Songs Indebted to the Canon

The eight-chord sequence that endlessly repeats in the canon is:

D, A, Bm, F#m, G, D, G, A

I have heard many popular songs that use this exact chord sequence, which they are obviously copying from the canon. For example:

I know there are tons of others I'm forgetting or haven't heard. /msg me and I'll add them.

Pachelbel Canon in D

This Canon in D-Major for Three Violins and Thorough-Bass was composed around 1680 by Johann Pachelbel, a prominent organist and composer from the Baroque Era. For more than 250 years, this piece of music had languished in obscurity until Jean-Francois Paillard decided in the 1970s to arrange it for performance by his own orchestra. Since its revival, the Canon has taken off to become a spectacular musical phenomenon that rivals the celebrated Beethoven Ninth Symphony.

We shall now take a closer look at canons in general and the Pachelbel Canon in particular.

Frere Jacques” (English lyric)

Are you sleeping,-------------(Line 1)
Are you sleeping,-------------(Line 2)
Brother John?------------------(Line 3)
Brother John?------------------(Line 4)
Morning bells are ringing---(Line 5)
Morning bells are ringing---(Line 6)
Ding, dang, dong!-----------(Line 7)
Ding, dang, dong!-----------(Line 8)

Most of us know this song, so we will use it to illustrate the basic pattern of a canon, which is a form of contrapuntal music common during the Baroque period. This is how “Frere Jacques” would go if sung by one voice:

Line 1---Line 2---Line 3---Line 4---…etc

If the same song is sung by two voices, with the second voice starting two lines (and thus two measures in the music) after the first voice, it becomes a two-part canon:

First Voice: Line 1---Line 2---Line 3---Line 4---…etc
Second Voice:-------------------Line 1---Line 2---…etc

If the same song is sung by three voices, with the second voice starting two measures after the first, and the third voice two measures after the second, it becomes a three-part canon:

First Voice: Line 1---Line 2---Line 3---Line 4---Line 5---Line 6---…etc
Second Voice:-------------------Line 1---Line 2---Line 3---Line 4---…etc
Third Voice:---------------------------------------------Line 1---Line 2---…etc

Add a fourth voice, a bass, to the three-part canon, and it now becomes a three-part canon with a bass. The bass line can be as simple as repeating the “Are” in “Are you sleeping,” over and over again, at the beginning of each line of the lyric:

First Voice: Line 1---Line 2---Line 3---Line 4---Line 5---Line 6---…etc
Second Voice:-------------------Line 1---Line 2---Line 3---Line 4---…etc
Third Voice:----------------------------------------------Line 1---Line 2---…etc

A canon is thus basically a piece of music with two or more voices or instruments each singing or playing the same melody but each starting at different points, and there is usually a recurring bass accompaniment. Canons that are more elaborate vary the starting points of the voices, the pitches and rhythms of the voices, and the vertical and horizontal orientations of the melodies by inverting them or even playing them backwards.

“Frere Jacques” is a simple melody, and the transformation of it into a three-part canon with bass can be done easily by four human voices; no music training is necessary and the results are always pleasing. However, the same experiment would also prove this formula does not apply to all melodies. Try substituting “Frere Jacques” with, for example, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Stars” and even the crudest ear will tell you it does not work. The reason is all the voices in a canon have to be in harmony at all times, and “Frere Jacques” happens to work well as a canon but “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” simply does not.

The Pachelbel Canon in D, just like our experiment with “Frere Jacques,” is a straightforward three-part canon with bass; and just like our example, the three voices use strictly the same melody starting two measures behind one another. The bass line is only slightly more complicated than our one-note bass: there are altogether eight notes in two measures, and the eight notes are repeated in the same manner from start to finish.

The Canon in D was originally written for three violins, each representing one of the three voices, and a cello playing the bass line. Analytically speaking, there are only two lines of music: a bass line repeating itself throughout the piece, and a melody line which is a series of variations based on the bass line. The melody line starts with simple two-measure variations (the length of the bass line’s eight notes motif), then changes the patterns every four measures, becoming more and more complex. The melody line also uses progressively shorter and shorter notes towards the middle of the music and then progressively longer and longer notes from the middle to the end. These changes in rhythms create an illusion of acceleration and then of deceleration, allowing the music to come to a dignified halt at the end.

The bass line starts the music by playing the eight-note motif, and as the motif begins its first repeat at the third measure, the first violin joins in with its first two-measure variation. Then the second violin joins in with the first variation as the first violin begins its second variation, and finally the third violin joins in with the first variation as the second violin begins its second variation and the first violin its third. In another word, the second violin and the third violin are forever playing catch-ups. At the end, the second violin never gets to play the last variation and the third violin never gets to play the last two variations. At this point, perhaps we should address a common observation that the bass line’s repeating motif must be boring to the cellist: We tend to forget the cellist is not playing in a vacuum but in concert with the three violins. Each repeat of the bass line is in a very different context and also forms the foundation of the particular variation. A musician would play each repeat differently as each variation would indicate, and thus derive infinite pleasure in creating the difference.

The Canon in D is a piece of Baroque music, and it was the usual practice for the cello’s bass line to be augmented by a harpsichord which reinforces the bass notes by playing chords in arpeggio (playing the notes of the chords in successions instead of together). That is why when we listen to the Canon we would often find a fifth voice playing groups of three notes following each bass note. This is most noticeable during the first two measures of the music. The chords by the fifth voice are not random but specific to the performers' interpretations of how the Canon should flow and what its rhythms should be.

When we stop to think about it, composing a canon such as the Pachelbel Canon in D can be a daunting task: Not only do the variations have to be in agreement with the bass line, each of the voices also have to be in faultless musical accord with one another at all times. A canon, then, is as much an exercise in arithmetic as it is a work of art; and it is only the talent of Pachelbel that renders his Canon in D an enchanting piece of music instead of merely tonal mathematics. However, just as it is not necessary to understand how an architectural masterpiece is built to appreciate it, it is not necessary to understand how the Canon in D is created to enjoy it. Knowing its construction may help us to marvel at it too, though.

If words were adequate, there would be no need for music. Therefore, we will not try to explain what makes the Pachelbel Canon in D so special. Still, there is definitely something extraordinary about this piece of music: Its appeal is unanimous and universal. It has been arranged for all kinds of instruments from harmonicas to synthesizers, and has been featured in a Korean movie as well as in a Burger King commercial. It sounds just as delightful when played in the style of Jazz or in that of rock-and-roll. It is played regularly at weddings; and rock musicians from the Bee Gees to the Metafix have borrowed from it. The eight-note bass line starts from the tonic D, descends to the D an octave below, and then ends with the dominant A. This motif is at once musically stable and harmonious, aesthetically correct and pleasing, and lends itself marvellously to melodic inventions. Much as the Canon has been used in various subsequent music of widely diversed genre, the bass line motif itself has also been extensively borrowed from and modified to suit different needs. Mozart made use of a version of it in one of his operas. The bass line in Mary Hopkins' rendition of Ralph McTell's 'The Streets of London' is clearly the same motif. Other similar examples are ‘Someday We Will All Be Together’ by Claire Hamill, and 'All Together Now' by The Farm. The inevitable question becomes: Can a piece of music be compromised by over exposure? Perhaps, but then only the snobbish would shun a work of art because it is trendy.

The Pachelbel Canon in D is from a composition titled the Kanon und Gigue in D-dur fur drei Violinen und Basso Continuo, so there is actually a Gigue to go with the famous Canon. Aren’t you curious why that Gigue is almost never performed?

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