Canon in D is so popular - why?

Why is the Canon in D so popular? It's the chord progression. When we hear sudden changes from major to minor we get pulled in. There's something about that sound that makes us jump from the cerebral to the emotional. Add a wedding setting and… you get it.

Pachelbel's Canon is the most famous piece of music written by the German Barouque composer Johann Pachelbel. Like many Baroque pieces it was forgotten for centuries but was rediscovered in the 20th century. In the last decade the Canon in D has been my most requested wedding ceremony piece. Legend has it that it was composed for the wedding of one of Pachelbel's former students, Johann Christopher Bach, the older brother of Johann Sebastian Bach. On classical music compilations it is often paired with Bach's Air on the G String.

Arthur Fiedler first recorded the canon in 1940 with the Jean-Francois Pallard chamber orchestra. Even though parts have been added to the original, like a viola pizzicato, when no harpsichord or organist is present, its most enduring impression is from the chord progression.

Canon in D

In Pachelbel's piece, there are three voices engaged in canon (see Example 1), but there is also a fourth voice, the basso continuo, which plays an independent part.

Pachelbel's Canon combines the techniques of canon and ground bass. Canon is a device in which several voices play the same melody, entering the songs one by one, each after a delay. For you music students out there, that's called polyphony, meaning many sounds.

A canon is a melody that uses “followers” that repeat after a specific amount of time. In this example the bass part is an independent part. Think “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. That gives you a good idea of how this song form works.

For you music theory students, the chord progression follow this sequence – I V vi ii IV I IV V. It's the movement of the chords from the major V to the minor vi and then ii that pulls us into the melody.

Canon in D

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