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As you can see from this picture, the song "the 12 days of Christmas changes back and forth between a 3/4 and a 4/4 time signature multiple times every verse. It isn't some sort of contemporary piece either-- it's a Christmas carol. Practically every other folk song I can think of, stays in one time signature for the whole piece, usually 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, or 6/8.

What about the history of "The 12 Days of Christmas" caused it to have the time signature changes that it does, when so few other songs do?


3 Answers 3


This reminds me of Edward T. Cone's idea of "beyond analysis." Some things, Cone says, are just "beyond analysis." Why did the composer choose this key, with this time signature? Why does the oboe start and not the clarinet? Why begin with an ascending third instead of a descending third? These are examples of questions that are "beyond analysis"; they're that way because the composer said so, end of story, and there's no point in searching for rationale.

With that said, I doubt there will be any definitive answer unless we hear something from the original composer, but the text is one possibility.

On the twelfth day of Christmas

My true love came to me.

Note that the first line has 7 syllables; although one could certainly squeeze that into a measure of 3/4, a carol for all to sing will likely use rhythms more akin to natural speech. As such, this couplet naturally lends itself to 4/4, in my opinion. (As does the final line, "and a partridge in a pear tree," which has 8 syllables.)

Meanwhile, the gifts themselves are all lines of 5 syllables, with some of them ("three French hens") only three; it's tough to stretch these out into a measure of 4/4 with a rhythm similar to natural speech, so this couplet naturally lends itself to 3/4. (Again, in my opinion.)

As for the five gold(en) rings: I've always felt that bit was intentionally overly dramatic to give the carol a little bit of humor. And this is because the music is stretched out (and comically so) to fill two bars of 4/4 instead of just one bar of the preceding 3/4.

But again, I say all of this with the caveat that this is just my reading of the piece.

  • 5
    I'd say, apart from 'beyond analysis' also 'sung long, long before it was ever scored' - by ordinary people who had no idea that's what they were doing, they were just 'making the words fit' - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song)
    – Tetsujin
    Nov 17, 2016 at 18:54
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    I'd sung it for 20 or 30 yrs before I realised that it wasn't all in 4/4...
    – Tim
    Nov 17, 2016 at 19:06
  • 1
    I never even realize the meter changes until I read this! Something to note is that a lot early European, actually global, folk music utilizes different meters and mixes meters.
    – user33368
    Nov 17, 2016 at 20:14
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    @jomki A lot of "early" European art music (up to around 1600) also had irregular meter, except when it was based on dance tunes which tended to be more regular. The original versions of most 16th-century European hymn tunes were not in regular meter - they were only "tidied up" (and had most of the musical life squashed out of them!) in the 19th century.
    – user19146
    Nov 17, 2016 at 23:57
  • Another point, I just thought of - having the "list" in ¾ makes it appear to 'rush' to get to the end; a 'breathless' motif, which certainly works & emphasises the gold rings line as a 'break'. I've also, now I think about it, heard the rings line done as 4/4 then 3/4, to 'rush' back into the last few lines.
    – Tetsujin
    Nov 18, 2016 at 9:05

It is perhaps more usual for a folktune, that it is possible to notate it in the same metre throughout. But The Twelve days of Christmas is unusual in that the verses are of different lengths. An arranger, seeking to notate the song in the best way, would naturally seize an opportunity to put the bar lines so that each added bit is a single bar. It just so happens that in some arrangements, those bars are in a different metre from the bars in the notation for the beginnings or ends of verses.

The well-known tune to the line "five gold rings" (mentioned by Richard in his answer) is indeed deliberately different -- it comes from an arrangement made by Frederic Austin in 1909.

Various versions of the original folk tune have been collected. Cecil Sharp collected at least three that were published.

The first of the two versions in Sharp's Somerset collection is in 6/8 except that the first line is in 4/4.

The second is in 4/4 except that the last line is in 2/4. So even versions of the same folksong sung in nearby places can have different metres from each other. Rather interestingly, gifts 12, 10 and 8 have one tune and 11, 9 and 7-2 another, so that there are some phrases that span two lines. (Note also that gifts 12-10, 8 and 1 are different from those in today's well-known version.)

The version set in F and published by the News Chronicle is more like today's version. Austin's tune for "five gold rings" isn't in. Nor is the phrase for "four colly birds, three French hens, two turtle-doves", so perhaps that was composed by Austin, too? (BTW it's "colly birds", sometimes spelt "colley birds"; it's not "calling birds".)

  • I also noticed that the note for “-en” in “golden” in “Five Golden Rings” is a note that is not on the same scale as the rest of the song.
    – Sophia_ES
    Nov 25, 2021 at 3:59

Music, like all art, consists of expected elements and unexpected ones. The core of the Christmas carol here is a rather tedious enumeration that gets repeated and added to. Others have digged up the references about when the particular execution of "five golden rings" got inserted into the song.

But like with all traditional songs, the question is not as much who did a particular change or addition when but rather why it actually stuck.

And it stuck because it gives the piece a certain charm, a halting point one works oneself towards each stanza (once it is established) with an almost comically fast completion of the enumeration following in sort of a strike-off melodic cadenza.

It's not just that this variant became the most popular one: it also has lead to the entire song becoming a prominent and popular long song because of it.

A lot of typical medieval and Renaissance songs with a bit of minstrel character feature a number of stanzas (easily two dozen) that today's audience does not have the requisite attention span for.

So this carol does not actually stick out among its contemporaries because of its overall length: it rather sticks out for having retained its popularity in spite of it. And part of the reason is that its repetitiveness is structured in a manner where people enjoy listening as well as singing along.

The meter and character changes contribute to this enjoyment.

Or to put it more succinctly: particularly in art, it's hard to argue against success.

  • 1
    Actually it's "Five gold rings"
    – Heimdall
    Dec 1, 2018 at 21:58

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