Learning Pachelbel's Canon
by Sylvia Woods
The "Canon" by Johann Pachelbel has become one of the most requested classical pieces in recent years. It has been used on numerous commercials for items as diverse as wine and light bulbs. It was also the theme for the movie "Ordinary People." Because of its popularity for weddings and other occasions, it is an important piece for harp players to have in their repertoire.
Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) was a German composer and organist. His organ fugues and chorale variations had a considerable influence on Bach. His most famous piece today is his "Canon and Fugue in D Major for 3 Violins and Basso Continuo," which has been arranged for a wide variety of solos and ensemble instruments.
Here is how the "Oxford Junior Companion to Music" defines the word Canon. When a piece of music is called a Canon, it means that it obeys the rule of "Follow-my-Leader". . . There are many different kinds of canon, some of which call for great ingenuity. . . Short vocal canons for singing are called rounds or catches. The idea behind the word "round" being that the melody comes round again and again, and that behind the word "catch" being that the singers "catch" up the melody one after the other.
In the rounds we sang as children, the second singer usually begins after the first singer has sung one, two, or four measures. For example, the second singer comes in after "Are you sleeping, are you sleeping", or in another tune after "Three blind mice, three blind mice", or after "Row, row, row your boat".
Pachelbel's "Canon", the second voice comes in after 4 measures, or 8 chords. You do not get the clear sense of a "round" in the solo arrangements usually played on the harp. To hear the "round" you need another instrument (or more). It can be clearly heard in recordings of the original string quartet version, with the various instruments coming in one after another (but always after 4 measures). In Sylvia Woods' harp and flute arrangement you can hear the round as well, as the harp part is 4 measures "behind" the flute part. For example, the melody that the flute plays in measure 13 is then echoed by the harp in measure 17.
In Sylvia's book of arrangements of the Canon, some versions are in the key of D (2 sharps) and some are in the key of G (1 sharp). For the examples below, I'll be using the key of G. At the end of this article I'll show you how it is similar in the key of D.
The Secret of the Great Danes
To more easily learn to play Pachelbel's "Canon" it is important to understand that the entire piece is made up of a series of eight left hand chords, which repeat in the same order every 4 measures. In the key of G, the eight chords are as follows: G D E B C G C D. They ALWAYS come in this order. I have come up with a mnemonic device having to do with fast food at Carl's Jr. Restaurants to help you remember the order of the chords. Memorize this sentence:
The Great Dane Exercise
Look at the first set of exercises below.
Now in Exercise B you're going to add a three note chord each time, starting with your 3rd finger on the notes we've already learned. Once you get the hang of it, try to do it without looking at the music, by just remembering the order of the chords to "The Great Danes".
In Exercise C use four note chords, instead. Again, do it by memory as soon as possible.
How about the pattern in Exercise D? Exercise E is the same, but just spread out. Exercise F is the same as "E", except that it goes back each time to the second note of each chord.
And finally, "G" is the same as "B", only it is missing the middle note of each chord.
It wasn't hard to memorize these once you knew about "The Great Danes", was it?
Now look at the Advanced Harp Solos Version - Key of G" on page 26* of Sylvia Woods' "Pachelbel's Canon" book and notice that you've already memorized almost all of the left hand! Congratulations! Now, all you need to do is learn the order of the patterns, find the slight variations to the patterns, remember your "Great Danes", and add the right hand. I admit the right hand is harder to learn than the left. But once you have the left memorized the two hands will come together much more easily.
*If you have the older version of Sylvia's Pachelbel's Canon book, where the music is printed sideways on the page
This works the same way for learning the piece in the key of D, because the principle is the same. The order of the chords in the key of D is: D A B F G D G A. Here's a sentence for you to help you remember the order of the chords:
Here are the same exercises in the key of D. Follow the same directions as aove.
(This article was first printed in "The Harp Lover's News" Volume 1, Issue 1, August 1993, published by the Sylvia Woods Harp Center. Many of the articles from this newsletter can be found in this "Fun Stuff" section.)
Artwork by Heidi Spiegel