Today’s video is a tutorial of O Holy Night for the piano. This version is appropriate for early intermediate students around a grade 3 level.
The sheet music is available for free and can be downloaded here.
O Holy Night: Backstory
First off, let’s start with the backstory of O Holy Night. A French man named Adolphe Adam composed the tune in 1847. He used the words from a poem called “Midnight, Christians” by Placide Cappeau.
Later, in 1855, John Sullivan Dwight created a singing version based on Cappeau’s text. This version has since been translated into English, into the version we all know and love today
The story of “O Holy Night” is about the birth of Jesus, and thus is Christian in nature.
O Holy Night is hugely popular and has been covered by many famous musicians, including but not limited to Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, Josh Groban and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Why I chose this piece
There are a couple reasons I wanted to use this piece for today’s tutorial. Firstly, it’s just a beautiful tune and I really enjoy it. Secondly, I think it’s a good early-intermediate introduction to playing 1358 chords, which is a really common accompaniment pattern.
Don’t worry, we’ll go into depth on that shortly if you have no idea what I’m talking about.
So without further ado, let’s play through the piece, and then discuss some of the details.
O Holy Night Basics
When we do tutorials on this channel, we always begin with the basics. What key/scale is this piece in? What’s the format? The mood, tempo, anything else?
So let’s start with the key – no sharps or flats in the key signature. So what scale has no sharps or flats? If you guessed C major, you’d be correct.
Scanning through this piece, I can see three distinct sections. The first section begins with the words “O Holy Night” and lasts right up until where we transition to E minor.
The second section is short and transitional – we alternate from G chord to C chord, and the right hand plays a straight forward melody.
Then there’s a big dynamic build-up (marked by the crescendo) as we hit the big A minor chord – this is where the piece gets some drama, and thus is our third section.
The reason I like to section pieces off like this is because it makes the whole thing much less overwhelming to learn. If you can just concentrate on one section at a time, it feels much more manageable than trying to tackle two pages all at once.
As for other details, you can see that the tempo is fairly slow – barely above clock speed. But keep in mind we have to play three 8th beats at a speed of 65 BPM, so it’s not as slow as it might appear on the surface.
Our time signature is 6/8, which means there are six 8th beats in every bar. 6/8 time has a really nice rocking, lullaby feel to it. It’s important that we maintain that gentle rocking flow by keeping our left hand 8th notes very steady.
Counting this piece is actually quite simple. The left hand is so steady and constant that it serves as a metronome, and all you really have to do is make sure the right hand is aligning properly with the left. If your left hand is steady, the rhythm should naturally fall into place.
Dynamically, it’s clear that the first page is quiet, serving as a set-up to the more epic volumes in the second page. You can see that the highest notes in the right hand also happen to be the loudest (which is a fairly common occurrence in music).
O Holy Night: 1358 Chords
So let’s get into the 1358 chords. Not every single broken chord in this piece is 1358, but many of them are.
These numbers refer to the distance between notes. For example, the first chord is comprised of four notes:
C E G C
If you were to count these notes out on the keyboard, you can see that C is note #1, E is note #3, G is note #5, and the high C is note #8. That’s why it’s our 1358 chord pattern.
Put another way, it’s simply a C major chord with an added C on top.
This type of chord pattern only really works well in 6/8 time (or the less common 12/8 time). That’s because it naturally flows in threes – ONE two three FOUR five six, with the “home note” (in this case, C) landing on the start of a group of 3.
So don’t try to use this chord pattern in 4/4 time – it won’t work!
If you’re learning a piece in 6/8 and you don’t want to read the left hand, or you just want to follow along the chords but you want to do something more interesting than blocked chords, the 1358 pattern is really straightforward to implement.
It’s literally as simple as playing a basic 3-note chord, and extending it a full octave.
If you’re playing a more complicated chord, like say the B7 that you see in this piece, you can still use the same pattern – only this time, our pattern shifts to 1357 instead of 1358. That’s a very simple change to make!
Chord markings/Lead sheet
The left hand part is all written out for you to read, but you could play this piece simply by following the chord markings as well. So let’s take a moment to talk about how to read those.
Any time you see a single letter, like “C” or “G”, it means you’re just playing a basic ol’ C or G major chord.
If you see something that says F/C, it means that you’ll play an F chord, except the note “C” is going to be the lowest note you play. It’s an F chord that starts on C.
Using the beginning as an example, keeping our bass note on “C” when we’re playing a C chord, and then an F chord, makes the piece easier to play because you don’t have to move your hand at all. It also gives the piece a more natural-sounding flow – sometimes big leaps can end up sounding really weird.
7 chords and minor chords
Another type of chord you’ll come across is the 7 chord. We have a C7, B7, and later on a G7. A C7, for example, would be a regular C chord, 135, with a lowered 7th note added to it (in this case, a Bb). 7 chords are great for adding a bit of tension.
And finally, the minor chords. Minor chords are simply marked by a lower-case m, and are virtually identical to major notes except that the middle note is lowered, creating a darker, more somber sound.
Chords that don’t fit with “1358”
Any time you have a chord marked “F/C”, or “G/C” or any of those, our 1358 pattern is going to be broken. The chord retains the same shape (goes up an octave, and then back down), but the inner notes change to reflect the chord in question.
For example, F/C is:
C F A C
The number pattern for that would be:
1 4 6 8
So just keep your eyes open to those changes. I like to use these chord inversions sometimes because they not only help avoid flying around the keyboard, but can also create some harmonic interest. If we play every single chord in its original inversion, the sound can get a little dull.
I hope you enjoyed today’s Christmas tutorial! I love this time of year and getting into Christmas music. If you’d like to check out some of our other Christmas tutorials, be sure to click the link.
And if you missed it at the beginning of the post, here is the PDF of the sheet music for O Holy Night. Enjoy!