Anatomy of a Christmas Carol: Deck the Hall

Deck the Hall is a classic Welsh Christmas carol from the 16th century. From its long-lasting popularity, we can learn how looking at the harmony, melody, and overall structure of a piece contributes to our ability as performers to control more fully how we express emotion and narrative (if there is a story) in a piece of music.

Christmas carols overall are small, approachable pieces, so if you have no experience with analyzing music, they’re a great place to start. Additionally, if you’re interested in composing your own music, borrowing the overall structure of a Christmas carol can help you get started.

Form

Most Christmas carols follow a strophic (another word for “verse”) form. Instead of the verse-chorus form that’s found in most pop music, the strophic form just contains a repeated melody that stays the same while the words for every verse change.

Pictured below is the traditional choral setting of “Deck the Hall” that’s found in most hymn books:

Deck the Hall SATB

It’s arranged with four vocal lines: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass, and the melody of the piece (the one element that arguably defines this carol and cannot be altered) is found in the top-most line, the Soprano. This type of arrangement is typical for Christmas carols, as it’s easy to hear a melody line when it’s formed from the highest pitches in the song, and the other vocal parts provide nice harmonies underneath.

This texture is the same found in most church hymns: the voices all move on the same syllables and same words at the same time. It’s called a homophonic texture, literally meaning “the same sounds.”

What makes this texture helpful in caroling traditions is that if you don’t have enough people to cover all the parts (SATB), then you won’t end up with a huge span of time where no one is singing. A bit of harmony is all you’ll be missing.

Homophonic textures in caroling (and hymn) settings also lend themselves well to having a bit of fun with each verse. You might sing the first verse as written, then the second verse, you could swap the Soprano and Tenor parts. The Sopranos would sing the Tenor line up high in their range, and the Tenors would sing the Soprano line down in their range. Then for verse 3, you might switch the Alto and Bass lines. The harmony won’t sound exactly the same, but all of the notes are still present, and it’s a fun and easy way to keep the piece from getting boring after repeating the same 16 measures of music.

The benefits of the strophic form are that they’re usually short forms (“Deck the Hall” is 16 measures long), they’re quick to learn, and because of the repeated nature of the form, you have a little more control over dynamic and articulation. Just like you might switch vocal lines around in every verse, you could choose to sing one verse much softer or another staccato. These are all helpful when you’re trying to get an informal group of friends together to sing around the neighborhood without spending time in rehearsal.

Structure

The structure of a piece of music is formed from patterns: repetition and novelty in both melody and harmony.

Melody

“Deck the Hall” begins with a descending melody. It begins on a high C and winds its way down to F by the beginning of the second measure. In the next few measures, the melody stays near F, rising back up to A for a brief moment but ultimately hovering around that F, which serves as the tonic in this setting. Tonic (for those who don’t know) refers to the home-base of a key in music. This setting is in F major, so the tonic is F. In tonal harmony, the tonic defines where the melody wants to go, where it feels most settled, and all of the other notes serve as exploration away from and back to that home base.

Melody mm. 1–4

The next four measures (5–8) repeat the same exact music as the first four. Because of this repeat, I’ll refer to these four-measure sections as “A,” so the structure so far is AA.

The melody changes in measure 9. Instead of starting high and then descending, the melody begins low, on G and climbs up to the highest pitch in the entire song, a high F in measure 11. These measures are different, so we’ll call it “B,” making the structure to this point AAB. At the end of the B section, the melody descends down to the same C that the A section begins on, and this nicely sets up the repeat of A.

Melody mm. 11–15

AABA is a way of describing the structure of the song as a whole, and this is a common structure that’s used in music throughout almost all of Western music history. In pop songs, this looks like: verse + chorus (A), verse + chorus (A), bridge (B), verse + chorus (A) — or sometimes just chorus, but it would still be considered a sense of repeating. Another type of pop song, “tin pan alley” form (referring to the music publishing company located in Tin Pan Alley in NYC), is strophic like “Deck the Hall” and was used in the early 20th century by famous songsters like George Gerswhin and Irving Berlin. Historically, this type of overarching form can describe other forms like the sonata where an exposition is repeated (AA) before moving into a development section (B) that ultimately ends in a recapitulation (A).

Tin Pan Alley

Cognitively, it’s nice to have that first repetition, so listeners can get settled into the space of a song, but repeating too much can get boring, so that’s where the B section makes things interesting. Spend too much time on new material, though, and listeners can get lost and bored because nothing sounds familiar, so the repeat of the A section at the end gives them something familiar again, which is pleasing.

For composers just starting out, this form is especially helpful, as it is a full and familiar form that limits the amount of music you actually have to write to have a song that feels complete. In “Deck the Halls,” there are only eight unique measures. If you’re struggling to finish a piece, but you have two four-measure chunks of music, try arranging them in an AABA manner.

Harmony

The harmony in this piece also plays a role in defining the AABA structure. I won’t go too deeply into harmonic function, but what’s most important in this piece is the move from tonic to dominant.

In functional harmony, tonic refers to the “home chord.” Just like the tonic pitch refers to the home pitch (in this case F), the tonic chord refers to the chord built from the tonic pitch, so F major in this piece. As a very brief review (check out the resources page if you’re interested in learning more about functional harmony), a traditional way of representing all of the chords in a key is to assign them numbers corresponding to the scale step on which the chord is built. The tonic chord is built from the first note in the F major scale, so it’s called one. We also use Roman numerals as a way of showing whether the chord is major or minor: capital numerals are major, and lowercase numerals are minor. An F major chord is major, so in this key the tonic chord of F major can be represented as “I,” which you can see in the image below.

The other important chord is the dominant, built from the fifth note in the scale, in this case C. This chord is also major, so it is represented by a capital five in Roman numerals: “V.” The dominant chord is significant because it creates a strong pull back to the tonic chord. It shares one note (in this case C) with the tonic, and the other two notes in the chord are only one scale step away from the tonic chord notes. Arguably, the relationship between dominant and tonic defines a key, so as long as you have both of them, you have fully established a key. This becomes more important with pieces that change key, so we’ll stop there.

Basic Harmonic Outline of Deck the Hall

“Deck the Hall” uses harmony in a way that matches the AABA form. The A section begins with a clear tonic (F major) triad, and while there are a lot of different chords that occur in these four measures, the A section carries a sense of tonic and fully ends on a tonic triad. The chords in between the beginning and end of the section can be called “elaborations” then. They’re not necessary to the song: you could play/sing the melody and have the other parts just hold out an F major chord, and it would sound absolutely fine.

The other chords just add color and interest to it.

The B section as a whole carries the sense of dominant. In the same way, it begins and ends with a dominant triad (C major), and the other chords in between make it more interesting, but they’re not required for the song to functionally stay in the key of F major.

Harmony is simple, then! If you’re having trouble harmonizing a melody, start by just creating structure with tonic and dominant. Once that’s established, you can simply explore other chords to fill in the blanks.

Every section does technically end with a cadence, but I don’t want to get too deep into harmony here. This description of functional harmony should give you enough information to get started exploring and creating your own music.

Words

The aspect of lyrics that most stands out is how every phrase ends with “Fa la la la la la la la la.” Basically, my advice here is that when writing a Christmas carol, don’t take yourself too seriously or overthink the lyrics. You can always just use syllables like “la la la,” and it completely fits the style.

Otherwise, I don’t want to delve too deeply into textual analysis because I don’t think it’s important to do so when just starting out writing or analyzing Christmas carols. “Deck the Hall” has a simple rhyme scheme: Lines one and two rhyme (“holly” and “jolly” in mm. 2 and 6) and then lines three and four rhyme (“apparel” and “carol” in mm. 10 and 14). That AABB rhyme scheme is simple and easy to use, so if you want to employ rhyme in your carol, do so.

If you’re just writing a nice Christmas tune though, you don’t even have to use words. But just keep it simple when starting out: maybe sing about traditions you have. My family gets a fancy French toast bake soaking on Christmas eve, so maybe I would write something like “On Christmas eve, we get together, (fa la la…) Warm despite the winter weather (fa la la la). We cut the apples and the bread (fa la la), Right before we go to bed (fa la la la).”

Clearly I just wrote my own lyrics to “Deck the Hall,” but that’s a great way to start: follow a predetermined form, just like with musical structure. From there I would change the rhythm first, and in doing so, I’d hear a different melody in my head, something like this:

Christmas Eve Tune

Sometimes the hardest part can be to come up with the words to start, so using prompts to get you started can help. That’s why I created the Christmas rhythm card packs (for 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8), which you can check out here.

Write Your Own Christmas Carol Composition Pack

Conclusion

Music analysis can go as deeply as you want it to, but I hope this brief look at harmony, melody, and structure in “Deck the Hall” has helped those of you who may be new to music analysis. It’s helpful to look at beloved favorites for examples of structure for inspiration for composition and to show the options performers have to express many different sentiments.

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Happy musicking!

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