Why *that* tune from The Nutcracker is in every Christmas movie trailer

23 December 2021, 15:24

The Santa Clause 3
The Santa Clause 3. Picture: Alamy

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

This might be the most used piece of music in Christmas movie trailers ever... and it’s by a 19th-century Russian composer.

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Chances are, even if you’ve never seen Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker before, you will know some of the music from the famous ballet.

Most specifically, you will most likely recognise the tune Trepak, as among other things, it features heavily in modern-day Christmas movie trailers.

Trepak is a dance from the second act of Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet, and it’s based on a traditional Russian and Ukrainian folk dance, also called the trepak.

So why is this Russian dance such a perfect accompaniment for festive movie trailers? Time to dive into the world of Christmas cinema to find out...

Read more: Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Here’s what the soundtrack tells us

What makes Trepak the perfect choice for Christmas movies?

When you hear Trepak for the first time, you can’t help but get excited. This is no surprise as studies have shown that when listening to fast music, our heart rate temporarily speeds up, as it does when we get excited.

Trepak is a fast piece of music. Though its speeds vary depending on the ballet production or conductor, Tchaikovsky’s original tempo marking was molto vivace – prestissimo, which means the work should be ‘very lively’ and ‘as fast as possible’.

By including a fast piece of music in trailers, advertisers are physically affecting their audiences by temporarily raising their heartbeats. This is a memorable feeling, and one the audience will now associate with this film, in most likely a positive way.

The tempo and lively nature of Trepak is also synonymous with the idea of rushing. Dances choreographed to this piece often involve the performers rushing around the stage in order to hit all of the choreography on beat.

The idea of rushing is also linked to Christmas, and the idea of making sure everything is ready for ‘the big day’. Consequently, Trepak often underscores scenes of chaos, panic, or rushing in trailers in order to double down on this specific imagery (see below – The Santa Clause 3 and Jingle All The Way).

The music itself is Christmassy; not only because it reminds those of us who know The Nutcracker to associate the music with that festive ballet, but also because of the instrumentation.

Read more: What makes Christmas music sound so Christmassy?

Like many other famous Christmas tunes, this piece is heavily led by the violins, who carry the main melody at the top and tail of the work.

The use of tambourine is also similar to how sleigh bells are used in Christmas music.

While it’s a different percussion instrument, the tambourine helps accentuate the accelerando towards the end of the music, as well as the joyful, festive-esque dance nature of the music.

In many cultures the tambourine is used during celebrations, and Christmas is just that.

Being a little cynical, one of the main reasons this piece is a go-to for movie trailers is, the musical score is out of copyright!

Although musical recordings of the piece are in-copyright, so can’t be used in trailers without permission and payment, there’s nothing stopping a film company from arranging, performing, and recording their own version of Trepak for their trailer.

But this can’t be the only reason professionals keep coming back to this track time and time again when it comes to creating trailers. Another main reason is, simply, the feel-good value of the piece. As is displayed in this wonderfully energised rendition for string trio, by the gifted Balanas siblings...