“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is a traditional English Christmas carol whose origins are unknown. Regardless of where it came from, it is a short and familiar tune that contains an interesting use of sequences and non-diatonic harmony. Exploring form, melody, and harmony in short, familiar tunes like this one provides an excellent entrance into music analysis. We can also apply analytic findings to our performances or use them as guides for creating our own harmonically interesting carols.
Most Christmas carols tend to be repetitive because of the way they are used. Often groups get together and want to learn a lot of music quickly (sometimes memorize it). Repetition means less material to actually learn but still a full piece. Last week in the “Deck the Hall” analysis, I mentioned how carols are often strophic: many verses that repeat form the piece, but “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is perhaps a more familiar form: verse-chorus.
Just like most pop music, then, the verses change each time, but the chorus stays the same.
There’s even more repetition within the verse alone and within the chorus alone, but these repeats also serve harmonic functions. I’ll discuss them more in the harmony section below.
In melodic analysis, theorists often discuss the “contour” of a melody. You can figure this out by playing connect the dots with the notes on the staff. Since each two-measure phrase of the verse is the same, just transposed up each time, we only have to look at one repetition to uncover the contour:
This melody, “We wish you a Merry Christmas,” begins on the lowest line of the staff, an E♭. Then it leaps up to A♭, steps up to B♭, then steps back down toward where it started. It doesn’t go all the way down to that original E♭, but it does get close: it ends on F.
It starts low, gets high in the middle, and ends low: it forms an arc shape when we connect the dots. This is a common melodic contour in Western tonal music, so it’s not surprising. There is an important tonal-harmonic relationship that occurs within this melodic arc as well.
The leap up at the beginning from E♭ to A♭ represents the dominant-tonic relationship in this key, A♭ major. In functional harmony, tonic refers to the “home chord.” Just like the tonic pitch refers to the home pitch (in this case A♭), the tonic chord refers to the chord built from the tonic pitch, so A♭ major in this piece. As a very brief review, 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 A♭ 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 A♭ major chord is major, so in this key the tonic chord of A♭ major can be represented as “I,” which you can see in the harmony section.
The other important chord is the dominant, built from the fifth note in the scale, in this case E♭. 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 E♭) 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. As long as you have both of them, you have fully established a key.
I’ll talk about this more in the harmony section because this gets more important to understand when we switch keys or use non-diatonic harmony (notes that aren’t from the key in discussion). The point here is that the leap from E♭to A♭ firmly establishes the key at the very beginning.
This is incredibly important because of what occurs in the harmony.
The harmony in this piece can be a little unstable, which is largely due to the sequencing of the melody. Sequences in music are repetitions of a melody and its harmony that are transposed together to different keys.
Both melody and harmony in a sequence must move in the same direction: if the melody is transposed down by a third, then the harmony is also transposed down by a third. In “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” the sequence moves up by steps each time.
You can see this by looking at the bass notes and the melody notes on every “wish.” The first bass “wish” falls on an A♭, the next a B♭, and the last one a C. The melody goes from C to D♮ to E♮.
The coolest part of the harmony, for me, is in the dominant relationships of the harmony between each repetition of the sequence. In the first melody, we have that dominant-tonic (V-I) relationship I talked about in the melody section of this post. The “I,” A♭ major, moves up to IV (D♭major). The melody of this phrase ends on an F. The next phrase’s dominant-tonic relationship is F-B♭, but the last one slightly changes the melody to lead into the “happy new year.”
Harmonically, shown by the Roman numerals beneath the staff, there are a few times when “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” employs non-diatonic harmony, or chords that are not from the home key of A♭ major. In measure 3, the D♭ turns into a D♮, so that the B♭ harmony can be a major chord. The reason this is significant is because B♭ major is the dominant for E♭ major (which is the dominant for the overall key of A♭ major).
B♭ major in m. 3 serves to tonicize or make the E♭ major feel almost like it could become the home key, but it still functions as the dominant of the overall key. That’s why we use the word tonicize instead of saying that the key completely changes in m. 4 because it doesn’t. Overall B♭ is the dominant of the dominant (E♭), so it’s notated in Roman numerals as V/V (read “five of five”).
Tonicization is something that occurs often in sequences and contributes to the sense of fleeting stability harmonically. Hopefully this example provides a good introduction into the concept of tonicization.
The meaning of the words, the story of this carol is “pretty meta.” It’s the story of a group of people who want some figgy pudding, and they’ve devised a scheme to get some without making it themselves. They’re aware that people love Christmas carols and give treats to carolers for braving the cold to spread Christmas cheer. So the group singing in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is capitalizing on that tendency.
In the beginning, they seem to mean well, offering well wishes for pleasant holidays, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” As soon as they’ve gotten that out of the way, they jump straight into “Now give us some figgy pudding.”
I think this piece is a favorite because the original composer, was poking fun at the caroling tradition and how people can act during the holiday season. It certainly is a stressful time!
From someone who’s been in many hired choirs, this is a fun one to perform because you get to break out of that fascade of “everything is joyful and amazing.” You get to be silly. When you start singing your demands to the audience, it’s fun to throw an imaginary temper tantrum, maybe stomp your feet a little. My directors often let us incorporate this into the articulation. Verses 2, 3, and 4, we sang marcato, every note emphasized, almost like we were angry. The other verses we sang overly sweet and legato, so smooth and gentle.
Semantic meanings of words are helpful for their ability to give you fun performance ideas, but I won’t go any deeper into the words today.
What I want you to get out of this post is that you don’t need some lengthy poem to write a good song. It can be something as small as a few phrases: “We wish you a Merry Christmas,” “Good tidings we bring to you and your kin,” and “And a happy New Year.”
I enjoyed writing an example for the Deck the Hall post last week, but I was at a loss (from exhaustion) this week, so I actually put my Christmas rhythm cards to use. I used the 4/4 set but still used “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as my form template, so the verse (I only wrote one) is a sequence of two-measure phrases, and the chorus is two four-measure phrases. Each larger section (verse and chorus) end the same way, the musical “rhyme.”
For the verse, I picked the cards “hanging up the lights” and “spreading Christmas cheer” (and added an “and” to connect them”). I chose “all is merry and bright” for the ending “rhyme” for the verse and chorus. For the long chorus phrases, I used “deck the halls with everybody,” “singing Christmas carols,” and “giving gifts to friends.”
Using the template of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” I wrote this:
Music analysis is an exploration into what makes a piece of music tick. What makes it feel complete and memorable? When we search for these answers, we begin to see patterns: that’s where form comes from, patterns of the structure of a piece.
When we’re new to composition, we can use those patterns to guide us. And if you can’t come up with ideas for the piece of music you want to write (“Christmas” is a very big, very vague topic), then prompts can help, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to use my own rhythm prompt cards for this. Learn more about them and get your own set here.
Form also creates a map for memory, so if you’re in a choir who’s been tasked with memorizing 45 Christmas carols by next week, form is your best friend. I talk about this at length in my post on memory.
Until next time, happy musicking!
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.