Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

What Does Christmas Sound Like?

Music & Sound
London, UK
MassiveMusic reflects on Christmas trends from around the world
Q> How would you define the sound of Christmas in your country (e.g. What are the important instruments involved, how does it/should it make people feel)?

Sam Taselaar, Creative Development Manager, MassiveMusic Amsterdam. Bells, of course. I think that’s quite common throughout the world. You will also hear the (American) Santa Claus a lot saying “Ho ho ho Merry Christmas”. So I would say.. Voices. Children’s choirs. And you will see a lot of people (atheists included) going to church to sing along with the choir. For the rest you’ll hear the standard songs coming on the radio (Happy Xmas / War is Over by John Lennon, Mariah Carey, Wham!, etc). People are out in the cold on their bikes, ploughing through snow and ice, so they should feel warm, cozy and amongst family when they’re inside listening to the Spotify playlist/radio etc. 

Sam Taselaar

James Bargent, Music Producer, MassiveMusic London. Since the culture surrounding Christmas has been exported pretty much globally, there are some borrowed commercial tunes as well as the more traditional pieces. It depends on your environment. Step into a typical shop and you’ll hear a famous diva belting out a cheery song of the soul variety. Or perhaps one of the same sleigh-bell smattered set of 28 ‘modern’ Christmas anthems that were created by eccentric hairy rock stars in the 70s and 80s. Think: ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ - do you, really? Walk past a church, a public outdoor retail space or even your own doorstep and you’ll hear choristers harmonising carols of old and other arrangements of contemporary song.

Elijah B. Torn, Senior Creative Director, MassiveMusic New York.  On the East Coast of the US we’ve seen a distinct focus on creating music that evokes the warmth of the holidays without existing in the Christmas tableau. Sure, tubular and sleigh bells can be peppered in to a piece but there’s been a push in recent years to go for the feeling of togetherness, happiness and caring as the takeaway rather than another version of jingle bells. The musical translation of Fireplaces, Hot Chocolate and Mistletoe over the standards. We’ve produced pieces ranging from cute and playful folk instrumentation, aka ukulele and acoustic guitar, to more pop indie-punk pieces all with the goal of that cosy feeling that the holidays bring. Yes of course there are still traditional standards as well. 

Elijah B. Torn

Tim Adams, Creative Director & Composer, MassiveMusic Los Angeles. In the US (as, I’m sure, with everywhere else) there are several different stripes of Christmas sound. There’s the overtly saccharine, slightly oppressive canned cheer of Holiday muzak piped into every department store under the sun. There are the bedrock holiday standards like Nat King Cole’s ‘Christmas Song’ that evoke the holiday mood instantly in the first few bars. There’s this. But the consistent thing across all holiday sounds is ultimately the songbook – that small handful of songs that define what the holidays mean, the stockpile that every artist spanning decades and eras of music returns to when it’s time to crank out a Christmas hit. Take ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’, for instance. A quick Spotify search reveals versions of this song by artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Bruce Springsteen, the Jackson Five to Gene Autry, Alvin and the Chipmunks to Elvis Presley and all points in between. Sure, there is the occasional original Christmas hit (Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ is probably the most ubiquitous of these), but the vast majority of holiday music draws over and over from the same well of standards, and they’re what define The Sound Of Christmas.   

Tamon Fujimi, Director of Creative Development APAC, MassiveMusic Tokyo. Probably bells. We celebrate Christmas as looking at how the western culture celebrates, and bells and choirs are something we hear often. Christmas and Halloween are western holidays we casually celebrate here in Japan without really knowing the history behind them.

Tim Adams

Q> How should someone approach the creation of a Christmas track? What are the variables which need to be considered?

Sam Taselaar, Creative Development Manager, MassiveMusic Amsterdam. Don’t be afraid to be cheesy ;). People like being a bit nostalgic and melancholic during the holiday season. So don’t make it too complicated, you can address the fact that you’re missing your family whilst on the road, you love snow and reindeers, you love unwrapping Christmas presents, and you love being with the people you love saying that you love them. Did I mention love? Also, it should be equally interesting the 79023th time you hear it, even over the span of 25 years. It should be an earworm pur sang, it’s Christmas for Christ’s sake.

James Bargent, Music Producer, MassiveMusic London There are certain well-established tropes that make a song a Christmas song. For some famous artists, it needs only to be released around Christmas for it to become an annual hit that keeps them rolling in royalties for a lifetime. But for those who don’t already sit atop the charts, you may do well to employ some of the following:
- Start with the obvious: mention Christmas in the lyric, or Santa, or presents
- Sleigh bells, relentless sleigh bells. Never-stop-shaking those sleigh bells
- The festive season is where all good taste is lost in an intoxicating haze of merriment, so unleash your eccentricities, and don’t take the songwriting too seriously. The cheese doesn’t have to just stay on the post-dessert cheese board
- Consider the Christmas parties. You’d do well to create a chorus that can be screamed by a terminally uncouth gang of drunk revellers at the end of their office Christmas blow-out

James Bargent

Elijah B. Torn, Senior Creative Director, MassiveMusic New York. When writing a piece of music for the holidays it’s important to find that balance between saccharin and playful. Composing and producing the piece to be recognizably festive but overly derivative or feeling like stock is crucial and a tricky balance. I think it’s important for the piece to be catchy with a solid hook but also not rely too heavily on standard tropes. It seems like a given but the more live instrumentation the better. Recording your own glockenspiel and bells is always far more beneficial to the production then using the same sleigh bell samples as every other holiday tune. 

Tim Adams, Creative Director & Composer, MassiveMusic Los Angeles. Well, there are generally two modes you’ll be in when tackling a Christmas song: wistful / nostalgic / emotional; or celebrational ‘Deck The Halls’-style cheer. Whichever mode you’re in, you’re fishing in incredibly overfished waters – there is more trite garbage-y holiday music in the world than a century of listening could ever absorb. So I think the best thing to consider before embarking on a new track is how to bring soul to it, bring authenticity. If you’re covering a classic, how can you attack it in a way that stands out? Is there a new vocal arrangement that can breathe life into a song we’ve all heard thousands of times before?  Is there an instrumental arrangement that freshens up something like ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’, making it genuinely fun to listen to? If you’re coming up with an original, the job is both more simple and more challenging: you need to write an incredible song.  

Tamon Fujimi

Tamon Fujimi, Director of Creative Development APAC, MassiveMusic Tokyo. I truly believe that it’s very difficult to write an original one because lots of people are familiar with most of the Christmas songs out there. You might want to bring something relevant and remix a traditional Christmas tune that already exists. To be honest, Japan is probably not the place to come up with something original in this case since it is not our original holiday. 

Q> In your market, what is the best Christmas advert soundtrack for 2018? 

Sam Taselaar, Creative Development Manager, MassiveMusic Amsterdam. I think the choice of having ‘It Must Have Been Love’ by Roxette in the latest Heathrow spot is so bad that it’s good. Like I mentioned in the previous question, don’t be afraid to get cheesy. 

James Bargent, Music Producer, MassiveMusic London. The Christmas soundtrack that’s stood out the most has to be TK Maxx’s ‘The Neverending Stocking’. I mean, it uses ‘Cuban Pete’ by José Norman. Totally unexpected, plus its mood fits naturally with the quirky narrative and colourful imagery.

Elijah B. Torn, Senior Creative Director, MassiveMusic New York. In line with going against the grain of using the holiday cliches, I think Apple’s ‘Share Your Gifts’ does a great job of finding a kind of music that is evocative of the season but doesn’t hit you over the head. It’s a modern track perfectly fit for an Apple ad coupled with amazing animation that leaves you with the perfect feeling for what the holidays are really about.  

Tim Adams, Creative Director & Composer, MassiveMusic Los Angeles. We haven’t seen everything that’s destined to drop yet, but for my money, it will be hard to beat Apple’s ‘Share Your Gifts’ spot featuring the latest song from Billie Eilish. It has everything: a compelling story, emotionality, beautifully rendered wintery visuals, and of course the perfect song. I really love it.

Tamon Fujimi, Director of Creative Development APAC, MassiveMusic Tokyo. Line just came out with this. From a Japanese point of view, this one will get positive reviews. The kids don’t look like they are in high school though. 

Q> In your market, what is the most iconic Christmas advert soundtrack ever?

Sam Taselaar, Creative Development Manager, MassiveMusic Amsterdam. Can something that came out last year already be iconic? Whatever, as my grandmother always used to say: “Show me the rules so I can ignore them”. Last year Albert Heijn used ‘Make You Feel My Love’ by Bob Dylan, but then with a cover version by Anne Brun (most people will know Adele’s version). Epic. It won the prize for ‘Best spot of the year’. So Iconic in the making!

James Bargent, Music Producer, MassiveMusic London. That Coca-Cola ad clearly didn’t originate in the UK, but it has been airing here for over two decades and is a staple part of the Christmas period. So much so, that the anticipatory chants of ‘holidays are coming’ are often taken as an official start of the festivities for some. The song is catchy, cleverly arranged, and doesn’t drive you to insanity. If the popular belief that Coca-Cola turned Santa red were true, it appears the drinks company has been able to tap into the Christmas experience quite profoundly.

Elijah B. Torn, Senior Creative Director, MassiveMusic New York. Not a commercial per se but I do think that in terms of branded content this wins

Tim Adams, Creative Director & Composer, MassiveMusic Los Angeles. The most iconic holiday ad song I can think of would have to be the Coca-Cola Christmas Hilltop commercial, which featured a tis-the-season version of ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’. That spot ran for years in the States, from the mid-seventies onward, was updated, remade, had a reunion. You name it.  

Tamon Fujimi, Director of Creative Development APAC, MassiveMusic Tokyo. This JR Rail commercial was on for a while. 

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