This started because there has been much ado in the media about how Christmas music works. The discovery was so Earth Shattering it went all the way to the heights of Vox Media, who asked some guy to explain to them how music worked on an iPhone keyboard. The answer to how to write a Christmas song: use a Dm7(b5) chord! (aka a D half-dim 7. That may or may not actually contain a D).
I think I've discovered the real secret to Christmassy, snow-tinged emotion. The power revealed here should not be used lightly, and should be used at your own risk. What I'm about to reveal to you, struggling young composer, is the amazing, emotional, snow power of the I-iii progression!
Now I'm going to attempt to make a very technical music / theoretical point without any musical transcription or notation. You're just going to have to trust me when I say all this music is based on the same chord progression. And that progression is I-iii (if you don't have any idea what I'm talking about, in the key of C major, for instance, this would mean the progression between C major and E minor. There's exactly one note difference between the two chords. The C changes to B- right next door, a half-step away, the other notes stay the same- and viola, the chord changes from major to minor!)
So it goes Major-Minor. Happy-Sad. Here's how it works narratively: you start out a little happy, perfectly fine, but then with one half-step change, BAM! Not so happy. More nostalgic. More longing. Yet with hardly any change! It's practically the same! It's only one tiny half-step difference between the two chords! So easy, the voice leading writes itself. (Note: do NOT confuse this with the equally powerful "Philip Glass progression": i-VI, Minor-Major, wherein one starts out kind of melancholy, and then with one half-step change- BAM! Sunlight. More hope. More wonderment. Equal but opposite).
If you don't think I'm onto something, well, I've performed on more than a few film music / Christmas themed concerts, my friend. I've compiled a brief analysis of the history of the progression below.
I mean, let's first compare the climactic moments of two recent Holiday classics. First, I give you the moment in Elf when Santa's Sleigh takes flight (or something, details are fuzzy) and we bask in the glory of Christmas (the actual I-iii progression is at 14 seconds in. You can't miss it. You'll think "oh, Christmas! Emotion!"):
This should give you a good preparation for the power of the I-iii, which had been cleverly hinted at by John Debney throughout the score to this point (notice its appearance, even in the opening credits: a cue which emphasizes the goofiness of the premise of the movie through a 50s-cheesy-and-innocent-commercial-meets-Christmas-because-sleighbells-vibe, but still breaks into the I-iii progression to say: "emotion.").
But where did he get this idea? Well, it's been in the air, my friend.
Elf is from 2003, and here's the moment of perhaps an overly climaxing, emotional endeavor by Alan Silvestri from 2004, Polar Express (directed by none other than Robert Zemeckis!). I must emphasize, this music is from a completely different movie, written and created by totally different human beings. The reason they sound so similar is because it's exactly the same chord progression, at the "money moment" anyway. I-iii. (Skip to 5 min in if you really want to hear it shine, but you can also hear it right at the beginning).
Where does it come from? Well, I'm pretty sure both of these scores were temp tracked with the ultimate in I-iii climaxes from the past 30 years, which is owned by Danny Elfman and Edward Scissor Hands (1990). Interesting tie-ins: while not specifically a Christmas movie, there is certainly a snow / ice / love motive suggested by the music and theme of the movie. Film music, necessarily, works by these shortcuts, these quick heart-tugs. What you are hearing is technically "I-iii", but this music conjures all kinds of connotations, because you are vaguely aware of scenes like this. I choose to share this famous cinematic moment because it's precisely the recollection of scenes like this that give the abstract "I-iii" progression it's power.
In this case, the references of the music connect back to powerful images of snow / beauty / love / emotion. After you've seen it, or maybe even if you haven't, somehow these cultural references are formed. It's almost like you are being subconsciously manipulated. This progression "sounds like" snow and love because you've heard it before. Right here:
Of course I-iii is way too great to have been discovered by Danny Elfman.
No, I think we have to trace it back further. One possible source for it's prominence in my above examples might be La Boheme (1896) by Puccini, where the I-iii is obviously a prominent leitmotif. We can hear it in the famous aria "Che gelida manina" where it becomes the "love motif" of the opera. (go to 2:28 to hear it prominently. The under-pinning chord progression is the same I-iii motion we've been examining).
If you are too lazy to find the moment in this clip, because it's a bit less obvious than the film music, I have the duet between Mimi and Rudolfo here. Listen and weep, it's right at the beginning:
And in case you're still skeptical of the connection, I should point out that La Boheme is set on CHRISTMAS EVE on the left bank of Paris. How romantic! Here's a chorus singing the motive in the snow (to hear and see the point, you must go to 1 hr exactly):
It's almost like listening to all these musical clips, from the future, set you up to appreciate this, didn't it?
Now, did Danny Elfman know he was referencing this very specific connection between love, snow, and Christmas when he used the same progression to signify love and snow and ice in his score to Edward Scissor Hands? I don't know, and honestly, I'm a little skeptical he did. The melody is totally different. Yet the underlining chord progression is the same, which is why it sounds similar. But either way, this thing is in the cultural firmament, people. La Boheme is probably the most successful opera of the 20th century (though yes, it's technically from the 19th century). But it's in the air. Even if you've never been to the opera. We don't know how these exact connections are made, yet they undoubtably are.
And I'm sure there is something that Puccini is riffing on here- he's not off the hook for "ripping people off" at all. I'm not exactly sure what his reference point is, but I wouldn't doubt there is something. This didn't come from nowhere. I look forward to someone pointing me in the right direction to take the I-iii progression further back in time...
My larger point is, this is HOW MUSIC WORKS. There is no such thing as complete originality. Musical meaning depends on people making these associations before you. Merry Christmas.
Of course, if you REALLY want to signify Christmas, there's an even better way: have bells go (scale degrees) 1-5-6-3. See below. Add sleigh bells. ALl examples point to this being the most (only?) truly important thing. Maximum Christmas.
PS. Here is Laurie Anderson riffing on I-iii for 8 minutes. This progression naturally attracts the minimalists because of, well, its minimalism. It has nothing really to do with Christmas I just like it:
[Update and P.S.S.]
I feel like this is a real thing, despite some doubters. Here's a Honda commercial from this very Christmas season. Yes, maybe all these composers used Edward Scissor Hands as a temp track- but isn't it a fine line from literally using something as a temp track and ripping it off, compared to kind of being aware of it and referencing it subconsciously? How do we, as the listener, know where to draw that line?