Pachelbel’s Canon

In an earlier post, I made a quick note about the ubiquitous nature of the chord progression in a piece of music called “Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo”, also known as Pachelbel’s Canon, also known as “the ‘Freebird’ of classical music.” (Thanks to TVTropes.org for that last one.)

But today, we shall look at Pachelbel’s Canon itself. For those of you who have heard this piece of music a million times at weddings but don’t know it by name, here’s a snip from a recording by the London Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the full piece here.)

ABOUT PACHELBEL

pachelbelJohann Pachelbel (1653-1706) was a German composer from the Baroque era. He was a hugely popular composer during his life, and composed an enormous body of work.

Pachelbel was also a teacher, and wound up tutoring the Bach family, among others. Though Pachelbel did not directly tutor Johann Sebastian Bach, he did tutor Johann Chrisoph Bach, Johann Sebastian’s older brother. J.S. Bach was in turn tutored by Johann Christoph Bach, and then later turned into another Baroque megastar.

In fact, Pachelbel might have written “Canon and Gigue” for Johann Christoph Bach’s wedding, according to a theory by Hans-Joachim Schulze. (It is known that Pachelbel wrote music for the wedding, and that he attended the event.)

Pachelbel was best known in life as an organist and an organ composer, even though his choral works (like the Canon) are what are best known today. The irony of this is that most of his chamber works are lost. The “Canon and Gigue” are two rare ones that survived.

ABOUT THE CANON

The funny thing about Pachelbel’s Canon is that it’s not entirely a canon. It also contains elements of a chaconne.

A canon is a piece of music wherein one melody is started multiple times at regular intervals, so it overlaps itself. If you have ever sung “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Frere Jacques“, you know what a canon is. A round (like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”) is a type of canon.

Wikipedia notes that there are many types of canon:

The most rigid and ingenious forms of canon are not strictly concerned with pattern but also with content. Canons are classified by various traits: the number of voices, the interval at which each successive voice is transposed in relation to the preceding voice, whether voices are inverse, retrograde, or retrograde-inverse; the temporal distance between each voice, whether the intervals of the second voice are exactly those of the original or if they are adjusted to fit the diatonic scale, and the tempo of successive voices. However, canons may use more than one of the above methods.

In other words, different “voices” in a canon can undergo different transformations. If Voice #1 is the first melody, Voice #2 can come in x-number of beats later, played on a different instrument, perhaps in a different octave, even perhaps playing the same melody backward. The point of a canon is to take the same melody and play it off itself multiple times, even if the melody as a whole is transformed in some way.

You can see this in the sheet music for Pachelbel’s Canon. The three different voices are color coded below:

Pachelbel-canon-colors

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Also notice that there is a fourth part to the music, which is that bass line isn’t taking part in the melody at all. (Remember Rob Paravonian’s lament? Yup.) This is where the description of a chaconne comes in. A chaconne is another popular musical composition popular during the Baroque era, wherein the bass line gives an outline to variations taking place in the other voices in the music. The base in a chaconne often moves between tonic and dominant pitches in the scale. In the case of Pachelbel’s Canon, the bass suggests the following chords in each of the eight repeating notes:

D major (tonic)
A major (dominant)
B minor (subdominant)
F# minor (mediant)
G major (subdominant)
D major (tonic)
G major (subdominant)
A major (dominant)

What do those terms “tonic” and “dominant” and whatnot mean? Well, I’m not going to get into it here, because that’s where my brain starts hurting. I’ll just summarize and say that those terms describe where a note falls within a chord.

WAIT, WHAT ABOUT THE GIGUE?

You may have noticed that the name of the music is “Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo”, and we’ve mostly talked about the Canon. What about this Gigue thing?

A gigue is a lively piece of dance music from the Baroque era, essentially a French version of the British jig. (Note the similarity in terms.)

Pachelbel’s Gigue is a second piece of music in the same key as the Canon. I can almost guarantee you have not heard this part of the music nearly as often as the Canon, if at all. (You can hear the whole piece here.)

WHY IS THE CANON EVERYWHERE?

It is actually fairly strange that Pachelbel’s Canon can now be found everywhere. As I mentioned before, much of Pachelbel’s prolific work has not survived. In fact, the Canon itself (minus the Gigue) wasn’t officially published and distributed until 1919, about 225 years after it was written. Why is it now everywhere?

The fame of Pachelbel’s Canon can be blamed on the 1970s.

Recordings of the music were made here and there after the piece’s publication in 1919, but the piece exploded in popularity after Jean-Francois Paillard made a recording of it in 1970. The piece got another boost in 1980, when the Oscar-collecting movie Ordinary People came out, because Pachelbel’s Canon was the theme song. After that: weddings, ahoy!

THE CANON IN THE WILD

Here is the opening scene of Ordinary People (1980), which, aside to making the Canon ultra-famous, also adds lyrics:

In a 2011 episode of Dr. Who called “Let’s Kill Hitler”, the song appears just before Melody crashes the party.

In the Neon Genesis Evangelion film Evangelion: Death and Rebirth (1997), the Canon is used as a linking element between portions of the story. (Even though I didn’t care for the film as a whole, I personally think this is the most appropriate use of Pachelbel’s Canon I’ve seen in a film. The Evangelion series involves getting three teens to work together, which parallels the three voices in the Canon. Nice.)

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has based no less than two songs upon the Canon: “Christmas Canon” and “Christmas Canon Rock”. (I personally find the Trans-Siberian Orchestra unbearably cheesy, but I have linked both those songs to their cheese-tastic music videos, which I find hilarious when drunk. You’re welcome.)

Actually, if you’re looking for a rockin’ version of Pachelbel’s Canon, Taiwanese composer Jerry Chang made a rockin’ version of the Canon online. Back in 2006, it went viral to the point that news organizations took notice.

Coolio’s song “C U When U Get There”, off his album My Soul, uses the Canon as a bass line. (You can hear the whole thing here.)

While Green Day’s “Basket Case” does not directly refer to Pachelbel’s Canon, it definitely has the same bass line and structure.

The tune also appears in the video game Bioshock Infinite, which came out earlier this year.

And there are a number of other films that include the Canon, even though I don’t recall exactly where it appears:

Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000)
The Wedding Planner (2001)
Zoolander (2001)
My Sassy Girl (2001)
Wedding Crashers (2005)
Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
I Love You, Man (2009)

Where have you heard Pachelbel’s greatest hit pop up lately, dear readers?

5 comments

  1. Doug Shaw says:

    If you can’t find a copy of Amazin Blue’s “Taco Bell Canon” let me know and I will send you an .mp3. It is wonderful

  2. Mark says:

    Pretty sure it was also used in “Cosmos.” The first place I remember hearing it, I think.

  3. Roho says:

    One of my favorite, disco-y implementations of it, Go West, by the Pet Shop Boys:

    Also, possibly the most epic national anthem ever:

  4. Mike Town says:

    There’s a ton of songs that use the Canon. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdxkVQy7QLM

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