Songwriting Analysis: What Makes “O Come O Come Emmanuel” Such an Enduring Classic

"Christmas Decoration" by Siri Kristenson

Happy Holidays!  This season bring special attention to music for those of us living in societies influenced by Western traditions.  Of the many carols that return year after year, “O Come O Come Emmanuel” has been one of my favorites.  Probably because I’m a sucker for sad songs, but this song is all about holding on to your hope in a desolate place — and many of us relate more to that kind of song than the cheery and the merry.

Compositionally, here are some songwriting techniques I observed:

  • The opening phrases rely strongly on notes that frame the underlying minor chord — triadic melodies.  Triadic melodies are great because they’re more interesting to listen to than step-wise melodies, but because the notes fit the chords they don’t stick out like other big-interval moves.
  • The words and music have such tight cohesion — notice how each of the phrases in the verse has its own distinct character.  In particular, notice how the last line of each verse has the most hopeful words, and are matched by the most uplifting melody.
  • The chorus deviates away from the static rhythm of the verses, by giving the most important words in the song time to breathe and sink in.  “Rejoice” is repeated twice in a most stark and dramatic manner.  Nobody has any doubts as to where the central message of the song lies.


By the way, here is a most poignant, beautiful arrangement of this carol — it was composed when I was in college by one of my college professors, and was premiered by the choir (St. Olaf Cantorei)  he was conducting at the time.  I was so moved and was quite envious that they got to do it (I was singing in Chapel Choir at the time — but I sang in Cantorei my senior year and got to sing Randall Thompson’s “Best of Rooms” which was one of my highlights of four years of choirs at St Olaf).