Play Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree Jazz Piano Style
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With the holidays just around the corner, PianoWithJonny has you covered with plenty of jazzy Christmas piano tutorials and arrangements. In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny May will show you how to play “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in a jazz piano style. In fact, since the release of Brenda Lee’s 1958 recording, it has become the fifth best-selling holiday single.¹ Therefore, this is a must-know holiday song for pianists. Today’s lesson covers:
- “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” Song Facts
- “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” Piano Chords
- “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” Song Form
- 4 Jazz Piano Techniques:
After today’s lesson, you’ll be ready to get “everyone dancin’ merrily in the new old-fashioned way!”
Before we dive into playing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” on piano, let’s consider some interesting facts about this classic holiday tune. We’ll begin with the songwriter himself. You may not know him by name, but you are almost certainly familiar with his music.
Jonny Marks—The Godfather of Christmas Songs
Jonny Marks (1909–1985) was an American songwriter who penned over twenty Christmas songs. He also served as the director of ASCAP from 1957–1961 was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1981. His musical body of work includes the following Christmas classics:
R.Clooney & G.Autry
“The Night Before Christmas” (1952)
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1953)
“I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day” (1956)
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1958)
The Quinto Sisters
“A Holly Jolly Christmas” (1964)
“Silver and Gold” (1964)
Brenda Lee’s 1958 Recording
Jonny Marks recruited Brenda Lee to record “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” when she was just 13 years old! The single was originally released in 1958 and climbed onto the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960 at #14. After more than sixty years, the tune has remained a staple of the holiday season and peaked at #2 for three consecutive years from 2019–2021. ² ³ ⁴ The original recording features Nashville A-Team instrumentalists including pianist Floyd Cramer on piano, Hank Garland on guitar and Boots Randolph on saxophone.⁵ Brenda Lee is the only female vocalist to be inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.⁶
In the next section, we’ll examine the piano chords for this holiday classic.
Today’s lesson in the key of C major. This lesson includes 3 downloadable backing tracks which appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Due to publisher’s restrictions, we cannot notate the melody here. However, today’s PDF lesson sheet is available here through our partner MusicNotes.com for a nominal fee. Be sure to enter your PWJ discount code to receive 20% off.
Traditional Piano Chords
In today’s video lesson, Jonny begins by demonstrating a harmonization of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” with traditional piano chords. These 3-note chords, which are called triads, represent the simplest form of harmony. Triads are built from every other note of a source scale and all adjacent chord tones are a 3rd interval apart.
Beginners can play “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” using the following six triads.
One you’ve learned the basic chords for a tune, the next step is to understand the song form.
Like many jazz standards, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” features a standard 32-bar AABA form, also known as song form. When we speak of a the “form” of a tune, we are referring to how the sections are organized, with a particular view toward repetition and variation. Thus, all sections that are the same or similar are denoted with the same letter. On the other hand, any musical section that is unique is denoted with a unique, subsequent letter. Therefore, AABA form implies a tune with four sections in which the first, second and forth section are essentially the same (the A section) while the third section contains contrasting material (the B section).
Typically, AABA form is notated using D.C. al Fine. This is a convention of music notation in which the letters “D.C.” represent the Italian expression da capo meaning “from the head” or “from the beginning.” In addition, the Italian work fine (pronounced “FEE nay”) means “the end.” It is important to note that repeat signs should be ignored when returning to the beginning of a tune from a D.C. al Fine. (Otherwise, you would have AABAA).
AABA Form—D.C. al Fine
Now that you know the basic chords and song form for “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” you can play through the following melodic outline.
Melodic Outline with Triads
In the following section, you’ll apply 4 jazz piano techniques to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” for a much more interesting arrangement.
In this section, we’ll breakdown 4 jazz piano techniques that sound fantastic on Christmas tunes like “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” Even beginner piano students can apply one or more of these techniques to get a more desirable piano sound.
The first step to playing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in a jazz piano style is to play seventh chords instead of basic triads. Diatonic 7th chords are 4-note chords that simply contain one additional 3rd interval from the same parent scale. Seventh chords supply the basic foundation for jazz harmony. In fact, you can learn all about different types of 7th chords in our Piano Chords—The Definitive Guide.
Let’s play each diatonic 7th chord in C Major. You may notice that a major key contains four different types of diatonic 7th chords—the major 7th chord, minor 7th chord, dominant 7th chord and half-diminished 7th chord. If this is your first experience with seventh chords, these differences may not be immediately clear to you. However, it is not necessary to fully comprehend all the minutia before your fingers can play these jazzy chords. So go ahead and give it a try!
Diatonic 7th Chords in C Major
Great job! Next, we’ll consider jazz piano chords with additional notes.
While seventh chords supply the basic foundation for jazz harmony, many jazz piano chords include additional notes besides the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th. In fact, there are three additional notes that can be potentially added to a seventh chord—these notes are called chord extensions or upper extensions. These potential extensions are the 9th, 11th and the 13th.
The excerpt below from today’s lesson sheet shows each chord extension for a Cmaj7 chord. However, not all extensions produce a consonant sound. For example, while the note F is indeed the 11th of Cmaj7, this is more theoretical than practical. In actual use, the 11th is avoided on major 7th chords and dominant 7th chords because it clashes with the 3rd…in this case, the note E.
Check out our full-length course on Piano Chord Extensions to learn how to apply chord extensions on all major, minor and dominant chords.
Example of Chord Extensions
Before we move on to our next topic, let’s examine an example of jazz piano chord extensions from Jonny’s arrangement of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” The C6⁄9 voicing that opens the arrangement is a major chord sound that features chord extensions. In this voicing, the note D is the 9th. In addition, the note A is the 6th. (We use the label 6th instead of 13th whenever the 7th of the chord is not included.)
This beautiful chord voicing also happens to be an example of a quartal voicing because the majority of the notes are spaced apart in perfect fourth intervals…specifically E–A–D–G . To learn more about this hip jazz piano voicing technique, check out our Quartal Voicings Essentials.
Another category in the study of jazz piano chord coloration is chord alterations. These are essentially chord extensions that contain an accidental. There are four potential alterations that jazz musicians use—the ♭9, ♯9, ♯11 and ♭13. However, these four alterations are sometimes expressed as ♭9, ♯9, ♭5 and ♯5. That’s because ♯11 and ♭5 are enharmonically equivalent. The same is also true for ♯5 and ♭13.
The following example shows the potential chord alterations for G7.
Example of Chord Alterations
Chord alterations are most common on dominant chords (aka altered dominants). For example, Jonny uses the following G7(♭13) voicing in the first ending of the A section and at the end of the B section.
Well done! To take a deep dive on this topic, check out our course on Piano Chord Alterations.
Now, You’re ready to move on to our final jazz piano technique on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
The final jazz piano technique in today’s Quick Tip video is secondary dominants. This is such an important concept for jazz harmony that we’ve dedicated a complete section to this topic in our Piano Chord Substitution—The Complete Guide.
In essence, a secondary dominant is a chord imported from outside of the primary key for the purpose of making a non-tonic chord sound like a temporary tonic. For example, even though Jonny’s arrangement of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is in the primary key of C major, that doesn’t mean that every chord must come from C major. In fact, that would sound pretty stale.
How do secondary dominants work?
We can target any diatonic chord in C major as a potential resolution for a secondary dominant chord. Once we identify a target chord, we simply proceed it with its own V7 chord. For example, let’s target the 2-chord as a resolution chord for a secondary dominant. In C major, the 2-chord is Dm7. Therefore, we must temporarily think in the key of D minor and ask ourselves, “What is the V7 chord in D minor?” The answer is A7.
Example of Secondary Dominants
Let’s check out an example of secondary dominant usage in “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” Measure 3 of Jonny’s arrangement has a Dm7 chord. Therefore, we can insert A7 as a secondary dominant as long as the melody note is either a chord tone or compatible extension or alteration. In this case, the melody note is A, which is compatible with A7 because it is the root of the chord. We analyze this chord usage as the V / II which is read as “five of two.” In fact, Jonny’s arrangement even includes a chord extension on A7. Therefore, the chord symbol reads A¹³.
Now that’s pretty jazzy! The best part is that now you understand why you’re playing what you’re playing!
Congratulations, you’ve finished today’s jazz piano lesson on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Be sure to check out the following resources for more holiday favorites.
Additional Christmas Piano Lessons
- Go Tell It On the Mountain—Gospel Funk (Inv, Adv)
- Greensleeves (What Child is This?) Jazz Piano Waltz (Int)
- Hark the Herald Angels Sing—Jazz Ballad (Int, Adv)
- Jingle Bells Challenge (All Levels)
- Hark the Herald Angels Sing—Jazz Ballad (Int, Adv)
- O Christmas Tree Challenge (All Levels)
- O Holy Night Contemporary Piano (Int, Adv)
- We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Int/Adv)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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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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