Instructor
John Proulx
Quick Tip
Intermediate
13:38

Learning Focus
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Holiday
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Who doesn’t love a good surprise, especially at Christmas time? Well, in today’s Quick Tip, Play Carol of the Bells on Piano, John Proulx shares how to surprise your listeners by playing this traditional holiday tune in a jazz piano style! This arrangement packs tons of fun and cheer, all with a jazzy feel. You’ll learn:

If you like jazz piano and Christmas, then you’ll love today’s lesson!

Intro to Carol of the Bells

While sheet music for “Carol of the Bells” often appears in several different keys on piano, the most common key is G minor, which has 2 flats (B♭, E♭). If you are a PWJ member, you can download today’s PDF lesson sheet and backing track from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

Before we dive into playing this tune on piano, let’s learn a bit about its background.

Who composed Carol of the Bells?

The Christmas song known as “Carol of the Bells” is based on a 4-note Ukrainian folk song entitled “Shchedryk,” which means “bountiful.” In fact, “Shchedryk” was not originally a Christmas song, but rather a New Year’s song. In 1916, Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych (also spelled Leontovich) used this folk melody in a magnificent new choral work by the same name, which debuted in the U.S. at Carnegie Hall in 1921, with Ukrainian lyrics. When American composer Peter J. Wilhousky heard Leontovych’s “Shchedryk,” it reminded him of handbells. Therefore, Wilhousky added Christmas lyrics in English which centered around the theme of bells and later published this work in 1936 as “Carol of the Bells.”¹

Even though Leontovych’s 1916 work “Shchedryk” is in the public domain, Wilhousky’s lyrics and title for “Carol of the Bells” remain under copyright. Therefore, our lesson sheet examples refer to this popular tune as “Ukrainian Holiday Carol.”

Popular Versions of Carol of the Bells

In this section, we’ll visit some big versions of “Carol of the Bells” that you likely already know and love.

Wilhousky / John Williams

“Carol of the Bells / Setting the Trap” from Home Alone (1990)
David Foster

“Carol of the Bells” (1993)
Trans-Siberian Orchestra

“Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” (1996)

Many people associate “Carol of the Bells” with legendary film composer John Williams because the tune appears in the classic Christmas film Home Alone (1990). In the film, a youth choir tenderly sings Wilhousky’s “Carol of the Bells” which then segues directly into John William’s “Setting the Trap,” a driving orchestral cue which quotes and develops themes from the beloved Ukrainian carol.

Another popular version of “Carol of the Bells” is from David Foster’s The Christmas Album (1993), a star-studded holiday album featuring Johnny Mathis, Wynonna Judd, Céline Dion, Peabo Bryson, Roberta Flack, Vanessa Williams, Natalie Cole, BeBe and CeCe Winans and more. The all-star cast aired live renditions of the David Foster’s Christmas Album on NBC on December 10, 1993.²

In 1996, members of the heavy metal band Savatage rebranded as Trans-Siberian Orchestra to re-release their 1995 hit “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” to wider audiences. The “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” medley combining “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and Leontovych’s “Shchedryk” had originally appeared on Savatage’s rock opera Dead Winter Dead (1995). With over 10 million albums sold and another 100 million concert tickets sold, the TSO rebrand seems to be going well.³

Other recordings of “Carol of the Bells” that piano students may enjoy include those by George Winston (1982) and David Benoit (1988). Also, jazz lovers will dig the Wynton Kelly Ensemble‘s jazzy rendition featuring Dan Nimmer on piano (2007).

How to Play Carol of the Bells in a Jazz Piano Style

In the previous section, we’ve covered background about composers Mykola Leontovych, Peter Wilhousky, and the enduring legacy of “Shchedryk,” the beloved Ukrainian holiday carol. In this section, we’ll explore how John Proulx infuses this holiday favorite with jazzy cheerfulness by examining 6 jazz piano techniques that John employs:

1. Swing 8th Notes

The first step to adapting “Shchedryk” for jazz piano is to swing the 8th notes. The following examples allow you to compare and contrast how this melody sounds with straight 8ths versus with swung 8ths. In the swing example, the left hand includes two notes per measure which heightens the two-against-three syncopation, which is called hemiola in music theory.

Straight 8ths

Straight 8th Notes - Ukrainian Holiday Carol

Swung 8ths

Swung 8th Notes - Ukrainian Holiday Carol

2. Jazzy 3/4 Intro

Even before you introduce the melody, you’ll want to setup the jazz waltz feel with a jazzy intro in 3/4 time. The hip intro shown below uses dark minor 9th chords, warm major 9th chords, and funky altered dominant chords.

Jazzy ¾ Intro – Ukrainian Holiday Carol of the Bells

By the way, if you like the jazz waltz style, then be sure to check out the following PWJ courses:

3. Rhythmic Variation

The next step to playing this beloved Ukrainian holiday carol in a jazz piano style is to vary the rhythms in the melody. For example, John likes to alternates between starting the 4-note melodic fragment on the beat and then off the beat. The result is playful and catchy. Check it out:

Vary the Rhythms – Ukrainian Holiday Carol

4. Chord Substitutions

Next, let’s explore some hip chord substitutions that John Proulx includes in his arrangement. In measure 4 below, instead of playing the anticipated D7(♭13) as in the previous example, John goes to a B♭(add2)/D followed immediately by D♭9(♯11). This D♭9(♯11) is a passing chord that uses a technique called tritone substitution to resolve to the Cm9 in measure 5. Then, John continues the descending bass line in measures 5–7 which allows him to introduce a hip A13(♭9) in measure 7. This A13(♭9) is part of a Ⅱ→Ⅴ→Ⅰ progression in G minor.

Chord Substitutions – Ukrainian Holiday Carol

5. Polychords

Another hip technique that John includes in his arrangement of the Ukrainian holiday carol is polychords, (also called upper structures or upper structure triads). While this jazz piano technique sounds complicated, it actually presents jazz piano students with a more accessible way to discover and recall advanced jazz harmonies.

Polychords or upper structures are most commonly used to voice altered dominant chords. In essence, this technique involves a pianist playing two different chords in each hand that are themselves fairly simple and familiar. However, when combined, the composite sound is a much more complex jazz piano chord. We see an example of this in measure 2 below in which the right hand plays  A♭ major while the left hand plays a D7 chord shell. The actual chord symbol for this chord is D7(♭9♯11). On the subsequent beat, the right hand upper structure triad changes to B♭ major, resulting in a different altered dominant chord—D7(♯9♭13). Let’s take a listen:

Polychords – Ukrainian Holiday Carol - Upper Structure Triads

To remember these altered dominant voicings, jazz pianists analyze the relationship of the upper structure triad (UST) to the root of the chord. For instance, for A♭/D7, the root of the right hand chord (A♭ major) is the ♭5 of D7. Therefore, we have annotated this chord as UST ♭Ⅴ. Similarly, for B♭/D7, the root of the right hand chord (B♭ major) is the ♭6 of D7. Therefore, we have annotated this chord as UST ♭Ⅵ.

To learn more about the exciting voicing possibilities that result from upper structures, check out the following resources:

6. Spy Chord Ending

Finally, let’s check out how John concludes his arrangement. Whenever we have a jazz tune in a minor key, we have the opportunity to play a hip minor major 7th chord for the final tonic chord. This mysterious sounding chord, often dubbed “the spy chord,” has a sound that is quite distinct and memorable. In the example below, John adds the 9th as well for additional color.

Spy Chord Ending - Ukrainian Holiday Carol of the Bells

To learn more about minor major 7th chords, including a variety of piano voicing and applications, check out our Quick Tip on Minor Major 7th Chords: The Spy Chord (Int).

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve complete today’s lesson on Play Carol of the Bells on Piano. As a result, you have learned how to surprise your listeners with a jazzy twist on a classic Christmas tune.

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:

 

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

 

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¹ Wilson Passwaters, Arie. “‘Carol of the Bells’ Wasn’t Originally a Christmas Song.” Rice University, 13 Dec. 2004.

²  Willman, Chris. “TV Reviews : ‘Christmas Album’ Rests on Tradition.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 10 Dec. 1993.

³ “Origin.” Trans-Siberian Orchestra, www.trans-siberian.com.


Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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