Piano and Christmas tree

4 Ways to Find Holiday Music To Play This Season

I love Christmas music. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia from enjoying it as a kid, or the fact that much of it is about nice things like peace on earth and having a nice time with loved ones.

Christmas cake
Image by Дарья Яковлева from Pixabay

Whatever the reason, playing and singing Christmas carols is probably my favorite thing about the holidays. Well, that and the food!

As musicians we have the opportunity of playing a special role around the holidays. Music is a powerful tool for bringing people together and raising spirits, and if we want to, we can be an instrumental (pun intended) part of that.

However, depending on your level and your access to music, this can involve a little bit of planning. That’s why no matter what time of hear it is, this post is relevant now, even though I still subscribe to the notion that Christmas music shouldn’t be played until Thanksgiving at the earliest. (Obviously that rule doesn’t apply to practicing!)

Although I’ll be focusing on Christmas music as that’s the holiday music I’m familiar with, some of this might also be applicable to other holidays with strong musical traditions.

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1. Books

I’m a little bit of a music book hoarder, and love just picking up a book and sight-reading through it. Not only is this great practice, it’s also good for finding pieces I may like to incorporate into an upcoming performance, and it’s just fun!

Here are a few Christmas books I have in my collection for piano solo:

Bock’s Best, Vol. 3: 25 Outstanding Christmas Piano Arrangements

Christmas Impressions Arranged by Phillip Keveren

The Nutcracker: Complete Ballet for Solo Piano (Dover Music for Piano)

Even if sight-reading through piano solos just for fun isn’t really your thing, I’d still recommend having at least one big book of Christmas carols in case everyone wants to gather around the piano and sing at your next Christmas party. Here’s the one I have that has served me well over the years:

The Definitive Christmas Collection 3rd Edition

2. Online Search

There are plenty websites online, such as Sheet Music Plus, from which you can purchase and download sheet music. In fact, that’s probably the first thing you’ll find when searching online for a particular piece of music.

However, if you’re saving your money for gift purchases and holiday donations, there are plenty of Christmas arrangements you can get online for free. So much Christmas music is very old, and is therefore in the public domain.

IMSLP.org is a fantastic resource for this. The website can be a little confusing, so I’ve done a bit of work for you. Here’s a list of music they have categorised as “Carols” and “Voice and Piano” and here’s one that’s categorised as “Carols” and “Piano”.

If you have the time and inclination, even more can be found on there. By simply typing “Silent Night” into the search bar I found several arrangements of the popular Christmas carol, but they weren’t necessarily for piano or piano and voice so some sifting is required.

Another place to start research-wise for finding free music is by knowing the composers of the pieces, or at least which composers did arrangements of old carols. Liszt, for example, composed an entire collection of Christmas music, some of which is familiar to me as traditional Christmas music, but much of which, as far as I can tell, is original.

If you enjoy doing music research like I do, there’s plenty more to find!

3. Make Your Own Arrangements

Pen on music paper
Image by HeungSoon from Pixabay

I have been making my own arrangements of Christmas music since I was a kid. I would figure out the melody by ear, then decide various accompaniments for it. As I learned more about music theory, especially harmonic structure, this became easier and more interesting.

I highly recommend trying your hand at making your own arrangements. You don’t have to notate them, though I also think notating music is a fantastic way to deepen your understanding of notation, both pitch and rhythm, and music in general.

When arranging something for the first time, it can be a good idea to start with something simple. Luckily lots of Christmas carols are quite simple! Take Silent Night, for example. The melody can be simplified into 6 phrases:

1: This phrase is the same melody repeated twice. 

2: A new melody, also repeated twice, this time at a different pitch the second time. 

3: New material, followed by the melody from the first phrase. 

4: Exactly the same as the 3rd phrase.

5: New material.

6: New material.

Once you have it broken down this way so the melodic structure is clear, it’s much easier to think about how you might like it to be arranged musically. Joy to the World and Deck The Halls are two more with very simple, repetitive melodic structures.

4. Improvisation

Hands on piano keys
Photo by Kai Dahms on Unsplash

Another way to enjoy your favorite holiday music, while also having a potentially relaxing and rejuvenating experience, is to improvise on the melodies of your favorite Christmas tunes.

Of course, first you need to know how that melody goes. It can be a great exercise to try to figure it out by ear. Otherwise, you can also use one of the above methods of finding a score for the piece to use as a jumping-off point.

Once you have a pretty good understanding of the melody you’d like to improvise with, start making up harmonies for it. If you’re already familiar with harmony and how it works, you’re all set to figure this part out on your own!

If you’re not so sure what to do, here are two places you can start:

  1. Play a left hand drone. This can either be just one note, or an interval like a 5th or octave. It can be a very fun exploration of how different bass notes sound against the melody line. Pay attention to what you like and what you don’t like so you can do more of what you like in the future.
  2. Play the primary chords in the key. These are what we call the I, IV, V chords. If your piece is in the key of C, the I chord will be C because C is the first note in the C scale. Following that pattern, your IV chord will be F because if you play your C scale, F will be note number four. Do the same thing and you’ll find that the V chord is G.

The most important part about an improvisation exercise like this is to enjoy yourself and be curious. Explore different sounds you encounter, and if you like them, do more of them!

Whatever methods you use to bring holiday music into your playing, I wish you the best of luck and a happy, restful holiday season!

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Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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