Classical 91.5

Putting the Jolly in Holiday Music

Dec 11, 2018

Claire Caverly, the Production Manager for the Empire Film and Media Ensemble, offers up this guest blog post on what makes Holiday soundtracks so festive:

It's the most wonderful time of the year, and it seems that around every corner, we encounter the sounds of this yuletide season. Radio stations blast “All I Want for Christmas” and “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” Advertisements bombard us with their merry jingles. It seems like Love Actually might just be on a 24/7 television loop. After a few weeks of this, all I want for Christmas is for the madness to end.

Media floods us with the sounds and images of the picture perfect season, and much of this comes straight from the motion picture house itself - that's right, the movies. The silver screen has been the source of holiday magic since nearly the advent of the cinema itself. Along with the colorful images of the Heat Miser and a train with a direct line to the North Pole, comes some of the most holly jolly music ever written.


But what makes holiday film music specific to this season? I talked to some experts and fired up my favorite Christmas movies to find out.


1. Sleigh Bells


When I first started researching this question, I went straight to Mark Watters, Director of the Beal Institute for Film Music and Contemporary Media at Eastman School of Music to get his input on this holiday phenomenon. His answer: “sleigh bells.” He laughed and then followed with, “The use of familiar tunes makes Christmas music accessible and heartwarming, but you could take the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and add some sleigh bells and people will think it's a Christmas song.” Sleigh bells automatically conjure images of a sleigh pulled by reindeer trekking through the snow, perhaps carrying a white-bearded, red-suited man with a belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly, perhaps not. But the sound of sleigh bells is ubiquitous to winter, even though reindeer may no longer be our primary mode of transportation.

2. More Percussion!

Beyond just sleigh bells, percussion plays a major role in holiday film music. Santa Clause squeezing down the chimney would be nowhere near as magical without his traditional chime accompaniment. Bells are also traditional features of cinematic Yuletide music, providing the sounds of magic and a sense of the sacred. Bells play a major role in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, waking Scrooge from his transformative journey, and we hear the noble  Salvation Army bell-ringers raising funds for those less fortunate around every corner. It’s only natural that these bells and chimes would be present throughout seasonal film music.

3. Choir

The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear, and this familiar holiday tradition has carried from the concert hall to the movie theater. Choral music is often featured quite openly in holiday films, for example, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Elf, and Polar Express. A group of voices joined in joyful music conveys the history of caroling and familiar music that many of us grew up singing. Few things feel cozier than a good rendition of “Christmastime is Here,” demonstrating choral music’s strong foothold in the world of holiday film music.

4. Familiarity

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of holiday film music is that its built on traditional music that we all recognize. I was hard-pressed to watch a film that didn’t feature an arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in some form or other. Despite the foundation of traditional melodies, new holiday musical creations enter the mainstream repertoire pretty quickly. Unlike in traditional classical music where folk songs are added so the music is accessible for all, in holiday film music, original songs can become part of the pop cultural lexicon pretty quickly. For example, “Believe,” written for The Polar Express and made popular by Josh Groban, was created specifically for that film, and now I can’t walk into a Wegman’s without hearing it.  


Holiday films and their music are traditions that stay with us for generations. The magic of the season is epitomized by Rudolph’s first flight with its similarly soaring music or a group of crabby New Yorkers caroling to get Santa’s sleigh off the ground. It reminds us of our homes wherever they may be and of the warmth surrounding this time of year.


To hear these cinematic sounds of the season and more, tune into the EFAME Holiday Spectacular on WXXI Classical 91.5 on Thursday, December 13, at 1PM, or an encore on Sunday, December 16 at 1PM. From all of us at Empire Film and Media Ensemble, may your days be merry and bright.