Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, but be forewarned, their ring-ting-tingling may rouse more than a chorus or two. Eleven-year-old Derby Belser’s squabble with her grandmother over what songs to listen to as they baked holiday treats launched a lifelong learning project which later turned into her Honors thesis topic.
Belser remembers being in her grandmother’s shotgun house in New Orleans. Her family, originally from the city, had relocated to North Carolina prior to Hurricane Katrina and was back in town celebrating the holidays.
“[My grandmother] decorated the whole thing, top to bottom like a Hallmark movie,” says Belser. “It looked perfect. I remember we were in the kitchen making gingerbread cookies and everything was so ideal. She was playing Michael Bublé and I remember asking to play Justin Bieber. Bear with me, his song ‘Mistletoe’ had just come out.”
Belser’s grandmother, however, refused the request saying Bieber was “too young” for Christmas.
“Ever since then, my whole perspective of the Christmas genre changed,” says Belser.
She wondered how Michael Bublé, someone close to her parents’ age, can seamlessly join the ranks of Perry Como and Bing Crosby with each song cover; but artists such as Justin Bieber and Arianna Grande would release holiday tracks that just barely make the contemporary hit list.
“I just want to know what that says about our music industry…our definition of popular music, and what that says about our expression of this holiday itself as Americans.”
Few places, Belser says, have Christmas canons, or recognized and universally accepted works within the genre, like we do. She believes these concepts determine how we define the holiday season.
Fast-forward years later, Belser is now a senior at Tulane who was admitted into Newcomb-Tulane College’s Honors Program her first year. She knew upon arriving at college that she wanted to research Christmas music. During her sophomore year, she found the opportunity.
After declaring a duel degree in English and music composition, Belser asked the Honors department if a thesis on Christmas music was possible. If so, she’d be the first student in the program to source a study between the English and music composition. Although uncharted territory, Belser was assured by program faculty and staff that it could be done.
“Dr. Beers and Dr. Maheu Vail are my two saviors,” says Belser.
Dr. Jennifer Beers, the Honors Program’s Nationally Competitive Scholarship Coordinator, assisted Belser in applying for a Fulbright Scholarship, a prestigious and highly competitive award for teaching and research. Belser will find out in April if she's earned status as a Fulbright Scholar for her proposal focusing on the study of popular music. Dr. Charlotte Maheu Vail, Associate Dean of NTC and Director of the Honors Program, helped Belser personally navigate how to plan her thesis. Encouraging Belser’s innovative idea, Maheu Vail connected Belser to on-campus resources such as the campus archives. Belser has also worked with other Tulane faculty such as Assistant Professor of Music Dr. Jane Mathieu on a private study in popular music.
Her research for her thesis is two-fold, devising an analysis of popular, contemporary Christmas songs and the history of Christmas and the carols themselves. Belser’s delved into the historical aspect, making appointments with the “rare books people”* and looking at some of the oldest Christmas songs on record. By studying their original scores, analyzing them for harmonic language, melodic language, and rhythm, she’s working to discover where the holiday’s traditions came from and how the Christmas carol originated. She furthers this work by conducting a poetic analysis of the carol’s text to determine what formula creates the perfect Christmas song. This research will bridge the gap between the traditional carols and its contemporary renditions that comprise our Billboard top hits.
“The Billboard top charts for Christmas music, every single year, are made of the same 50 songs,” says Belser. “It’s just about who is covering them. It’s never new music. If it is, that song stays there for a year and gets washed away. The only one contemporary hit that has made the canon these past seven years is Mariah Carey. She is the only one.”
Belser’s research method is inspired by a professor at Berklee College of Music, Dr. Joe Bennett. He conducted a study titled “Writing the Perfect Christmas Song.” Bennett analyzed the same carols Belser is researching, stripping each song down to key signature, BPM, use of sleigh bells, and vocals (male/female, duet, solo, etc.). Bennet’s conclusion, he believed, constructed the perfect holiday tune, determining it was written in C or A major, in 4/4 time or 4/4 swung time, with sleigh bells every beat. However, after providing his research to a group of song writers and having them compose an original piece for circulation, the song “Love’s Not Just for Christmas” flopped. It received no recognition.
Belser has her own ideas on how to conduct her study, learning from Bennett's case.
“You can’t compare 'Feliz Navidad' to 'All I Want for Christmas' and then narrow on the key signature," she says. There are so many parts to analyze. So, I’m going to try and figure out if there is a science. I’m going to go a lot more in depth.”
Belser’s end goal is to publish her thesis and write her own original Christmas song, applying her research and musical training. Belser plays the piano and guitar, is classically trained in voice, and writes for all instruments. Post-grad, she is considering working towards a graduate degree, possibly her PhD, and plans to apply her duel degree from Newcomb-Tulane College to write music books for children.
“I think what [students] are learning in their music classes right now is different than what they want to be listening to, so I want to combine the two.”
Belser says her time here at Tulane has been greatly enhanced by her research and the work of the Honors Program.
“Tulane in general is very much for students who are intrinsically motivated, but the Honors Program really bolsters those [students] in allowing them to kind of explore their own research opportunities beyond the classroom,” says Belser. “We’re only really given so many academic opportunities within our courses, but the Honors Program has always allowed for extracurricular intellectual innovation and moments. For me, the Honors Program has kind of been like a reflection of what I want to do in academia. Whereas everything else is kind of what I have to do to get my degree.”
*Derby is referring to the Rare Books unit of the Tulane University Special Collections division of the library.