O Little Town of Bethlehem: Mastering Christmas Carols on the Piano and Keyboard
November 19, 2006 by Andy
Click on any of the music scores to view/print higher resolution versions
View a range of Christmas Carols Music Books at Amazon.
Update: Please forgive me! In my haste to put this in an easy key, I neglected to see if the carol was still singable – it’s not (well, it’s uncomfortable). And no, I don’t usually play in B flat major! I usually play in F major. I will update the whole article in the next few days to reflect this. In the meantime, I cheekily suggest that you can get some transposition practice!
The first carol I’m going to take a look at in our Mastering Christmas Carols series is “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.
This is a carol that can have quite a bit of colour added to it, but there’s no reason at all that it can’t be played simply and effectively in order to accompany either yourself or others singing, or just for enjoyment.
View a range of Christmas Carols Music Books at Amazon.
O Little Town of Bethlehem: Introduction
First things first. For this example, I’ve pitched this in the key of C major. This means that it may feel a teeny bit high, but it makes for easier playing if you’re less confident. (As an aside, I often play this in B-flat major, but that will involve two flats and some interesting chords if you get that far.
O Little Town of Bethlehem: Main melody
Hum the tune of one verse through a few times and hopefully you’ll pick up on something that will really help your playing…
There are only two melody phrases in the whole song
The prominent melody line that starts the song is in fact repeated three times in each verse, to which the 1st, 2nd and 4th lines are sung. Here’s the written score for it (click for larger view):
The third line is the only one that has a different melody. Here it is:
These are just snippets of music and they have to be joined together to form the whole verse. Here it is with a very basic left-hand bass line added (more on that later):
Familiarise yourself with the melody line played with the right hand, because this will always be the basis and main focus of the song, regardless of how much embellishment is added.
O Little Town of Bethlehem: Fingering
I’m generally not one to get regimented about the exact fingering required to play a piece of music, suffice it to say that it should be as smooth, easy and comfortable to play as possible. “Running out of notes” is common when the fingering is wrong, and leads to awkward jumps with the hand in order to play the remaining notes.
In this piece, this will be most apparent in the ascending and descending runs of notes.
Here’s some suggestions, but try them out and see what works best for you:
- Start the piece of music on the thumb.
- Play the next three notes (three Cs) with the second (index) finger, then the D with the thumb again (‘walk’ it under under the index finger)
- Play the next run of notes with the fingers that come most naturally – you should be able to finish the first phrase on the thumb.
- Between the first and second phrases you have time to switch the thumb to the index finger (without letting go of the note) so your thumb is free to play the G again. If you find this hard, let go of the final C after its allotted time, hover your index finger over it, and stretch your thumb back down, ready to play the G again.
- In the third phrase, you’ll start on the thumb, then play the rest of C chord arpeggio (E, G) with your middle finger (E) and fourth finger (G), this leaves your fifth finger to hit the A which starts the down-and-up run of notes.
- Play the first five notes of the down run with fingers 5,4,3,2 and 1 (thumb), then, holding your thumb in place over the D, cross your index finger over to play the C, then play the D again with your thumb, and run back up the notes to the G which is played with your 4th finger.
- Final notes in the third line should be easy to play, followed by a repeat of the first phrase on the final line.
O Little Town of Bethlehem: Single Note Bass Line
Now that you’ve got hold of the melody, it’s time to add a bass line.
To begin with, I’ve provided a single note in the bass that simply plays on the first beat of each bar, and in fact is the same note throughout – it’s a C.
Try it. It works to a point, though it sounds a bit mediaeval!
O Little Town of Bethlehem: Single note bass line with more colour
The first bass line works, but it could use a little more colour. The following example uses only a few more notes, but makes the carol sound much more familiar. Even with just two notes playing at any one time, you can begin to hear harmonies.
There are also a few half notes (minims) thrown in there: when they crop up you simply play two notes per bar.
O Little Town of Bethlehem: Adding harmony and fullness with chords
You’re now playing two-note harmony music. To add depth and more harmony to the piece, we’ll introduce chords.
This carol can take a variety of more complex chords, but works remarkably well with just a batch of major chords, and one minor chord:
You can see that the left hand plays all the chords in root position using the bass note you’ve already been playing as the tonic. This means that you can just move your left hand with your fingers set in place and play the same chord wherever it appears on the keyboard.
There are only four chords involved: C major, F major, G major, and E minor – but of course E minor is still on all white notes. The E minor sounds a little odd, but not terrible, and makes for a simpler arrangement.
O Little Town of Bethlehem: Less mud with treble clef chords
The last example gives depth and dynamics to the song, but it can sound a bit muddy with the whole chord placed in the bass clef.
A way around this is to play some or all of the chord in the right hand, with or without the melody. The example below illustrates this. The red notes are those that should be played by the right hand as chords, where they fall below a melody note.
Yes, they are either whole notes (semibreves) or half notes (minims) so they generally last for longer than a single melody note. There are various methods for playing these. Try to hold the two lower notes for their entire length, whilst playing the melody line as before (though the fingering will need to change to accommodate the ‘lost’ fingers that are holding the chord notes)
Use the sustain pedal, too, to help prolong those notes. You can usually get away with holding the sustain pedal for the length of each chord, then releasing and pressing the sustain pedal again a split-second after you play the next chord. Experiment to see what works best – you will want to keep the melody notes as crisp as possible.
Another alternative, particularly if you’re accompanying singers, is not to play the melody line except where it forms part of a chord.
Try this version, and see if you like the slightly lighter, higher sound better.
O Little Town of Bethlehem: Walking Bass
Finally (for now), here’s the same version as above but with more of a walking bass line. This pushes the song a little more, giving it more movement. It’s just a suggested pattern. Why not experiment with your own patterns?
O Little Town of Bethlehem: Lyrics
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel
That’s it for the moment. I’ll be revisiting “O Little Town of Bethlehem” over the coming days to add a final few touches that will really bring colour to it. For now, practice through the exercises until you can play the carol to a level you’re happy and confident with.
I’ll also get some audio files up here very soon, so check back for an update.