What Makes a Song 'Christmas-y?'

Joe Bennett, professor and forensic musicologist, weighs in on the trends and tropes of holiday music.

December 8, 2022

Berklee Professor Joe Bennett is a musicologist, writer, and researcher who has spoken at length on everything from song analysis to Eurovision submissions in outlets such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. Bennett also teaches the general elective course Special Topics: Forensic Musicology. We checked in with Bennett at the start of the holiday season to see how his areas of expertise make this time of year extra busy for him.

How did you learn about forensic musicology, and what did you study in order to hone your craft?

A forensic musicologist’s role is to analyze music—usually two similar songs—to try to figure out if the similarities are due to coincidence or copying. We work with music attorneys, publishers, songwriters, and artists, and assist with resolving copyright disputes. Forensic musicology uses two main approaches: song comparison (for melody, beats, or lyrics) or audio authentication (for alleged sampling). Occasionally, musicologists testify as expert witnesses in court cases, but most of our work is done behind the scenes, hopefully to help everyone to avoid an expensive lawsuit.

How does forensic musicology help your work on copyright concerns and determining similarities or differences between songs?

I started in the United Kingdom in 2007 working mostly on projects in London, then when I moved to the United States in 2015 the forensic musicology work went crazy. It’s perhaps a combination of the scale of music industry activity here together with the fact that the U.S. is just a more litigious country! My biggest takeaway from analyzing so many songs over the years is that coincidental similarity between melodies is way more common than people think. We’ve all had that experience of hearing something that sounds a bit like something else, but the majority of the time, plagiarism is not the reason. There are so many tropes in popular music, such as grooves, melodic fragments, and production ideas, that cause similarities to crop up really frequently. A lot of the time, my analysis finds that the subjective similarity between the songs is a simple coincidence, which disappoints many plaintiffs and delights many defendants.

Your research into musicology has taken you to some interesting places, including the creation of the “perfect Christmas song.” Can you tell us a little bit about how this project came about?

Ah, the so-called perfect Christmas song! A few years ago, I was approached by a U.K. chain of shopping malls who wanted to commission a Christmas song to make their shoppers feel happy for the holiday season. So to help the songwriters who were working on the project, we did a corpus analysis of the U.K.’s favorite Christmas songs. We analyzed 78 hits from the top Spotify streams that year, recording meta-characteristics like tempo, key, groove, year of release, and lyric theme, looking for trends in the data. The biggest takeaway was the remarkable age of the recordings, compared to popular music generally; “White Christmas,” for example, came out in 1942. What other time of year do you hear songs from the 1940s on mainstream radio?

The most common lyric theme [of Christmas music] identified in the analysis was nostalgia: coming home for Christmas, missing those we love at Christmas, reminiscing about Christmases past, and so on.

— Joe Bennett

The U.K. media picked it up and mischaracterized it as “the science behind Christmas songs,” and to this day I get interviewed about the research every November. The most common question is “what’s the secret formula?” but, as everyone at Berklee knows, there is no formula for any kind of songwriting, just a set of creative choices in the songwriter’s craft and an entire production team applying their skills to make the record as good as it can be.

For you—as a musicologist and music lover—what makes a song “Christmas-y?”

Unsurprisingly, the most common lyric theme identified in the analysis was nostalgia: coming home for Christmas, missing those we love at Christmas, reminiscing about Christmases past, and so on. Musically, the one everyone knows about is eight-to-the-bar sleigh bells, which appeared in 49 percent of the recordings we analyzed. And there was an interesting balance to be had in the production. Some of the most common streams had contemporary production values with mid-20th-century arranging tropes. Michael Bublé’s 2011 album, Christmas, which comprised 10 of the 78 songs analyzed in aforementioned U.K. project, is perhaps the best example—it combined traditional big band arrangements with radio-friendly autotune vocals.

What’s your favorite Christmas or holiday song?

I’m not a person of faith, so personally I gravitate to the secular ones. I love Tim Minchin’s “White Wine In The Sun,” which celebrates family, universal love, and home. That said, for peace-on-earth good vibes, Shaun Colvin’s 1998 album, Holiday Songs and Lullabies, is hard to beat, even though it’s mostly traditional carols. And who doesn’t love all those classic ’60s Phil Spector recordings?

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