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A Crafty Way to Write a Christmas Piano Tune

Updated on December 6, 2012
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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Write your own Christmas piano piece - snow reason not to
Write your own Christmas piano piece - snow reason not to | Source

There are lots of different ways to come up with ideas for piano pieces. Here's one that came to me as I was working on the puzzle pages in my daily newspaper.

To start with, we're going to use the letters of the word "Christmas" as our source of inspiration. Obviously there are only 7 different note names used in music, so that creates a problem right off the bat. One way round that problem is to use letter substitution.

Begin by writing out all the letters of the alphabet from A to Z. Next, write the letters A to G beneath, starting over when you run out. Here's an example to show you what I mean:

The alphabet and the musical note names
The alphabet and the musical note names | Source

Starting With the Letters

Now if you look closely at the letters of the alphabet you'll see that they line up with certain musical note names. H lines up with A, Z lines up with E, and so on. Take the letters from the word "Christmas" now and see which note names they line up with. Here are the letters of the word highlighted in red to make it easier:

Letters from the word "Christmas" are highlighted in red
Letters from the word "Christmas" are highlighted in red | Source

Match Letters and Extract

You can see that the letters in the word "Christmas" line up with note name letters as follows:

Matching letters to note names
Matching letters to note names | Source

That gives us the equivalent musical notes to play with of C, A, D, B, E, F, F, A and another E for the second "s" in Christmas. Once you have these corresponding note names you're ready to start experimenting.

There are a number of ways to move the process forward. For instance, you might:

  1. Use the letter/note names straight, one after the other
  2. Use them in sections, repeating only part of the note sequence
  3. Extract part of the sequence to use as a bassline, adding your melody above it

I know that this is not quite as easy as it sounds, so I've created examples of these three techniques to give you a few ideas and help you get started. You'll find all three examples in the piece Writing Christmas Tunes by browsing to my page at Score Exchange. You'll also find extracts in the graphics below:

Turning the word "Christmas" into musical notes
Turning the word "Christmas" into musical notes | Source
Using the new "tune" to create a piece
Using the new "tune" to create a piece | Source
Extracting the first four notes to use as the basis for a piece
Extracting the first four notes to use as the basis for a piece | Source
Changing the order of the first four notes to create a jazzy bass line
Changing the order of the first four notes to create a jazzy bass line | Source
Adding a melody using the original note order but keeping the rhythm bouncy
Adding a melody using the original note order but keeping the rhythm bouncy | Source

Christmas Music Potential

Are any of these pieces good? Are they Christmassy? I'm not sure, but I didn't spend very much time on them. Perhaps with more effort it would be possible to come up with the next big Christmas number one.

And don't forget that there are other ways to use the note names besides these. Try turning them around so the tune starts with E and ends on C. What does that sound like? Or you might experiment with a bit of inversion, turning the melody upside down and putting the notes in the following order:

A, C, G, B, F, E, E, C, A

Like the sound of that? Could you use it as a left hand ostinato pattern and compose a melody above it? Maybe turn it into a round?

Once you add repetition and sequences into the mix, it's easy to see how you can build a brand new piece practically out of thin air. And now that you have the alphabet and the corresponding note names to hand, try experimenting with other words to see what tunes you come up with. Choose seasonal favorites like snowman, presents and so on, or choose other words you're fond of such as chocolate, pizza, or whatever takes your fancy.

Composers since the time of Bach have created variations based on the letters of their names, so this is simply another twist on that. But as long as it helps you create something new, it must be worth the effort, don't you think?

Have fun... at Christmas time or any other time of year.

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