The symphonic metal mashup of “Carol of the Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” holds lessons that can elevate music of any genre.
It’s not Christmastime until I’ve heard “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” on the radio — and though some may find the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s wonderful head-banging holiday anthem a little on the cheesy side, there’s a lot of creative wisdom to be gained by examining it closely.
Here’s a closer look at the track’s composition and creative nuances, and how artists of any musical genre can amplify their own creativity by following the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s example.
“Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” is built on two distinct and well-known Christmas melodies — “Carol of the Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The band finds creative ways to expand and intermingle the themes throughout.
Sometimes, the melodies are played verbatim, isolated, as the sole focus of the track; other times, they are overlaid and played off each other in increasingly interesting and complex ways.
In your own work, why not introduce multiple, memorable hooks or themes and layer them in interesting ways as your song progresses? As a side note, one of my favorite rock tracks in this regard is Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like A Hole,” which introduces and alternates between two compelling choruses and combines other multi-layered elements. Phish’s “Bouncing ‘Round The Room” is another great (and considerably more mellow) example of multiple themes being overlaid in creative ways.
Build and release
Tracks can feel mechanical if they maintain the same level of energy from start to finish and don’t breathe and release in any organic way. By contrast, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” does a great job of creating peaks of intensity and valleys of calm in between.
The arrangement does this mostly by repeating simple motifs — the main “Carol of the Bells” figure, for example — and building around them. At around 1:35 in the track, this motif rings out in solo piano at first. Then, while the piano continues the repetition in the lower register, the instrument introduces “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in the upper register, just starting to stoke the song’s momentum. As repetitions continue, the theme is augmented by bells, synths, and sporadic percussion before it breaks into the drum- and guitar-heavy vamp that recurs throughout the track. It’s a powerful build and release, masterfully integrated into a track that builds and releases throughout.
In your own music, experiment with having sections expand organically towards climaxes at various points in a song, using whatever tools you can think of — overlaid themes, layered instruments, more intense tones and sounds — to get you there. Even applying this idea to a small section of your song can give it a welcome sense of organic momentum.
Call and response
At 2:35 in the recording, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” engages in a short but powerful game of call and response. Again repeating the central “Carol of the Bells” motif, quiet orchestral strings call out the phrase and are answered by synth, guitar, drums, and the Orchestra’s full fury. It’s a punchy, powerful moment that keeps the listener engaged and sets up the epic finale to come.
Call and response has been used to great effect in all sorts of music, for as long as humans have been making music, and can be a great way to create interest, movement, and development. Whether you thrive in Zydeco, hip-hop, bluegrass, or orchestral metal like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, see what happens in your music when you have one set of voices call and another respond, even for a few seconds.
Density and space
Some sections of “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” are thick with rock band and orchestral textures — and then the storm breaks for a section of solo piano or mellow strings. A musical arrangement based on ultra-familiar themes like “Carol of the Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” could easily feel trite and boring, but this use of density and space keeps things engaging throughout.
In particular, the Orchestra’s use of density and space helps the song build to its climax, starting around 2:44. The track reiterates the “gaily they ring, while people sing” section of “Carol of the Bells,” which features lots of overlaid instruments in unison for a powerful punch, but is produced in a tight and relatively dry manner, leaving a good deal of space at the same time. As the end of the track nears, density increases as wailing sustained guitar overlays the central “Carol of the Bells” motif. Then guitars, playing in harmony, create even more density by running in rapid descending and ascending figures amidst the orchestra’s central, metal-infused vamp. When the song reaches its final hits, the energy is explosive.
In your own work, try to build sections that are thicker with instrumentation, melodic variation, extended chords, and anything else you can think of, and sections that have less of everything. You may be surprised by how much interest and movement even a small amount of density-and-release experimentation can create.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
The art of music arrangement: an interview with Dr. Richard Niles
Intensify your musical arrangements and solos with call and response
Re-arranging big songs for solo performance
Improvisation and soloing techniques
A great solo can elevate your song