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Is Pachelbel's Canon really a canon? Three answers.

A few years ago, I read somewhere that Pachelbel's Canon is not really a canon. I assumed that this assertion was made because of the presence of the non-canonic voice, the repeating ground bass. This feature might be unorthodox to someone who is only familiar with rounds, or who learned to write canons in school without having advanced to the introduction of a non-canonic voice. I dismissed the assertion as uninformed, but I must admit it stuck in my head. Then, this past summer I attended a wedding, and my thinking changed.

At this wedding, the processional was to be Pachelbel's Canon, as played on the organ. What I heard was not altogether different from what I have heard each time I hear this piece. Snippets of the melody and counterpoint from the Canon appeared over the plodding and mechanistic ground with gradually increasing rhythmic division. I realized that the piece was not being performed strictly as a canon. I heard all the important melodic moments over the ground bass, but notes were missing. To be fair to the performer, I should say that I'm not convinced that Pachelbel's canon can actually be performed by a single person on the organ, at least not as a canon.

And why should I expect it to be performed as a canon? Its vast popularity and appropriation into modern culture put it into a place where that kind of listening is not done.

In order to cut short my tirade, I am going to leave off on my analysis and come back to it later in a second installment of this post, subtitled something like "How I learned to stop worrying and love Pachelbel's Canon." For the time being, let's look at those three interpretations.

In what senses can the question be asked: "Is Pachelbel's Canon really a canon?"

Interpretation 1: Unlike "Frère Jacques" Pachelbel's canon includes a bass line that neither imitates nor is imitated. Does the piece still qualify as a canon?

Interpretation 2: Has the piece we know as Pachelbel's Canon endured, or has it mutated into a folk tune in the collective unconscious and lost its connection to its original notation? Perhaps it does not matter to the vast audience of this popular tune that a performance exhibit any imitation at all?

Interpretation 3: Is the piece a proper canon when the term is understood to mean 'puzzle canon,' in the orthodox, renaissance sense of the word?

Anyone frequenting this site understands that all the voices of a canon need not engage in imitation. So the answer to the first interpretation is clearly "Yes, it is a canon."

The second interpretation of the question begins a stroll down a slippery slope. We must consider the question whether there be a point at which a folk interpretation may overpower the urtext. Or understood in another way, is it possible that performance tradition becomes unbridled and even improves upon the intentions of the composer at least in the eyes of an audience culturally separated from the original either by geography or time? I am thinking of two examples, both of which are rounds: "Three Blind Mice" and "Hey Ho, Nobody Home". In both cases, the original version has been obscured, almost obliterated by subsequent versions.

With "Three Blind Mice" the best known version is not usually sung as a round. In fact the phrasing is such that it cannot be sung as a proper round, though perhaps as a canon. But the original version is indeed a three-part round (appearing in Deuteromelia, printed for Thomas Adams, dwelling at Paul's Church Yard at the sign of the white lion, London, 1609)

"Hey Ho, Nobody Home." was originally published as a round for five voices (in Pammelia, printed by William Barley in London, 1609)

In both cases, the original source is so dramatically overshadowed by a significantly different popular version that it lies on a dark, obscured shelf as a footnote. As far as I know, no recording of "Hey Ho, Nobody Home" in its five-part version even exists. The same is probably true of "Three Blind Mice," which I have certainly never heard performed in the minor mode.

But it is the cultural context that separates these rounds from Pachelbel's Canon. Over the centuries, cultural circumstances have wrenched some of the vocal music of the seventeenth century from the oversight of those who study and perform historical music. A cultural force in the form of an association with the jejune as well as an overfamiliarity keeps these particular songs out of an already rare performance or recording of other contemporary rounds or catches.

Of course, the comparison between these rounds and Pachelbel's canon is not fair. Pachelbel's canon is much longer, more complex, exists in many sources including a clearly faithful manuscript copy from the nineteenth century and numerous publications in the 20th century. It is part of a body of work of this gifted and prolific teacher of J. S. Bach. Its paper trail as a canon is much more substantial, as is the piece itself, stretching over more than four dozen bars. I would have to say "yes" to the second interpretation as well. It is still a canon, though many audience members (who might not be able to distinguish between a minuet and a waltz) may be delighted to learn what this means.

Now what about the third interpretation of the question? If it is settled that the piece is actually a canon, what about it being a puzzle canon? We don't know. And this is strong evidence for the answer lying in the affirmative, since any disqualification in its design is absent. There is, for example, no break in the imitation for the final cadence; it imitates right down to the last note.

The piece is not notated as a puzzle that we have found. Yes, we have a manuscript source, but it is not the original. It dates not back to the late seventeenth century but to the nineteenth century. Pachelbel's original notation may have included signa congruentiae, signs marking the entrance of the second and/or third voices, or not. By the time of the nineteenth century, the significance of those signs may have been lost on the copyist leading to their omission.

This is not an outlandish idea. In the next few decades, examples of these signs can be found in German chamber music that included canonic movements. Pachelbel's canon was only the first movement of a pair: The Canon and Gigue in D major. Pachelbel died in 1706, making it unlikely that this piece formed the beginning of a trend that blossomed in the 1720's and 1730's to employ canon in trio sonatas. These included contributions by Fasch, Graupner, Bach and others.

Evidence for its notation as a puzzle canon might have been found either in the score or the parts. For comparison, see this excerpt from the score to a canonic movement by Johann Jacob Fux:

or this violin part from a trio sonata in A major by Johann Melchior Molter (MWV 10.1) which is to be shared by two violinists in canon:

You can see in the Molter violin part how the violino secondo is supposed to read a rest lasting two measures, while the violino primo is supposed to begin without rest.

It is perfectly conceivable that Pachelbel's canon in its original form used one or both of these devices to both show and put into practice the traditional understanding of canon. It would be fascinating to find such evidence, but for that matter any original scrap of music from this piece would be a major musicological discovery.

Since it is clear from its structure that its canonic imitation is complete to the double bar, it is perfectly fair to say that the movement by Pachelbel satisfies the traditional concept of a canon, even if we must leave up to speculation whether any enigmatic notation was ever employed.

So, yes, we are three for three, and on all counts you will have to agree that Pachelbel's canon lives up to its name. It is a canon.


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