Day 6

Want to write a Christmas song? Here are the 5 key elements you'll need

So, you think you're the next Irving Berlin? If you want to write the a great Christmas hit for 2019, Toronto musician Chris Tsujiuchi has same tips for you.

Toronto musician Chris Tsujiuchi breaks down the anatomy of a successful Christmas song

Chris Tsujiuchi, Mike Meusel on bass and saxophonist Bobby Hsu, play at CBC Toronto's Sounds of the Season. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

By now, Christmas music has been playing around you for months, and love it or hate it, you can probably sing every song blaring from the department store speakers.

But what is it about those catchy, everlasting, heart-warming Christmas songs that makes them so darn memorable?

Toronto musician, and host of an annual Christmas cabaret, Chris Tsujiuchi joined Day 6 host Brent Bambury at the CBC Toronto Broadcasting Centre during the annual Sounds of the Season fundraiser.

Day 6 host Brent Bambury speaks with Toronto musician Chris Tsujiuchi about the necessary elements of a great Christmas hit. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

He took to the stage to perform a few songs — and break down the anatomy of a Christmas jam. Here are Tsujiuchi's five tips for writing your own holiday number:

5. It must include the word 'Christmas'

OK, this one is a bit obvious but it's important, says Tsujiuchi. The song should include the word Christmas. Bonus points if it's included in the title.

"There are some really wonderful songs that sometimes get overlooked as Christmas songs because they don't contain the word Christmas," he said.

"I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm is a good example."

4. Bells, bells, bells

No matter what instruments you play in your song, one of them needs to be bells. You can sing about them too.

"Jingle bells, references to bells, church bells, tubular bells — any bells are going to work in your favour," Tsujiuchi said.

3. A strong melodic structure

Time to get technical.

Even if you're singing about Christmas and shaking your bells, the song won't work without a catchy melody.

"A lot of popular Christmas songs were written by great Tin Pan Alley composers and music theater composers, so they have very strong, traditionally functional melodies," Tsujiuchi said.

Chris Tsujiuchi speaks during Anatomy of a Christmas Song, a live performance as part of CBC Toronto's Sounds of the Season. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

The Christmas Song is a good example. Not only does it start with an octave jump — "a really bold move," he adds — but it changes keys twice in the first 16 bars.

"It moves all around, it's very fluid, it's very warm and Christmas-sy." How could you forget it?

2. Chords and harmony

Sure, your melody sounds great but that will only get you so far in a world dominated by the likes of White Christmas and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

"The chords and the harmony you use underneath your melody are also important," said Tsujiuchi.

Speaking of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, here's what it might sound like without the extra dimension.

What would Judy Garland's Christmas classic be without a swinging harmony?

1. It all comes down to the words

Great lyrics should accompany any great song.

"If you get the lyrics wrong, it's all over," Tsujiuchi said.

In an early version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, composers Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote:

"Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past."

Not very uplifting.


To hear our full segment with Chris Tsujiuchi at CBC Toronto's Sounds of the Season, click listen above or download our podcast.

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