Play The First Noel on Piano (3 Steps)
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Playing Christmas tunes on piano is a wonderful way to get into the holiday spirit. Therefore, in today’s Quick Tip, Jonny May presents Play The First Noel on Piano (3 Steps). This breathtaking contemporary jazz piano arrangement of the traditional holiday classic sounds so beautiful that it’s bound to strike a chord. You’ll learn:
- 3 Steps to Play The First Noel on Piano
Jonny’s contemporary jazz piano arrangement of “The First Noel” is likely to be one that you’ll come back to year after year at Christmas time.
If you’re a PWJ member, the great news is that you can download Jonny’s piano sheet music for “The First Noel” from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, PWJ members can also download the backing track that is included with this lesson. Moreover, you can easily change the key of this arrangement with a single click using our Smart Sheet Music.
Before we dive into Jonny’s 3 step approach for arranging this holiday classic, let’s dive into a bit of its history.
The earliest publication of “The First Noel” is from 1833 and is found in a collection by William Sandys entitled Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. Hymnologists believe that the lyrics are older, and may even date back to the 13th century.¹ However, William Sandys is credited with bringing together the melody and lyrics as we now know them. Despite the French word “Noël” in the title (which means Christmas), Sandys was an Englishman and the tune is of English origin. Therefore, in some instances, the Middle English spelling “Nowell” is also used.
“The First Noel” has been recorded by countless pop artists over the years, including Frank Sinatra (1957), Johnny Mathis (1958), Andy Williams (1963), Nat King Cole (1960), Ella Fitzgerald (1967), Elvis Presley (1971), Whitney Houston (2003), Josh Groban (2007), Mariah Carey (2010) and Pentatonix (2015). However, the only artist’s rendition to make it on to the Billboard Hot 100 is that of American Idol finalist turned Country music star Gabby Barrett (2020). Barrett’s version peaked at #78 in January 2021 after her live performance of the tune in December 2020 on the CMA Country Christmas special.²
In this section, we’ll examine Jonny’s 3 step process for how to play “The First Noel” on piano. In short, you’ll learn why this version sounds so captivating. It has a lot to do with how Jonny has arranged the tune. Perhaps you’re not sure what the word “arrangement” means? Well, an arranger is like a composer, except that arrangers deal with preexisting material whereas composers typically deal with original material. Therefore, an arrangement is a rendition of a preexisting composition prepared for a particular playing context, such as a special occasion, a particular ensemble or a specific playing ability. When piano students learn to think like arrangers, they can develop their own unique sound and personalize their repertoire. Here are the 3 steps we’ll consider:
Now, let examine the first step.
The first step in arranging any tune is to begin with the most basic musical elements—the melody and chords (and lyrics if pertinent). This musical information is often expressed in lead sheet, a kind of minimalistic sheet music. Lead sheet notation generally contains the melody, chord symbols, and sometimes the lyrics.
One of the challenges that beginner piano students have in reading lead sheets is that they sometimes struggle to interpret the chord symbols. Therefore, the example below is a “modified lead sheet” that actually includes some basic piano chords. However, a typical lead sheet would only contain the upper staff with the melody. Regardless of how the melody and chords are notated, these musical elements are an arranger’s raw materials. Let’s take a listen.
The First Noel – Melody & Basic Chords
You might be wondering if the example above could pass as an arrangement. Technically, yes it could, although it is rather sparse. Still, for some beginners, it might be just right. But let’s suppose you’d like to dress it up a bit. Then, be sure to continue reading.
When working with traditional tunes like hymns and carols, arrangers often act as ambassadors, representing one world in the presence of another. One of the ways they do this is by juxtaposing timeless melodies with contemporary arranging techniques. In this section, we’ll examine 3 modern transformations that Jonny uses on “The First Noel” to give it a strong appeal with contemporary listeners. These techniques are summarized as follows: (1) transform the meter, (2) transform the chords, and (3) transform the articulation.
Transform the Meter
One of the earliest decisions that an arranger must make in the arranging process is deciding which meter to use. Surprisingly, some melodies can be adapted quite well to fit into several different meters. On the other hand, other melodies are less flexible.
One of the most common metrical adaptations that arrangers make is to transform a melody from 3/4 time to 4/4 time, or vice versa. This is most effective when a melody contains a considerable amount of space in the form of long tones or rests. For example, the following excerpts demonstrate how to transition “The First Noel” from 3/4 time to 4/4 time by simply making the long tones longer. Let’s take a listen.
The First Noel – Traditional 3/4 Time
The First Noel – Adapted to 4/4 Time
In today’s lesson sheet PDF, Jonny’s arrangement of “The First Noel” is set in 4/4 time, like the latter example.
For an another example of an arrangement in which Jonny transforms the meter of a classic tune in a captivating manner, check out our Quick Tip on What a Wonderful World – Contemporary Piano (Int).
Transform the Chords
Another important consideration is what type of harmony to use. Most traditional carols and hymns use basic triads. However, jazzy piano chords are often a tasteful choice for holiday favorites. In this section, we’ll cover how to add “color notes” to 3 common types of chords—major chords, minor chords, and dominant 7th chords.
For major chords, you can often add the 7th, 9th and/or the 13th to give the harmony a more contemporary sound. These color notes can be used individually, or in various combinations. Take a listen to each type of major chord below.
Major Chords with Color Notes
Next, for minor chords, you can often add the ♭7, 9th and/or the 11th for a more modern sound. Just like on major chords, these color notes can be added individually, or in various combination. Take a listen to each type of minor chord below.
Minor Chords with Color Notes
Our final category is dominant 7th chords. These chords boast the broadest opportunity for color notes. For example, you can add the 9th and/or the 13th. Moreover, you can also add chord alterations, such as ♭9, ♯9, ♯11 or ♭13. Once again, you can add a single color note or various combinations. However, it is uncommon to combine an unaltered extension with an alteration of the same number, such as the 9th and the ♯9.
Dominant Chords with Color Notes
For a deep dive on the topic of color notes, check out the follow PWJ courses, which are packed with dozens of beautiful jazzy piano chords and practice exercises:
Now, let’s examine one final consideration—articulation.
Transform the Articulation
Modern pianists and keyboard players frequently use a performance technique called slip notes to thicken the attack of their chords. This technique involves movement between two adjacent notes in a chord that are a whole step apart. As with many modern piano techniques, terminology varies from player to player. For example, you may also hear the terms “slip note,” “flip,” “flicker,” “grace note” or “West Coast sound” all used in to describe this playing style.
In notation form, slip notes looks similar to a grace notes in classical music, however, they are not played like grace notes. For example, in the slipped chord below, the C and G are played on the beat simultaneously. Then, a microsecond later, the C gives way to the D with the flick of a finger. The result is a thick chord attack with a somewhat “sparkly” sound. Check it out:
Add Slip Notes
In Step 3 below, you’ll discover how Jonny brings all of these modern arranging techniques together to create an intriguing arrangement of “The First Noel.”
In the previous section, we examined a number of potential transformations that can be applied to a tune’s melody and chords to give it a more modern appeal. Now, in this section, we’ll consider the application of these techniques in Jonny’s piano arrangement of “The First Noel.” For example, let’s listen to the first four measures.
The First Noel for Contemporary Piano (mm 1-4)
In this short example, we see instances of just about every arranging technique we discussed in Step 2: (1) transforming the meter, (2) transforming the chords, and (3) transforming the articulation.
First of all, we’re in 4/4 time here and throughout Jonny’s arrangement. Next, be sure to notice all the “add2″ chords. These colorful chords are essentially a major triad with the addition of the note that is a 2nd above the root. Keep in mind that the 2nd and the 9th are the same note. However, these chords are not considered major 9th chords because 9th chords also include the 7th. Lastly, did you notice the all the slip notes in this example?
Now, let’s examine the next four measures
The First Noel for Contemporary Piano (mm 5-8)
In this excerpt, we have quite a bit of going on in terms of reharmonization. For example, you might notice that the chord symbols are not simply the same chords from Step 1 with added color notes. In many instances, they are different chords altogether! Therefore, reharmonization is an umbrella term that includes both chords substitutions and various types of passing chords.
Remember, as you practice the complete arrangement of “The First Noel,” try playing along with the backing track that is included with your membership. This downloadable MP3 file can be found at the bottom of this page under the Lesson Resources heading which appears after logging in with your membership.
Congratulations, you’ve finished today’s lesson on Play The First Noel on Piano (3 Steps). As a result, you’ll have a beautiful Christmas piano solo to share with friends and family around the piano this holiday season!
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 “The First Nowell.” www.HymnsAndCarolsOfChristmas.com.
² “Gabby Barrett.” Billboard.com.
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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