Alright. So Pachelbel isn’t around anymore to defend himself. But really, what got into your head, dear Pachelbel, to compose that ditty, now so pervasive in popular music and classical FM radio that even Christmas music can’t hold a candle to the powerful “meme” effect of your Canon in D major?

This clever rant by comedian Rob Paravonian pretty much summarises my feelings:

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I agree with Rob. Pachelbel’s cello line bites. That in itself should consign the Canon into the Bad Religion bin of your local record store. But Pachelbel’s Canon is a “classic” in the realm of classical music. And in both cases “classic” means enduring.

I’ll say. We certainly have to endure the Canon. To my ears, Pachelbel’s Canon is, at best, merely pleasant. At worst, pure muzak. Probably the beginning of muzak, I’ll venture.

OK, OK, to each his or her own tastes, right? You love the Canon, I can’t stand it, and que sera sera.

But I’m not talking about tastes. I’m taking issue with what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “The Pachelbel effect”. I’ll suggest that the Canon’s mass appeal in the broadcasting era of culture has to do with:

  1. its simple, effective – and highly redundant – chordal structure
  2. that sense of “spiritual elevation” lite it tries to hook you with

Let’s get a little more technical, if you’ll indulge me. How exactly does the Canon work?

First, we have a simple, looping melody, which starts in the bass (or rather, cello) part. This looping melody is the chief bone of contention with Pachelbel-haters. As Rob put it, the issue wasn’t that Pachelbel was particularly uninspired the day he put down the Canon’s melody to paper. Rather, the cello line is so mechanical, that Pachelbel could only have been contemplating revenge when he wrote it.

Joking aside, there seems to be one clear reason for opting for a simple, unvarying melody at the root of the composition. Pachelbel wanted to compose a simple Canon. Simplicity was his core design principle. A simple, repetitive bass line was therefore needed to harmonically anchor the piece, to support the parallel-running, mirror melodies.

In fact, the Canon’s simple bass line, or basso continuo, seems a prime example of what music theorists call “static harmony”. To give a quick definition: static harmony is simply a series of chord which prolong, extend or oscillate the root chord of the piece – in this case: D Major. Cyberspace guru and author William Gibson in his book Idoru, identifies the Canon’s static harmony as DESH, or “diatonic elaboration of static harmony“.

Specifically, the Canon chord “progression” is identified as: I V vi iii IV I IV V. The chord names are: D, A, Bm, F#m, G, D, G, A.

Dynamic harmony, by contrast, describes an arrangement of chords used in a song to give a sense of “forward movement”. This is where we get the term chord progression. This design possibility is unique to tonal music, while “static harmony” is universal to all musical traditions and cultures. In fact, dynamic harmony is even more specific to “art” music – vocal and/or instrumental – or music which “tells stories” without the aid of the other arts.

Whatever the technical issues surrounding static or dynamic harmony, for our purposes it’s important to grasp the psychological effect of each to better understand Pachelbel’s intent. Static and dynamic harmonic effects in music are akin to increase or decrease of dramatic tension in movies. In film, this is done many ways: through scene writing, cinematography, editing, and of course, the musical score of the film. The ultimate aim being, to oscillate the mood of the audience between tension and relaxation, and keep them hooked on the development of the story.

You guessed it: Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major is supposed to relax you.

So there you have it: Pachelbel composed his Canon to create a specific mood, not to “take the audience somewhere”. It isn’t music that tells a story or develops a theme. It’s about a mood.

Now, let’s look at the melodic idea of the Canon. Recall again that Pachelbel chose to write a Canon. So from his simple melody – which served the function of harmonic cohesion – he built multiple, parallel voices. The choice is important here: instead of simultaneous contrapuntal development of melodic lines in dynamic harmonic relation – à la Bach – Pachelbel sought the echoing effect of parallel melodic lines, varying the basic theme over a static base.

Pachelbel Canon colour
This, I believe, is why he eschewed the melodic development approaches typical to contrapuntal music, such as inversion, augmentation, or diminution. It’s not that he wasn’t capable of these things. They just were not relevant to the effect he sought. So Canon is where he went: ornate, ethereal echoes of a simple melodic theme.

In a way, because of these structural features, the Canon resembles a lot of electronic music, both in form and function. Formally, you have your basic loop (your basso continuo/chord progression) upon which you build further elements (melodic variation of the basso continuo). With most electronic ambient music, you have a basic metrical pulse and theme, and you build on the theme with musical motifs and effects.

Anything wrong with using loops? Not really, unless you want your music to tell a story…

So the Canon, like electronic music, tends to create a special mood or atmosphere for the listener, instead of telling a story or developing a theme, as a song or symphony typically do.

To summarize, here’s the Pachelbel recipe. Compose a simple descending basso continuo melody, within a series of oscillating chords (the song motif keeps on looping). Then provide sufficient melodic variation to the basic motif to create an “elevating” effect, and presto: you’ve got your very own Pachelbel Canon.

Doesn’t have to be in D Major. Or any key at all, these days.

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