Added Sixth Chord

As readers may remember, I’m a trained musician with a BA in music from the University of California in Berkeley. And I particularly cherish music at Christmas time. What strikes me as I listen this year is how many of the songs that have now become traditional originated in the U.S. and use harmonies typical of American popular music. The most obvious characteristic is the use of the added sixth chord, rarely used in music originating before the twentieth century.

The added sixth chord is simply the normal triad (notes a third away from each other sounded simultaneous, e.g., C, E, and G) with the addition of a tone a sixth away from the chord base tone (e.g., C, E, G, and A).

To my ears, the sixth chord has a feeling of familiarity, informality, or casualness missing in the more formal traditional Christmas carols and hymns. You can hear the added sixth chord in American standards like “White Christmas,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” It makes Christmas music feel more friendly, less alien and distant. I still enjoy and revere the traditional and foreign carols like “Silent Night” and “The First Noël,” but that makes me respect even more the presence of the added sixth chord in American Christmas music.

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