Canon in D: Why is it so famous? - Piano Rhythm (2023)

Towards the end of the 17th century the German composerJohann PachelbelHe wrote a piece of music for three violins and accompaniment. The key of D major was chosen and the harmony and structure of the work had to be fairly simple. The man could never have guessed how world famous his canon would become.

Most likely he would have laughed at the thought that his play would be more than three hundred years laterone of the most famouswithin the classical music genre.

While the composer himself had a successful career and was highly regarded as a musician, this special work lay dormant for centuries. Long after his death, he is now revered by people around the world.

The composer

Johann Pachelbel became part of a large movement of German organ composers. Innovations in organ design and construction allowed ever more interesting musical ideas without the need for numerous musicians.

As we see today the meaning of time through the works of J.S. Bach, a number of 17th-century composers contributed to an enormous catalog of organ and chamber music, replete with glorious melodies and warm harmonic ideas.

Pachelbel was born in Nuremberg in 1653.and he too died around 52 years later in his beloved Bavarian town. His career took him to Vienna, at that time the most attractive music city in Europe, where he worked as an organist in the famous St. Stephen's Cathedral.

He later returned to Germany, worked briefly in Eisenach and then in the renowned music city of Erfurt, where he rented his apartment from none other than Johann Christian Bach. A strong feature in the network of district courts and church music,Pachelbel enjoyed a stable career as an organist, teacher and composer.

canon concept

The concept of the musical canon is simple.A single melody is heard first, followed by several repetitions, including variations and often elaborate flourishes.. However, the unique musical idea is always present and clearly audible, conveying a sense of permanence and stability.

It is interesting that this baroque concept, which began to take hold in the Middle Ages, has been revived in recent times. Neoclassical composers of the early 20th century liked music with such repetitions, and even today's popular minimalist composers (such as Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass) employ similar tactics in their writing.

In the case ofCanon of Pachelbel in Re,the initial boast –a repeating bass line– underpins harmony throughout the piece. Above this, three violins weave their enchanting melodies, which are repeated around it, creating an almost hypnotic effect.

The first melodic material comes in the form of simple descending musical voices. At this stage, every note of the violins matches the bass. One of the most striking features of the work, however, is how in the repeats and variations that follow, the duration of the violin notes is shortened and we experience the sense of music gradually becoming more active.

Isthe actual bar and tempo remain constant, but the increasing liveliness of the high voices always arouses the listener's interest. One could argue that a piece of music composed of these simple repeating chords would inevitably become boring. On the contrary, Pachelbel's sophisticated design ensures that the sequences always stay fresh.

orchestration and arrangements

Pachelbel's original chamber music orchestration remains the most familiar to listeners today, thanks largely to the age of recorded sound. Remarkably, the piece remained unpopular for over two hundred years, and its place as a staple of today's classical repertoire is due in large part to a recording made in the1970by the French directorJean-Francois Paillard.

Since then, one could say that it has becomethe most commonly (and sometimes bizarrely) arranged piece of classical music. Its rise to fame as a work performed at wedding ceremonies means that arrangements of the organ canon are the most common. There is an amazing number of different keyboard versions, and arrangers are constantly creating new interpretations suitable for all skill levels.

This also means the nature of a canonArrangements can vary greatlyduring the performance. Unlike standard pieces of music, the repetitions can be arbitrary, and therefore the piece can last anywhere from a few minutes to three or four times as long.

It was quite common for composers of the time to give little guidance as to how fast their music should be played, so the playing tempos of this particular work also vary widely.

The well-known organ arrangements heard in churches around the world are complemented by versions for voices, multiple ukuleles, mixed brass, electric guitars and toy pianos. The list seems almost endless. Couples can be romantically enjoying a warm and lush recording of a top-notch string orchestra, while at the same moment there is likely somewhere in the world a group of school children screaming out loud at a performance of the Pachelbel masterpiece with mixed abilities and levels of enthusiasm.


One of Canon's most endearing qualities is its harmony. Music seldom achieves such international fame without aspects that have universal appeal, and Pachelbel's simple harmony certainly does. While the opening statement is just the bass line and no chords above it, the harmony it implies seems to have a very natural and even human form.

Our house keyD major comes first, before you leaveDie Dominant (A-Hard)it looks like a musical questioning. This open question is then answered melancholically when the music changes to itif underage.

The mood softens over the next three or four chords, with the last two expanding our musical inquiry, going from G major back to the dominant, creating a sense of direct but effective anticipation. Then everything starts all over again.

Why is Canon so famous in D?

Different aspects of music seem to determine how widely a piece can be recognized. He"Happy Birthday"The song is known all over the world and is heard in many different languages. It's easy to sing, short and simple.

Beethoven's "For Elisa"jMozart's Piano Sonata in C majorare somehow connected to the young people that areLearning to play classical pieces.

Pachelbels KanoneIt took a very different route to fame, and while it's hugely popular as wedding music at the moment, it's hard to say how it came to be so successful. This is most likely due to a balance between musical simplicity and a sense of warmth and elegance that people seem to identify with.

As mentioned, the notes go through sequences of variations while our ostinato bass line never changes. The juxtaposition of something constant and something constantly evolving interest draws listeners in. From the very first hearing of this music (after perhaps only thirty seconds) the listener would have a sense of anticipation and "know" what the harmony will be like next.

Just as one learns to love pop songs through familiarity, so are the steady pulse and dependable harmonic progressionWe feel comfortable with Canon in Dand somehow it has the ability to unify universally. This is music that is always beautiful and interesting, but never boring.

Is it difficult to play?

The question of the difficulty of the music (when it comes to playing) really arisesrefers to the arrangement itself. When we talk about Pachelbel's original chamber music version, it doesn't pose much of a challenge for professional musicians.

Hobbyists will also master the trickier passages with just a little quality practice time. In these circumstances, where each musician is only responsible for one musical line, the Canon can be considered fairly easy to play.

This changes when a musician only plays an arrangement of the piece. The best examples here are probably our well-known versions of the church organist. In these cases polyphonic contrapuntal music can present a significant difficulty.

Again, depending on the arrangement, it may require the player to play more than one melody line at a time with each hand, moving between the organ manuals (or "keyboards") while keeping the ostinato constant with the pedals.

The regularity of the bass motif certainly makes things easier: the same ostinato runs throughout the piece. However, more complex organ arrangements require careful practice. In a way, the piano versions are much simpler.

The bass ostinato is the key to the music and therefore can never be omitted.. If we then assume that the left hand always plays this bass line, then we only have to study the subtleties within the right hand. Again, the intricacies of the arrangements are the problem, and the good news is that it's certainly possible to play Canon versions with relative ease.

final thoughts

There is a risk that "dubbed" music will be irritating. However, if we really take the time to listen to Pachelbel's canon and appreciate it for its simple beauty, we are well on our way to understanding how music can unite us as human beings.

It has achieved tremendous fame without any special features or extravagant attributes. It is inherently pure music to enjoy.

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