A canon (or round) is a single melody line that provides a counterpoint to itself. Canons can, at times, feel lighthearted and happy go lucky (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Frere Jacques” for example), but even the simplest sounding pieces require careful attention and are difficult to craft well, especially where more than two voices are concerned.
For the composer, it’s actually quite challenging to write a canon that doesn’t sound overtly like, well, a canon. In this way, canons and rounds are puzzles for composers and excellent exercises in contrapuntal thinking. One has to operate melodically and harmonically simultaneously while upholding creative, tasteful musical judgment.
Canons are a type of polyphonic texture. Polyphony is a democratic musical texture in which many voices are operating with independence. In polyphony, multiple moving lines are woven together to create forward-moving harmony. Polyphony challenges preconceived notions of melody and harmony by putting harmony on the x-axis rather than the common, misleading y-axis. So, even though each voice in a canon is performing the same melody, because they’re operating independently of one another by starting at different points, the result is polyphonic.
To learn more about polyphonic textures, here’s a video from Soundfly’s Orchestration for Strings course, which covers a large range of topics in arranging for a small ensemble or the string section of an orchestra.
When you have a vocal canon, there’s the added dimension of its lyrical content: does the music make sense given the meaning of the lyrics? Do the overlapping words interact nicely with each other?
There are many canons about bells (“The Bells Doth Toll,” “Fire Alarm”), repetitive actions (“Black Socks”), and those which contain cycles and statements that come back around to themselves, such as “War Begets Poverty” by Richard Browne.
War begets poverty, poverty peace
Peace maketh riches flow, fate ne’er doth cease
Riches produce pride, pride is war’s ground
War begetteth poverty, the world goes ‘round.
And “‘Tis Women” by Henry Purcell.
‘Tis women makes us love
‘Tis love that makes us sad
‘Tis sadness makes us drink
And drinking makes us mad.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Poetry in Motion: Lyrical Layers in Frank Ocean’s Endless“
Then there are a significant amount of meta canons about the singularly unique experience of singing canons like “Do-Re-Mi-Fa,” “Viva, Viva la Musica,” and “Come, Sing Along with Me.”
Some of My Favorite Canons
My personal favorite contributions to the canon repertoire have come from Johann Sebastian Bach, Moondog, and Manuel Ponce. There isn’t much to say on the Bach front other than that I may never get over his mastery of counterpoint. The level of invention, the playfulness, and the challenges he tasks himself with are so far above and beyond.
For example, in The Musical Offering (a 1747 collection of mostly canons and fugues based on a theme given to him by Fredrick the Great), the “Crab Canon” is a single line of melody that acts as a retrograde canon (i.e., the melody played in reverse creates the counterpoint). Essentially, it’s a musical palindrome. How a composer can even begin to write something like that is beyond me.
The blind, minimalist, homeless-by-choice composer Moondog, or Louis Thomas Hardin — also known as the “Viking of Sixth Avenue” — composed countless canons and fugues, often for voices and mixed ensembles on top of delightful percussive grooves. They’re repetitive, hypnotic, whimsical, and tinged with melancholy.
Here are Moondog’s “Why Spend the Dark Night With You?” (8:26) and “Coffee Beans” (9:37) from his album Moondog 2 (1971).
The canons of Mexican composer Manuel Ponce (specifically, guitar music) are subtle and often two-voiced. These are some of the most musically expressive canons I’ve ever heard, and they’re not overtly canonic sounding either. The melodies work as primary statements but immediately take a supportive role when the second iteration enters.
Here’s classical guitarist Marcin Dylla as he plays Variations and Fugue on “Folia de España” (1932).
+ Read more on Flypaper: “14 of the Most Influential Latin American Composers of the 20th Century”
Perhaps one of the most well-known and widely familiar canons is Johann Pachelbel’s Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo (also known as Canon in D, or, “Pachelbel’s Canon”). It became unexpectedly popular in the late 1960s and is now a common feature at weddings. Here’s this canon performed on MIDI synthesizers.
Two Forms of Canons
Canons are typically written in two distinct forms:
1. A single melody line with numbers above the staff to indicate when each consecutive voice starts at the beginning. For example, in “Never Murmuring,” the first voice starts the melody and at the start of the second bar, , the next voice starts singing from the beginning, and so on and so forth.
2. Multiple lines of music stacked on top of each other. In this case, each voice starts at the beginning and moves down through the parts when the singer or instrument reaches the end of each line.
In “Here I Go,” the first voice starts at the beginning and sings the first four bars alone. Then, the first voice jumps down to the next line of music as the second voice starts singing from the beginning and so on.
Note how the first method emphasizes the horizontal (melodic) nature of the piece, whereas the second way helps illustrate the vertical (harmonic) structure at work.
If you really want to dive deep and start exploring all the creative ways the canon format can be applied and executed in composition, here are a few other things to pay attention to.
- How many voices are there are in total
- The amount of time before each voice and/or instrument enters
- The harmonic skeleton when all of the voices and instruments are playing and singing
- If the voices cross each other
+ Read more on Flypaper: “What Is the Saddest Chord Progression in the World?”
And lastly, here are some of the other canons mentioned earlier.
“Viva, Viva La Musica”
“Dona Nobis Pacem”
“The Bell Doth Toll”
“Morning Is Come”
“Hey, Ho! Nobody at Home”
“Ask Me Why I Do Not Sing”
“I Faint! I Die!”
“If I Know What You Know”
“Let Us Endeavor”
“How Should I Sing Well”
Getting the hang of it? Take your canons to another level entirely. Learn much more in Soundfly’s highly acclaimed mentor-driven composition courses Introduction to the Composer’s Craft and Orchestration for Strings.