Why ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ is the perfect song to teach music theory

15 December 2021, 17:55

What does this song teach us about music theory...?
What does this song teach us about music theory...? Picture: Sheet music

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

How one of the most popular Christmas songs became a useful tool for teaching young musicians about intervals.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

If you read the line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose”, would you sing it?

For many, these words will have you singing the opening lyrics to The Christmas Song, a classic festive work written in 1945 by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé.

According to the American broadcast rights company, Broadcast Music, Inc., it is the most performed Christmas song, and classic covers include renditions by Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Christina Aguilera, and most recently Jacob Collier’s cover has been nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals 2021.

But what if we told you that this timeless classic was also a great way to brush up on your music theory knowledge? Take a listen and we’ll explain more below...

Read more: This medieval carol is basically the first song ever written about Santa Claus

The music theory song

Listening to The Christmas Song, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a simple melody.

Chances are, you’ve sung it many times and are so familiar with the tune, so don’t think twice about the makeup of this famous work.

However, American composer David Rakowski would say otherwise. Rakowski, a former student of Luciano Berio, wrote alternative lyrics to The Christmas Song, which encapsulate the multiple fundamentals of music theory which appear throughout the melody of the Christmas classic. Further lyrics were added by former music theory teacher, Dave Swenson.

Have a listen below...

Read more: One song that teaches you everything about music theory

In the song, the lyrics highlight intervalic patterns, and different types of scales and cadences. The song even quotes a line from the theme song of the 1960s animated television series, The Flintstones.

Opening with a defiant example of a perfect octave (middle C, to the C above, are the first two notes of the piece), the song throws the listener straight into music theory land. Scales are also quickly illustrated in the second line of the piece, with both examples of a diatonic scale (G-F-E-D-C), and a chromatic alteration of the same scale a bar earlier.

The idea of a motif is also introduced to the listener (a phrase of music which comes back repeatedly in a piece) and is easy to identify as the opening melody when it comes back at the end of the song, by the helpful lyrics ‘A motif used to build this simple phrase’.

Attaching lyrics to famous pieces of music, or creating mnemonics, have long been a part of music teachers’ syllabuses, to teach young musicians fundamentals.

For example, the mnemonic ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’, is commonly used to teach those new to music, how to read the lines on a treble clef staff.

The Music Theory Song is a more complex example of this, but hey, anything to make learning music more fun and accessible – we’re here for it!

It definitely has us wanting to learn the lyrics for our next Christmas party trick, and you can check out the full score and lyrics below...

The Music Theory Song
The Music Theory Song. Picture: David Rakowski / Dave Swenson