Christmas Sheet Music is generally like every other kind of sheet music except for one thing; because of 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’s easier for the piano accompanist to take more harmonic chances.
Christmas songs like Deck the Halls, Jingle Bells, Silent Night and Joy to the World are so entrenched in our consciousness that few people even have to think about the words or the melody. It just comes naturally for most of us, at least in western culture, to sing the lyrics and melodies without any thought at all.
That’s what makes it all the more fun for pianists who accompany carolers to take some really neat harmonic chances with the underlying chords. Generally speaking no matter what you do, and as long as you keep the beat going, no one’s going to get lost.
Christmas sheet music is very often notated with accompanying chord symbols to help pianists make good chord choices. Of course, the more talented the pianist the more interesting the choices. That’s 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 is this done? Let’s take a song like Jingle Bells for example. If we’re in the key of F, the basic chord symbols at the chorus are as follows;
| F | | | | Bb | F | C7 | |
| F | | | | Bb | F | C7 | F |
Now, how would one approach re-harmonizing this very simple chord progression? Most jazz players would know the answer to that question but for everyone else the trick lies in something we call the 2-5-1 progression or II – V – I. This basically means that in front of every landing chord we can put a II – V progression with the one (I) being the landing chord or destination chord.
If in the chord progression above you were to put a II – V in front of the Bb landing chord you would get a whole new sound. What is a II – V? In the scale of Bb (our landing chord) C is the second note of the scale and F is the fifth note of the scale. Therefore 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 notated like this |C- | F | Bb|.
Would you like to try something a bit trickier? Try adding sevenths to each chord. That means add a seventh interval, either major or minor 7th to each chord as reflected by the Bb major scale. Therefore the final II – V – I progression, with Bb as the landing chord, would be notated as |C-7| F7 | BbM7|.
So how would the chorus of Jingle Bells be notated if you used II – V’s 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 likely hear if you play these chords on the piano it makes the progression seem much more interesting and rich. So, the next time you pick up a sheet of Christmas music have a look at the landing chords and see if you can’t put a II – V in front of them. You’re music will have so much extra color to it and everyone will marvel at your new found ability. Merry Christmas Sheet Music Everyone!