Eardrum Assault Month Begins

November 26, 2010 at 9:28 am | Posted in Music Reviews, Repertoire/Programming, Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Warning: I realize that many people may disagree with what I write here. This post contains only my opinions — and boy am I opinionated. Although I’d love to see a slew of commenters agreeing with me, I don’t expect it. You have been warned.

I am still amazed when I find someone who looks forward to Christmastime “because of the music,” but to those of you who love Christmas music, your time has come. With Thanksgiving in the bag and Christmas shopping season in full swing, the shopping malls and department stores that had occasionally tossed a carol into the usual background mix of muzak and eighties pop over the last month will dive wholly in with a constant stream (or barrage, take your pick) of Christmas music.

It’s a time of year I call Eardrum Assault Month.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve disliked Christmas music.  Why? Because Christmas music is, on the whole, musically uninteresting. It’s built on basic major harmonies, simple melodies (after all, your five-year-old child can sing Christmas music), and an ungodly amount of repetition. There so little of musical interest in the most well-known Christmas carols — no chromaticism, no surprise harmonies, no dynamic changes, no modulations, no thematic development.

But I guess that comes with the territory, no? Most Christmas music is meant to be sung by hoi polloi, those with little musical education outside of what they can absorb from church hymnals. So the music is necessarily simple, sometimes rustic, and definitely short. Thank goodness they’re short. (So short, in fact, that you have to string a bunch of them together to create a whole piece. Come to our December concert to hear what I mean.)

My guess is that the people who truly enjoy Christmas music enjoy it for the feelings and memories that it evokes, and not for any musical reasons. Which is fine and good. I have the same types of reactions to the fifth symphonies of Shostakovich and Mahler. But I would not ever want every store I go into to play only these two pieces for an entire month. Those fond memories I hold now would surely be quickly replaced by feelings of weariness (like I get when I have to listen to Ravel’s Bolero).

The sheer repetition is a major factor in my dislike of Christmas music — and of Bolero, for that matter. Christmas music is the musical equivalent of political campaign commercials, only those commercials come every two years. And Christmas songs and carols, like political commercials, can become well-known specifically because of how bad they are. (Speaking of repetition and badness, let me just say that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is the second cruelest joke ever perpetrated on man, instrumental versions of the same song being the first.)

I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t point out that some yuletide music is acceptable, and even good, to my ears. Here are a few of the songs that I enjoy hearing this time of year — or any time of year. Note that most of them aren’t related specifically to Christmas. The blokes who select what music to fill a department store with might want to give this list some scrutiny and consider what they’re piping into their stores. (Are you listening, Target?)

  • “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — A wonderful duet. I prefer more modern renditions over the somewhat dated versions from 50 years ago.
  • “Winter” by Tori Amos — I’m a huge Tori Amos fan, so this beautiful and haunting piece has to make the list.
  • “Long December” by Counting Crows — Easily the most depressing song on the list, this is a good addition to include those people who have no one to celebrate Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa with.
  • “The Nearness of You” the Norah Jones rendition — This is great to pair with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to capture the idea of curling up with a loved one by a warm fire as the snow falls outside. Which isn’t really what department stores et al. want to get you to do.
  • “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” — The sadder the better.
  • “Christmas Time Is Here” — Only the Vince Guaraldi/Charlie Brown version is worth a listen.
  • “Linus and Lucy” by Vince Guaraldi — Not exactly a Christmas song, though I’ve heard it programmed on more than one Christmas concert.
  • “Ice, Ice, Baby” by Vanilla Ice — Just kidding.
  • The Duke Ellington “Nutcracker Suite” — Russian musical giant meets American jazz master.

I’m sure there are plenty more examples of “acceptable” yuletide music out there. Unfortunately, they are up against a horde of traditional, uninteresting Christmas songs.

What Christmas songs grate on you the most? What wonderful winter music have I forgotten? What do you think of the music that gets piped into stores this time of year?

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3 Comments »

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  1. Yes, Christmas music is music for the masses. It’s major/minor, quite singable, and tells a story. Historically, the purpose of Christmas music, as a subset of Christian music, was to teach generally illiterate (European) people about events in the Bible and the elements of their faith. As the holiday became secularized and commercialized (a complaint of the clergy since the Middle Ages) catchy songs with mass appeal were written – and money was made. The problem is – overkill! (Maybe we could argue that professional sports, marching band – pop culture in general are perpetrators and victims of overkill.)

    I, too, get really sick and tired of Christmas music. It’s an attempt to one-up the previous year. So we have spawned Christmases by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Mannheim Steamroller, and Britney Spears.

    The Christmas experience is just a reflection of the demand of pop culture. The music community merely provides the supply to meet the demand.

    We can pretty well write off the religious experience for most folks. How about an O Holy Night by Mariah Carey or Carrie Underwood? A Harry Potter Christmas? Music is just one of many victims of pop culture overkill. Sophistocation, reflection, and any deeper meaning of the holiday have been lost to the larger feelgood culture.

  2. I pretty much agree with your comments.

    I believe my primary reason for tiring of Christmas music is the repetition. Similar to what you say, although I enjoy Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example, I would quickly tire of it if I heard it multiple times in a month.

    The second reason is that most of the versions you hear are schlocky Muzak-like arrangements with no musical edge to them.

    I’m not sure that I would blame the simplicity of the tunes. Many great works of music are based on a single simple theme. It’s what you do with the tune that matters. Does the composer or artist do anything interesting with the dynamics, instrumentation, expression, etc.?

    I’m afraid, however, that most people prefer the overly familiar. How else can you explain commercial radio where the same songs are played over and over for weeks on end?

    By the way, when you mentioned that Christmas songs were short, I immediately thought of the tune you called the second cruelest joke. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is certainly too long. Way, way, way too loooooooong!

    And I have to disagree with your assessment of “Bolero.” Sure, it repeats the same melody over and over to a fault. Instead, it takes a different tack for creating musical interest by building to a climax by increasing the volume and, more importantly, changing the color of the music by varying the instrument or instruments playing that melody. I enjoy “Bolero”, especially if listened to in a darkened, candlelit room.

    • You do realize that Bolera was actually a composition excercise for Ravel!


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