Christmas is nominally about celebrating the birth of Christ, who (if you believe such things) is here to save the world. Sounds good, right? And yet, many Christmas songs don't sound happy or joyful; they sound more like a lament than a celebration.

For example:

  • God rest ye merry gentlemen — E minor.
  • We three kings — A minor.
  • Carol of bells — D minor (?)

The very last line of that first one reads “Oh tidings of comfort and joy!” Sounds joyous, right? Except that the very word “joy” is sung over a menacing pipe organ E minor block chord. It sounds less like cause for joy, and more like the end of the world or something.

Does anybody know why so many of these songs sound so mournful / menacing / disonnant?

  • 5
    Listen to the rest of the Christmas songs, and you'll understand why so many is so wrong. -1.
    – Tim
    Dec 14, 2022 at 19:44
  • 2
    In addition to Tim's point, I would argue that minor doesn't necessarily mean mournful, menacing, or dissonant. None of these three examples sounds menacing to me, and the first and third especially sound perfectly "happy" to me.
    – Richard
    Dec 14, 2022 at 20:38
  • 4
    Your key assumptions: "most are in minor keys" and "minor keys sound mournful" are both incorrect. The 2nd one is dealt with in other questions on this site, and as Tim pointed out, your first is just numerically incorrect.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Dec 14, 2022 at 20:43
  • 2
    Fun fact: - did you know that over the Dutch national Anthem, if you start with the last line of '& a partridge in a pear tree.' you can then sing the whole of 'Oh little town of Bethlehem' over the rest of it ;)) [Discovered whilst watching Max Verstappen win far too many F1 races this year]
    – Tetsujin
    Dec 15, 2022 at 7:37

1 Answer 1


Most of these are older tunes. They were written during the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque (several centuries). Many have melodies written before the ideas behind minor and major keys were codified. They tend to sound a bit (or a lot) like they were written analogously to Chant and other earlier pieces. Some come from folk-song traditions that do not conform to modern major and minor keys either.

"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" can be analyzed as either Dorian or (depending on which theorist one is using) Aeolian. It conforms more to a modal (in a general sense) or pre-tonal style of harmony. Many of Bach's chorals are based on Cruger's and other composers' works; Bach harmonized them in either modal or harmonic styles. Later composers also wrote in a modalish style in order to sound archaic.

I think what people hear is attempts to sound "different" or "Christmas-like" by using modal melodies.

Also, minor vs major isn't as strong an indicator as sad vs happy as is popularly though. (Modal pieces seem to sound minor if not too deeply analyzed, also.) Quick example, "Faded Love" by Bob Wills sounds rather sad though it's a 3-chord major harmony.

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