The version most familiar to us doesn't seem to be the original, and it is not favoured as the original tune. The one we are accustomed to hearing starts with the note on the third degree of the scale, with an accidental note going one half step down, then going back up one half step. Then it goes up one whole tone and one half tone to the fifth degree, then it drops down one hole tone and ends on the sixth degree, a minor sixth below the last note.

The other melody I heard was sung by the Cardiff Festival Choir, under the name O Little Town, O Little Town of Bethlehem. It's melody starts out on the fifth degree of the scale, then goes up a perfect fourth, rises then goes up one whole tone or major second, goes back donw a hole tone, back up a whole tone, and it goes up another whole tone. Then it goes up a half tone, and it goes up one whole tone, basically one octave from the first note of the tune.

  • 4
    Are you sure you can't link to some sheet music, a YouTube video, or something? Describing a melody (by tone only, no less) is a pretty rough way to go... Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 15:12
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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Little_Town_of_Bethlehem#Music Basically one is American the other European. I only know the European one, Forest Green
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 15:17
  • @Tetsujin Wow, I didn't know this. Make that an answer!
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 15:19
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    I bought a book of Christmas Carols once and when I started to play O Little Town of Bethlehem I was surprised. I previously only knew the European version but my book contained the US version.
    – badjohn
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 15:21

2 Answers 2


Two versions, 'Forest Green' (English) and 'Wengen' both have the same metre - D.C.M. That means the tunes will both fit to the same set of words. Obvious! But what could happen is any other 8 line hymn with the same D.C.M meter would also work, so although these two tunes are the most commonly used, others will fit. D.C.M - double common meter: eight lines perverse, four couplets, eight syllables on first line, six on second.

I did that by accident years ago, whilst playing in school assembly - played a tune familiar with the singers, who sung a set of words which were also familiar, but not usually sung together.

The Forest Green melody is traditional English, the second written by Sir Henry Walford Davies, a Welshman who held many important posts in England and Wales. I guess it was written around 1900. Philip Brookes wrote the words, in 1866, for his Sunday school children in Philadelphia. Lewis Redner wrote the music - St. Louis, in 1869. Ralph Vaughan Williams paired the words with Forest Green in 1906, after the original tune was derided in England, reasons unknown.

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    The original tune 'St Louis' is American, as are the words. The EU versions are all later, according to wikipedia.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 15:46
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    What is "D.C.M."? Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 16:13
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    I think you meant "per verse", not "perverse". lol
    – John Doe
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 16:27
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    @JohnDoe I like his version better though. Maybe make a new form of poetry or something - "Each stanza contains 4 lines common and 2 perverse."
    – Tin Wizard
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 21:40
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    @Walt Does that just make it a half-dirty limerick?
    – John Doe
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 21:50

More broadly speaking, lots of songs (especially hymns) have different tunes that work. For example, I can think of three different melodies for "Away in a Manger".

I don't know about other denominations, but I know that the LDS hymnbook has a section in the back where they've taken all of the hymns in the book and separated them into groups whose tunes can be used interchangeably for each hymn in the group.

  • In contrast, I can only think of one melody for "Away in a Manger"!
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 19:27
  • Additionally, while all three versions are in 3, two of them sound fairly similar and have a similar tempo, while the third is slower and "radically" (as radical as hymns get) different. Incidentally, the LDS children's songbook has a different version, with an added chorus that I've never heard anywhere else, than the LDS "adult" hymnbook.
    – John Doe
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 19:36
  • I was at a Jewish song session were we decided to see how many versions of "L'cha Dodi" we knew. I think we hit 7 or 8 and I'm sure there are more. And there's a running joke that "Adon Olam" can be set to pretty much any 4/4 melody - "I want it that way" by the Backstreet Boys is moderately popular. Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 2:19
  • And you can sing 'While shepherds watched their flocks by night' to the tune of 'On Ilkely Moor Baht 'at' Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 22:18
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    @BrianTHOMAS You can indeed sing "While shepherds watched" to the tune of "On Ilkley Moor baht 'at". Indeed that tune was used for "While shepherds watched" before the lyrics of "On Ilkley Moor baht 'at" were written. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Ilkla_Moor_Baht_%27at#Tune en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cranbrook_(hymn_tune)
    – Rosie F
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 17:04

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