frequently asked questions


While so far no questions have been asked with any frequency, these are my preemptive Q & A.



“What is a puzzle canon?”


A puzzle canon, also sometimes called a musical riddle or an enigmatic canon is a musical composition part of which is missing and must be found out based on clues, either in its notation or in textual clues. The word "canon" comes from the Greek word 'kanon' meaning rule. So it is a rule that must be obeyed in order to generate the missing parts of the musical composition. For example, a round, such as "Row, row your boat" could be presented as a puzzle canon, and the rule would be that three followers must each enter on the same note at one-measure intervals after the leader has begun singing. There are notational shortcuts for this such as the Italian segno, so that words are not necessary to convey the rule. Still, puzzle canons have a long history, and the rules can go way beyond simply starting the same melody a measure later..

Some will disagree about the definition of 'canon'. It is my attempt here to trace the tradition as it has developed through the centuries even as the definition itself has changed. Of course, I am implicitly assuming that a single tradition exists. Let's call it a perennial tendency.


“What is a solution?”


I suppose it's easy enough to say, "Well I've never heard of a puzzle canon before, but I gather it is a type of musical piece." All well and good, but then what is all this talk about solutions? Well, if a puzzle canon is a riddle, then the solution is the answer to the riddle. Puzzle canons are usually notated with something missing wtih clues about what's missing; the solution gives the whole piece, nothing missing.


“Why make a website about this obscure genre?”


1. Because it's there

It is a real genre, and not that many people know about it. Puzzle canon extends through time, across centuries and across several musical revolutions. Because scholars and music historians are usually focused on only one or two eras, little has been done to trace the path through the centuries. Truly the puzzle canon must be understood as a sort of phoenix, a continually reborn tradition by composers who venture backward to the expertise of earlier times in order to perfect their craft despite the currently popular trends of their times. To present that continuum as one tradition is part of my goal here.  


2. Obscurity

This site exists because puzzle canon has become increasingly obscure over the centuries. While prominent in the Ars Nova and renaissance times (roughly 1400-1600), it was revived in the late baroque as composers began to synthesize contrapuntal techniques with the operatic ideals and clear harmony brought on by the baroque revolution in music. As imitation and canonic techniques became more formalized, occasions to encode this technique became less common. Puzzle canons were exchanged privately between composers and musicians. As secular music had an increasing influence over sacred music, mystical structures gave way to 'practical' structures. Concurrently puzzle canons found a niche with the practice of alchemy. Again, as the Classical Era in music arose with a tumultuous musical revolution, priorities changed, a populist music began to supplant court music, and clever composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven found increasingly private circumstances in which to share their puzzles as well as public occasions to display their hard-won technique. By the nineteenth century, when composers and performers became distinct provences canons persisted occasionally in concert music, but the puzzle canon became mostly a private matter between composers. Beyond these larger trends, canon briefly fourished in other times and places.


3. My interest in the genre

Third, this site exists because as a composer I personally am fascinated by the idea of generative formalist structures. What? I mean musical structures that, just like DNA, contain a built-in blueprint for a more complete piece, melodies that when duplicated, imitated, reversed, etc. can generate a complete piece. So I am more focused on the relationship between the puzzle and the solution and the compositional and pre-compositional techniques used to generate them than on the mystery, the puzzle or even the bafflement.


4. Urtext

With my composer hat still on, and my theorist hat on top of that, I have found myself in the position of wanting to defend the correct solutions to puzzle canons against incorrect solutions floating about the bibliosphere, cheapening the reputations of the composers (Bach, Beethoven) and once published are difficult to stop spreading. Perhaps this site can help to get the word out about correct solutions versus incorrect ones. I haven't yet quite worked out how that might happen.  


“Where can I go to hear puzzle canons?”


There are links on this site, mostly to YouTube videos, in the blog and in the solutions to the puzzles. Early music groups that perform Renaissance music will often perform pieces that are puzzle canons. If I find out about performances in time, I would be happy to feature them with support from the performers.   


“What can I do to help?”


One thing that would make this site more interesting and engaging would be the ability to share more good recordings of correct solutions to puzzle canons. 


Also, because this site is likely to find many viewers among those with a knowledge of some musical matters superior to my own, I welcome whole heartedly corrections, suggestions, and comments.


“Do you have a bibliography? What about citations?”

I am working on how best to present the bibliographic information I have. This is forthcoming.

When I began this site I imagined a very different audience than the one the site tends to have. In a burst of enthusiasm that can only be accompanied by naïveté I imagined that I would bring my own research to the general public and inform the world about an obscure and persistent fixture in the history of music. In reality, I hear mostly from those who make a career out of studying music history. Awareness of this perceived shift has led me to be more serious, less humorous and even less opinionated, and to cite the sources for canons. Some bibliography begins to show up in blog entries. The fact is that I will not be attempting scholarly articles here, and this is not a venue for peer review. Where I have used quotation or ideas, I've cited them. If I've missed any, I'd like to know about it.

I use the word 'research,' and to me this means investigation. Almost always this investigation involves finding and exploring written music. To many who actually read these pages, 'research' has a different connotation, that of reading prose and working forward in a scholarly fashion, backing up one's assertions with footnotes. Here I will have a tendency to make assertions from experience, and not to feel that I must defend every observation I make about, say, a composer's style or aesthetic, or the lifespan or birthplace of a composer.

If you feel that a citation is missing or are asking yourself "where did that come from"? Please ask me. I will both answer you and attempt to fix the omission where appropriate.

I will eventually develop a bibliography and share it. Wikipedia's article on canon has a good one started. If I had written a dissertation on canon, I would certainly have a bibliography to share. As it is, my time is overtaxed, and I can barely maintain this site without any pay. It is a one-man job. i see the work that is actually finished on this site as an extension of my composition and the necessary investigation that goes along with uncovering precedents for symmetrical music and the composers who have been drawn to it. There are many scholars who specialize in canon or whose work revolves around it, and I hold these scholars in the highest esteem. I feel passionate about wanting to honor them and their work, and yet without the time resources to adequately do that. Each of these scholars specializes in a particular historical age or sphere of cultural history, but my attempt is pan-historical.


“How can I write a canon?”


So far this website does not give any instruction on how to write a canon. That is because there are innumerable types of canon, and each has its own method. It is also because it is not advisable to write a canon or attempt any counterpoint without a certified instructor and safety equipment. See "Why should I write a canon?" below.


“Have you abandoned this site?”

No, but I am occupied by many responsibilities, and the work on this site has taken a low priority. 2019 was a particularly bad year. I apologize for that. It is my intention to restore some of the pages that fell behind schedule during that year. 


“Why should I write a canon?”


Short answer

I am not trying to popularize the writing of canons. There is probably no reason for you to write a canon, unless you would like to learn counterpoint. Except, of course that it is fun.


Long answer

My long answer is addressed to the inexperienced composer.


Writing canons is a useful component in the study of counterpoint. This is because a canon is a rule, and a rule imposes a compositional constraint, and (paradoxically) constraints confer a certain creative freedom. As a student, one should seek out numerous types of compositional constraints. In art, compositional constraints must be dictated by one's aesthetic.


That a piece is a canon, even one with challenging constraints, that alone does not make it worthwhile. This is not to say that canonic technique does not confer value on a piece of music. It may; however, the effect is that of a factor not an addend. A piece with otherwise little worth is not significantly lifted by its canonic artifice alone. Canon lends the most to styles that are inhently contrapuntal such as 15th-century and 18th-century counterpoint, 2nd-Viennese-school throwbacks, hardcore serialism, layered minimalsm and personalized textures like those of Nancarrow or Ligeti. Something where the craft can show as craft or have an aural effect. I do not deny that my opinon is showing here, and to that I should add that, in the words of Brian Eno, "The artist confers value upon the art." (from A year with swollen appendices)


Certainly a composer who attempts a canon wants it to be worthwhile, and that is further reason that canonic arts must be pursued under the study of an instructor. There are at least two challenges to writing a canon: 1) following the 'rule' and 2) writing well within a coherent style. Anyone can judge the first, but assessing the second is the most difficult; the second is where the quality will lie. A third challenge might to step back and judge the overall composition. How does it flow over time? Is it all one texture with little popping through, or is there textural variety? Is the choice of canonic constraints overpowering the content, or is there balance? More for an instructor to help you sort out.

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