Find the Best Christmas Sheet Music for You

This post has no affiliate links. In other words, I don’t get any compensation as a result of any purchases made using these links. I hope this list helps you to choose wisely among the vast amount of Christmas sheet music available.

Introduction

There is so much Christmas sheet music out there! How do you choose? In the fakebook I own, there are over 150 pieces, and there’s another fakebook I don’t own that has almost double that! When I started teaching again, after a long corporate career with just my church job on the side, I used to skip teaching Christmas pieces. It was really daunting because I didn’t know where to find exciting and correctly leveled pieces, particularly for beginners.

Fortunately, there are lots of new books out there, like those from Piano Pronto. The leveled Faber books are great, even though I don’t teach that method except when with transfer students. There is an overwhelming number of choices, even at the advanced level. First, some cautions.

Even kids who haven’t learned how to read a grand staff can read notes on a reduced staff, or learn primarily by rote. That’s where teacher inventiveness is especially important. Jingle Bells can be learned by pretty much anyone; you just have to find the right path! It’s not just beginners who benefit from an inventive approach. Rote playing and playing by ear is a legitimate skill that I also teach to older students.

Lead Sheets vs Arrangements

I love teaching older students the skill of reading from a lead sheet. It’s where you get the melody, chord, and lyrics, and have to put the song together yourself. (Lead sheets are compiled together in collections and are often called fake or real books.) You can craft the left hand as simple or complex as you desire. You don’t need to struggle with an arranger’s idea of how to play the piece.

For some, this approach is quite liberating. It’s what professionals often do. For others, it’s a lot of work! Not everyone is going to have the patience or inclination to learn via lead sheets. If you’re going to go with a book of arrangements, it’s important to choose a correctly leveled book, and not just whatever handed-down book is found inside the piano bench.

Leveled Repertoire

Leveled repertoire means what it implies – the pieces in a specific book are at a narrowly-defined level. These levels correspond to method books and are often published as supplemental volumes by those same publishers. In my recommendations, I’m going to group books into larger segments. You’ll then want to go to that publisher’s Website to see examples of the actual pieces before purchasing. I am glad to provide my students with the level that would work best, plus some examples from ths compiled list.

I have to give credit to my mentor, Nicola Cantan, who 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 hope it’s as helpful to you as it was to me.

If Unsure, Go Simple, Not Difficult

If you want to learn a difficult Christmas piece, start during Christmas in July. Don’t start a piece that’s a stretch for you in mid-November and expect it to be ready for a recital in mid-December. It might work, but it also may not. I make this recommendation based on experience, which includes frustration and tears.

We typically don’t think about learning Christmas music until it’s too late. That’s okay. Just learn one at your current level or one that is a level easier. You may even learn two or three pieces (or more) that way! The goal is to share with family and friends; 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 materials through their own sites, so you won’t go any farther. However, for those books that are sold through music retailers, you’ll need to make an additional search. Please read ahead!

Armed with the suggested retail price, proceed cautiously if you want to buy your books on Amazon.com. It’s typically true that a book that ships from and is sold by Amazon.com to be at the retail price or better. Always beware when you see a 3rd party vendor! However, I found several of my new advanced book suggestions selling well above retail. Every one of them was selling at retail or at a discount on Sheet Music Plus, a reputed online music retailer.

I do group orders throughout the year at a brick-and-mortar shop that can ship, like my favorite, Cliff Hill Music. However, traditional retailers like Cliff who order wholesale, assemble the order, and finally ship to the customer are not the best bet when you need a book within a few days.

Beginner
Intermediate

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.

Advanced
Not Leveled
  • The Real Christmas Book: C Edition Includes Lyrics – 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.
  • 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.
  • In Conclusion

    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 add octaves and broken chords to increase the difficulty. It’s trickier to simplify a score. Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

    Santa Claus at the Piano by Jo-B. Courtesy Pixabay.com
    Last Updated 2022-01-15 | Originally Posted 2020-11-21

    Lead Sheets in Action

    Introduction

    When I came back to piano teaching in earnest several years ago, I learned about the types of skills progressive teachers teach their students. One of them is lead sheets, sometimes called fake sheets. It’s certainly nothing that I studied with any teacher privately or in college. However, I did remember having to “fake” my way through playing from them as the unwilling jazz-band pianist.

    In July 2020, just last month, I became the pianist for my church’s praise band, which plays Christian Contemporary Music. All of the piano scores are lead sheets, not fully-composed music. The notation is pretty basic for the most part. But it does take practice and experience to become skilled at this type of playing. I’m decent but nothing spectacular at this point!

    Predecessor of the Lead Sheet

    Very simply, a lead sheet has a melody with chord symbols, instead of a fully-notated piece of music. This is quite a bizarre concept for many classically-trained pianists, since we’re used to playing from fully realized scores. However, lead sheets have some connection to the types of minimally composed music harpsichordists and organists faced mainly in the Baroque period, but appeared as late as Mozart operas. The harpsichord, along with a cello-like instrument called the viola de gamba, provided a bass line and harmonic support to a soloist. That soloist might be a singer or instrumentalist. The harpsichodist and gamba player would be what you’d call the back up band.

    Figured bass accompaniments from the Baroque aren’t exactly notated the same way as modern lead sheets. However, the concept is the same. For the composer, writing in this style was a time saver. However, the shorthand technique developed to provide the harpsichordist some freedom to arrange the accompaniment according to his own style and the needs of the soloist. Today, many of those parts are available fully written out, because many of us never learn those skills. I encountered them in a keyboard harmony class, which I didn’t appreciate at the time. It was a requirement for all pianists and organists at The Juilliard School.

    How A Lead Sheet Is Used

    There are really several basic components that can be expressed by a pianist in a praise band, depending upon the needs of the group. Our group currently has no percussion, so providing some type of driving rhythm can be helpful to the group. Although there is no printed bass line, providing an improvised bass line can also help if there is no base guitar playing to define that.

    Even though there is a melody printed, it’s more for the lead singer to sing and not for the pianist to play. If the lead singer needs some support with her vocal line, she may ask you to play it. That’s fine at rehearsal, but it’s not really great to be doubling the singer with a piano melody line. There’s much more chord playing and even improvising of some counter melodies with the right hand that can provide more variety to the music.

    Watch Me in Action!

    I’ll update this article with links to the songs that we play at tonight’s service. We’re adding a new Wednesday evening service, starting tonight, as an online event. We cannot do our in-person pre-Covid activities, so this provides a substitute. If you want to watch the service live, you can go to the First Methodist Facebook page just before 6:30 pm to snag the broadcast link.

    lead sheet example
    Several measures from lead sheet “Your Love Awakens Me”
    Posted 2020-08-19