas rock instrumental, I had to think about what exactly I needed to do to get that special sort of sound. There has always been something about Christmas music that I can’t put my finger on. How does a Christmas song always manage to sound “Christmassy”.

Christmas songs seem to be written both in major keys (such as Jingle Bells) and in minor keys (such as “We Three Kings”) just to name a couple. It makes sense that the happier, more upbeat songs are in major keys and the slower, more mysterious songs are in minor keys or modes. But this is just as true for any other type of song, so the tonality of the key or the mode doesn’t seem to be a determining factor all by itself. Likewise, christmas songs are composed in all variations of meter: 3/4, 4/4, 2/4, 6/8, cut time, it’s all over the map. Nothing magical about the choice of time signature. Maybe it’s in the instrumentation? I thought about that for a while. Nope. You could play a christmas song on a violin, a piano, or a kazoo and it would still sound like a Christmas song.

I soon realized this was one of those things that I wasn’t going to figure out scientifically. The only thing to do was to use a few general assumptions and just start playing something that felt Christmas-like.

Here are some of the guidelines I used. Keeping in mind the immortal words oh Greg Allman “There are as many ways to write songs as there are songs.” Since I was looking for a bright sounding major key tonality, I chose D major. Most christmas songs keep the chord progressions rather simple. A Christmas song after all should be easy to learn and to play. Most of the great ones have very simple melodies too. As usual, the melody is the hardest part, just because it is intended to be simple doesn’t mean the melody will be any easier, in fact, the simpler the intended melody, the harder it becomes to write.

The intro came fairly easy because I knew I wanted a chimey, bell like sound so I chose to just arpeggiate three simple chords. It consists of very simple A D and G triad arpeggios played high up on the guitar neck. To add some bottom end, texture and harmony, I used a D cello drone below the arpeggios. Since D is my key tone it sounded great below the G D and A triads.

I struggled with a thematic melody for what seemed an eternity until I decided to just improvise until something evolved. I’m not sure a good theme ever did evolve, but at least I ended up with something that worked harmonically over the chord progression.

“There are as many ways to write songs as there are songs.” – Greg Allman

Eventually, the improvisation seemed to be headed somewhere, so I decided to make the tune a series of short solos that built on each other. I ended up with the following sections.

A Intro with classical guitar solo
B Clean electric guitar solo
B Overdrive guitar solo
C Piano section
B Heaviest guitar solo
A Outro with classical guitar solo

So the resulting song structure is ABBCBCA.

Here are the instruments used in the recording:

Fender Stratocaster Guitar:Opening “Bell like Melody” and all guitar parts
Yamaha Classical, nylon string guitar: Intro guitar lick:
LTD 4 string bass guitar: Bass guitar parts
Yamaha Arius digital piano/synthesizer: Piano and strings Drums:
Apple GarageBand drum samples (played live and looped)

As a finishing touch, I added some strings by playing the Yamaha piano using the strings setting. I mostly stuck to the roots and since the chords change every measure it added a nice variety to the mix.

The only conclusion I came up with in this little experiment is that there is no really good way to formulate what a Christmas song should sound like. It’s an abstract thing and the best way is, as usual, to just play what you feel. In the end, I think this song does a good job summing up what Christmas feels like to me, even without any words, maybe, especially without any words.