Over the weekend, my husband and I looked in vain all over our apartment for the Christmas carol books. You see, Carl is out playing the piano for St. Andrew’s Priory’s Home for the Holidays fundraiser tonight, and they asked him to play Christmas carols as entertainment.
“You mean you actually need the music?” I asked Carl incredulously.
You see, I have probably been playing Christmas carols nearly my whole life — fifty years or more, and I would venture to bet anyone that I could play any Christmas carol upon request. Just give me a title, and I can play it for you in a key that it is normally played.
Angels we have heard on high? F major
Silent Night? B-flat
Joy to the World? D major
Away in a manger? F major
Hark the herald angels sing? F major
What child is this? E minor
O come, all ye faithful? G major
On the other hand, if you ask me to sing a Christmas carol, I couldn’t get past the first line — that’s because I don’t know the words! In fact, would you believe me if I tell you that I don’t know the words of any Christmas carols?! The music, yes — the words, no.
I guess you could say that I play Christmas carols by ear — I don’t need the printed music. (Same for the “Happy Birthday” song — in fact I think I can play it in any key.) If you check out the Wikipedia entry for “Play by ear”, you will see that it refers to improvisation, the act of inventing all or part of a process as it is performed. It can also mean learning how to play a musical piece purely by listening to a rendition of the piece alone, without the aid of printed material.
In my case, though, I think it has been the more than fifty years of playing Christmas carols for church services that has indelibly stamped the melodies (and accompaniments) on my brain!
We never did find the Christmas carol books, so I sent Carl off to the fundraising event with a hymnal!