Last Updated on 2023-01-20 | Originally Posted on 2020-11-21
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Christmas songbooks that are sold in the mass market, like at Sam’s Club, on Amazon.com, or at your local bookstore, are not thoughtfully compiled with piano students in mind. You’ll get a lot of songs at a reasonable price, but the arrangements will vary in difficulty from page to page. They’re often too complicated for beginners, but too easy and boring for advanced students.
Fortunately, there are many Christmas songbooks compiled with the piano student in mind. Some of these work great for amateur pianists as well. Faber and Piano Pronto are my favorite publishers for these books. There is an overwhelming number of choices even with a singular publisher, so be prepared to spend some time searching for the right book(s).
You can skip to my book recommendations and bypass my detailed introduction.
No Book Required Pieces
Students who haven’t learned how to read a grand staff can sometimes read notes on a reduced staff. Or, these pieces can be taught by rote or by ear. Jingle Bells, Jolly Old St. Nicholas, and several others can be learned by most beginners without a supplemental book. I share some of these pieces in the online resources of MyMusicStaff for my own students.
Lead Sheets vs Arrangements
Playing Christmas music from a lead sheet can be an enjoyable experience. It’s where you get the melody, chord, and lyrics, and have to put the song together yourself. There are many free public domain sites where you can download individual songs.
You could also buy a large collection called a fake book or real book. Check out my Not Leveled section near the bottom of this page.
I make a plug for lead sheets because they are a practical way to get started at no cost. The cost is your time. It’s like buying furniture at IKEA versus a traditional furniture store. There’s nothing wrong with paying for a book of arrangements, as long as they’re the right level and well done. I like both, depending on the occasion.
In the list below, you are going to find mostly leveled books. That means each book is geared towards a narrow segment of students. It’s the musical equivalent of buying a fitted shirt with sleeve lengths in half sizes, versus small, medium, and large. Even if a particular book sounds great, it’s still a good idea to go to the publisher’s Website to see examples.
My mentor Nicola Cantan provided many of the beginner and intermediate choices you’ll see below. She recorded this YouTube video that takes you inside a number of those choices. I highly recommend it!
If Unsure, Level Down, Not Up!
If you want to learn a difficult Christmas piece, start during Christmas in July. I’m not kidding! Don’t start a difficult piece in mid-November and expect it to be ready for a recital in mid-December. It might work, but it also may not. For that reason, I always recommend going down a level to avoid the real possibility of frustration and tears.
Please read that last sentence again. It’s okay – no one is going to judge you for playing a piece that you consider to be too easy. They might judge you clawing your way through a piece that’s too difficult, or that you didn’t have enough time to learn properly. The other benefit of going down a level is to be able to easily learn several pieces instead of struggling to learn one. If the goal is to have fun, and share your joy with your family, keep that top of mind!
Researching/Purchasing Sheet Music
Where links are provided, they are to the publisher’s sites. I recommend starting there for two reasons: 1) It’s your best chance to look inside the book. 2) You will find out the suggested retail price. Some publishers like Piano Safari and Piano Pronto only sell books (or downloads) through their own sites. For books without that restriction, I suggest exercising a bit of caution.
This is my standard Amazon.com warning. If you’ve read it before, read on. Proceed cautiously if you want to buy your books on Amazon.com. It’s mostly true, but not always, that a book that ships from and is sold by Amazon.com is offered at the retail price or better. Always beware when you see a 3rd party vendor! They typically buy low and sell high! If you didn’t find the suggested retail price on the publisher’s site, you can also find it on Sheet Music Plus, a reputable online music retailer.
- Holiday Classics – Piano Pronto – Two volumes with 3 levels of each piece in each book.
- PlayTime or ShowTime Christmas – Faber – Levels 1, 2A, and 2B are appropriate for beginners.
- Joy of Christmas – Piano Safari – Great for Piano Safari students. It provides the rich teacher duets that are typical in Piano Safari method books.
- Christmas Together – Piano Pronto – Duet books intended for students at same level, called evenly leveled. Most duet books have a much more difficult teacher part.
All of the books here should only be attempted by those at the early intermediate level. If you are still a late beginner, or even on the beginner/intermediate bubble, heed my warning earlier in this post. I’d recommend one of the Faber 2A or 2B books listed above instead.
- Christmas Classics – Piano Pronto – Two classically-based volumes that Nicola Cantan calls her Christmas favorites for this level. Students should not pursue these pieces until they are firmly at the early intermediate level. Wait a year on these if you are at the late beginner level.
- Rockin’ Christmas – Piano Pronto – Pop/Rock styles, great for teen students.
- Jazzy Jingles – Piano Pronto – Jazz styles, great for teen students.
- The Nutcracker – Piano Pronto – For students who like the Nutcracker.
- John Rutter Christmas Album – The difficulty is at the upper end of intermediate. I found this volume disappointing because it lacks imagination. It’s just a combination of the choral and accompanying parts on each of Rutter’s famous choral scores.
- FunTime, BigTime or AdvancedTime Christmas – Faber – Levels 3 through 5 are appropriate for intermediates.
- Solos for Christmas – Dan Coates – 50 Advanced Arrangements. My go-to book when planning a gig or recital.
- It’s Christmas – Dan Coates – I generally prefer the book of 50 to this much thinner and just slightly less expensive book. However, a few of the arrangements here are superior to the bigger volume. However, I’d only buy this instead if you’re only going to learn one or two pieces.
- Well-Tempered Christmas – Mark Hayes – Mark Hayes is one of the leading arrangers in church music today, and hails from Kansas City to boot.
- Christmas by Candlelight – Mary McDonald – This is a worthy choice to consider, although I don’t own this. I have played her Easter Suite called Sacrifice and Splendor.
- Christmas Tapestry – Joseph M. Martin – This book is one of the more difficult books in this set, but the pieces are very rewarding.
- Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree) – Franz Lizst – Liszt wrote these 12 pieces of late intermediate to advanced difficulty late in life. Some are dazzling, some are duds, and some are in between. I’d start with the free download, though I did eventually buy the urtext Editio Musica Budapest.
- A Charlie Brown Christmas: Artist Transcriptions for Piano – Vince Guaraldi – If you like the jazz stylings found in the Peanuts movies, and have the chops to play them, this is a must-buy! These classic jazz arrangements are superb, and are amenable to further embellishment.
- The Real Christmas Book: Hal Leonard – Over 150 songs but they are in lead sheet format (melody, chords, lyrics). What’s important is that you know the skill for reading from lead sheets, which can be learned by a late beginner and beyond fairly easily.
- Michael Kravchuk – A very nicely put together Website with lots of free Christmas lead sheets.
- Christmas Music Songs – Another lead sheet site with a different set of songs.
- Hymn Book – If you want to learn the sacred Christmas songs of your own faith tradition, start with your own church’s hymn book! I prefer the selection and harmonizations in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, but any hymn book will do. You can often borrow a hymn book from your church, donate to your church to take one home, or order one through a music store.
My suggestions are presented in hopes that you will play Christmas music versus just hearing it. Sharing these pieces with friends and family is a great celebration of why you decided to learn an instrument in the first place. Since Christmas music is relatively inexpensive, there’s no reason to struggle.
If you find pieces that are too simple, you can always add flourishes to increase the difficulty. It’s near impossible for an overwhelmed student to simplify a score. Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!