I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Church Bells

There’s an old saying, probably a million old sayings, that says something to this effect: You can’t know what happiness is without experiencing sadness. In music, this could easily refer to the ideas of harmony and dissonance or tension and resolution when it comes to chord progressions.

Some chord are decidedly more dissonant than others. Augmented and diminished chords leap immediately to mind. When used artfully, dissonant chords can become the highlight of any song. If you’ve just done our Guitar Noise Christmas Song Lesson on “El Noi de la Mare (Child of the Mother),” you heard a great example of this at the end of the carol’s third line (“example 3 in the lesson).

This lesson, a dense chord-melody arrangement of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” relies heavily on diminished seventh chords. Besides being a beautiful Christmas hymn, it’s also a great exercise for working on finger dexterity for shifting from one chord shape to another because it utilizes all four fingers of your fretting hand.

The hymn itself is  very short, just eight measures long not counting a single pickup note to start things off. Along the way, you’re going to run into three different diminished seventh chords, so you might want to take a moment to brush up on this particular shape:

Diminished Seventh Chords for I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day

If you’ve taken the time to go back and read our article on diminished chords, you hopefully noticed that one cool characteristic of the diminished seventh chord is that it repeats itself every three frets up the guitar neck. This is helpful to know because you’re going to run into two other forms of both the Ddim7 and the D#dim7 as you progress through this song:

More Diminished Seventh Chords for I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day

There will be other chords to deal with as well, but we’ll deal with those as we come to them. For now, let’s tackle the first two measures. Remember that there’s a single pickup note (the D at the third fret of the B string) that will begin the entire piece. It’s not noted in this first example (the inadequacies of some music softwares!) but you’ll see it in the single-page PDF file at the end of the lesson.

I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day Example 1

The first chord shift – from D to Ddim7 and back to D again – is very easy. Assuming that you make your D in the typical fashion (middle finger on the second fret of the high E string, ring finger on the third fret of the B, and index finger on the second fret of the G), just raise your ring finger from the B string and slide your middle and index fingers down one fret. Then reverse the process to come back to D.

The change from D to D#dim7 at the end of the first measure may seem difficult, but it may become easier if you think of it as simply moving your D shape from one place to another. Your middle, ring, and index fingers are all going to be in the same relative position to each other in both chords, it’s just that with the D#dim7 they’ll be both a string and a fret lower. So if you can get yourself thinking that you can move the entire D chord at once, so that your ring finger is now on the first fret of the B string, your ring finger on the second fret of the G string, and your index finger on the first fret of the D string, and then adding your pinky to the second fret of the high E string, you’ll have the chord quickly and easily. This will take a little practice, especially if you’ve little to no previous experience with diminished seventh chords. But thinking of them as D shapes with the pinky added should help you get comfortable with them in no time.

The second measure involves two familiar chords – Em and A7 – but uses different voicings in order to bring out the melody of the hymn:

Em and A7 chords for I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day

And just to keep you on your toes, there are diminished seventh chords between and after these new versions of Em and A7. The Ddim7 following the A7 is the one three frets higher up the neck than the first Ddim7 you played.

Moving on to the second line, things get a little easier:

I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day Example 2

The first measure in this example centers around this D chord:

D chord at fifth fret for I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day

Some of you may recognize this form of the D chord from the opening riff of “Margaritaville.” Play this chord using your index finger at the fifth fret of the high E string while your pinky sits at the seven fret of the B string and your ring finger gets the note at the seventh fret of the G string.

Then you’re going to shift your index finger so that it barres the three highest strings at the seventh fret in order to play the remaining three chords in this measure:

Various D Chords for I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day

To get the A9 chord that starts the next measure, slightly adjust your index finger so that it’s now barring the four highest strings at the fifth fret. Adding your middle finger to the sixth fret of the G string sets you up for both the A9 and the new voicing of A7 that follows:

A9 and A7 Chords for I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day

Switching between these two chords now involves only the use of the pinky at the seventh fret of the high E. The second measure ends with another diminished seventh chord. This time it’s the D#dim7 played at the fourth and fifth frets.

The beginning of the third pair of measures focuses on the basic G chord, but since the melody will be played at various points on the high E string, it’s best to not play a full six-string version of it:

I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day Example 3

For many of you, the easiest way to deal with the first three chords will be to use your middle finger on the bass note (third fret of the low E string) and then each of your other fingers for the melody notes – pinky for the fifth fret, ring finger for the third fret, and index finger for the second fret – on the high E string. Like most of the other measures, this one ends with another diminished seventh chord (Edim7).

The second half of this example uses the following three chords, followed by a basic open position E chord:

F# and Bm for I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day

If you find the full barre version of the F# too difficult, simply play it as a basic F chord moved one fret higher on the neck. The F#7 is simply the same chord with the high E string left open.

You’ll be happy to know that once you’ve gotten through all this, the final two measures are relatively stress-free:

I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day Example 4

Aside from the Dsus4 chord, which you probably already know quite well, these other D chords were covered in Example 2.

So now let’s put everything together:

Download a PDF of the complete arrangement

I hope that you enjoy this Christmas song. It’s long been one of my favorites and I’ve been meaning to get a lesson for it online for ages. It does pose a bit of a challenge to smoothly move from one chord to another, but you’ll hopefully be impressed with the progress you make as you play it more and more often. As always, take each chord change slowly and get your fingers used to shifting up and down the neck smoothly and efficiently.

And again, as always, please feel free to leave comments or questions right here on the lesson page or email me directly at [email protected].

I look forward to chatting with you again soon.


Liner Notes

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was originally a poem titled “Christmas Bells, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day, 1863. Earlier that year, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles, had left home to join the Union Army and was seriously wounded in November’s Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. It was later set to music by many people, the first generally attributed to John Baptiste Calkin, an English organist, who adapted one of his earlier melodies to fit Longfellow’s poem. This arrangement is based on that melody.

Most hymnals and songbooks tend to leave out two stanzas of the original poem because they are so specific to the American Civil War. Here is the original poem:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”