Why are so many Christmas songs in a minor key?

My usual radio station is now playing Christmas music 24/7, and I work retail, so I am getting Christmas music all the time. I’ve noticed that many Christmas songs are in a minor key, and not just the songs with melancholy lyrics. Minor keys and joyful don’t seem to go together, so I am curious.

Got any ideas?

I know there will be music majors to better explain this, but many Xmas songs are built around 9th chords, which is like playing a minor chord over a major chord progression; G9 is G-B-D-F-A, and the D-F-A part is a Dm chord, so it’s like playing a Dm over a G Major and it gives you a “pensive” (?) feel. Or something.

I think it has something to do with the vast majority of Western Church music being written in minor keys. As noted above, it creates a pensive mood.

Come to think of it, a lot of Mediaeval secular music is written in minor keys too. I think that has something to do with the ever presence of death.

A few years back, we were breaking in a young new cleric at the Anglican church here in Moscow. Of course, she wanted us to start singing more “upbeat” songs that she’d brought with her from England.

“We can’t sing that!” I said one Sunday during rehearsal. “It’s not in a minor key!”

Which ones? There’s only theee I could think of off the top of my head: O Come O Come Emannuel, We Three Kings, and What Child is This? Those are all kind of pensive and mysterious, with that modal kind of church or Renaissance sound to them.

Oh, wait, there’s also Carol of the Bells.

Otherwise, every other title of standards I’m thinking of right now is in a major key. I’m sure there’s others, but all the typical Christmas songs that come to me are in a major key.

Here’s the Billboard Holiday 100

Scanning it, I see “Mary Did You Know” (#15) is minor (which is a song I never heard before and had to look up.) Then there’s “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” (#16) which is also minor.

So I should add “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” to the minor songs in my previous post. Forgot about that one until Trans-Siberian Orchestra reminded me.

Then I see Carol of the Bells at #52. And then I don’t see anything.

Now I skimmed and listened to several of the songs I had never heard before, so I may have missed another minor song, but of the Billboard Top 100 for last year (and there are repeats, as some songs have charted under multiple artists), I only see three that are in minor keys.

Christmas carols maybe, but not Christmas songs.

Coventry Carol
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
The Holly and the Ivy
I Wonder As I Wander
We Three Kings

Not a lot actually.

There was something going around the internet a year or two ago that claimed to find a “Christmas chord” : it’s the half diminished ii chord. In the key of C, it would be a Dm7b5 or an Fm/D. It’s a shaky proposition, and Adam Neely has a good discussion of it.

I’m not familiar with Christmas songs being built around 9th chords, though. The jazzier interpretations, sure, will have 9th sprinkled here and there, but typically it’s just triads and sevenths.

My vote is for this. Christmas is traditionally a religious holiday and early songs written for it would naturally follow the hymnal feel.

I’d be interested to know more about the Carol of the Bells. It’s my understanding that it originated in Ukraine, so it has nothing to do with the Western Church and, as far as I know, the Orthodox Church is not keen on parishioners singing hymns or carols.

Chanting, yes, but not singing the way Westerners do.

This isn’t really on my own personal radar (but a recent post by Ulf the Unwashed in another thread reminded me of it), but apparently some people make a big deal over the distinction between Christmas and Advent. Are some of those minor-key Christmas songs really Advent songs?

A bit of googling turned up this column:

(bolding mine)

For an example, today my Episcopal choir will be putting on an Advent Carols and Lessons service. Several of the songs selected are in minor keys, including my favorite, the Rutter “There Is a Flower”.

Actual Christmas Carols, the ones you sing on Christmas Day and during the season afterward until Epiphany, tend to be major key.

Mexican: “La virgen lava pañales”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPU-DBgH6HU

Catalan: “The carol of the birds”.

French: The Sleep of the Infant Jesus https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYHPfhOJLto

English: Truth from Above https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5M_8vjqWYmM

I just want to second or third the assertion that church music leading up to Christmas Day is actually Advent music, and Advent is a penitential season (that’s why its liturgical color is traditionally purple or blue, like Lent). Advent songs are often in minor keys because it is a season of self-examination and preparation for the coming of Christ.

But this is music the OP is hearing on their radio station. If their radio station is anything like the Christmas radio stations here, they are playing the type of music that is on the Billboard 100 list I linked to above, and not so much non-stop minor mode churchy Advent music. I’m still curious of the examples the OP has as to the minor songs they are hearing so often on the radio. If it’s a more religious part of the country, a more religious radio station, or maybe a different part of the world where there’s traditional advent music played, then I could see that. But your department store and Christmas radio station music around here is all the usual major key stuff.

I may have not understood: are you saying those are all minor? The Holly and the Ivy is in a major key, isn’t it?

I think several people above nailed it but I think the minor key Christmas carols are also paired well with the mood of winter.

For religious songs, there’s a good argument that Advent songs should be in a minor key. Advent is about waiting and watching. It’s about hope that there might be joy, someday, when today things look bleak and desperate. That calls for minor keys.

And for some of the actual Christmas carols, there’s also the reminder that the story is about to take a kind of dark turn.
Secular songs seem to be in major keys unless they’re about the season being depressing.

Don’t a lot of real old carols and related songs come from the middle ages? Hence they would have been in some standard European minor pentatonic scale, correct? I’m not sure how much old western music from that era was in a major pentatonic, but medieval music always had a minor Dorian mode scale sound to me. And the religious songs from the churches past that time would have probably held onto that scale (and possible mode) by tradition.

Examples of medieval-esque minor pentatonic songs would include:

  • What Child is This
  • God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
  • We Three Kings

…and so on. I’m also reminded of this when hearing songs such as Simon and Garfunkel’s version of Scarborough Fair, another medieval-sounding song (though from the 17th century) that also uses the Dorian pentatonic scale. The Beatles Eleanor Rigby reminds me of it as well, with that classic moody Dorian minor feel.

Also “Gabriel’s Message,” which might possibly be heard on a pop/Christmas station thanks to Sting’s version(s). His 1987, more traditional arrangement, albeit with a modern beat. Then there’s the version from his lovely If On a Winter’s Night album, which is darker, more melancholy: Video from “Live at Durham Cathedral.” (The whole concert is definitely worth a listen.)

I prefer the more bittersweet carols/hymns/songs. Easter is purely joyous and celebratory; Christmas is happy too, but I appreciate the sober awareness that hanging over the birth of this little babe is that He was born to die.

For anyone who has to drive to work in winter weather, “Let It Snow” “Jingle Bells” and “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” should be in a minor key.