Pachebel’s Cannon

THURSDAY, October 3, 2019

Popular a long time ago, and popular again for around 50 years…

There are so many versions of this iconic piece that it is mind-boggling, and we don’t really know too much about how it was created.Try to listen to each of these for just a few seconds to get an idea of how just one piece can sound very different with different instruments.

Here is the history. Pachebel’s Cannon

The upshot is that it was composed not later than around the early 1700s, so it’s been in existence for more than three centuries. But it was only popular around that time and then was almost unplayed and unknown until somewhere around the late 1960s, so I had never heard this as a young person. In a way this was Boomer music, and the Boomers passed it on to Gen X, Millenials and now to Gen Z.

You can find countless versions on YouTube.

Here are a few things of interest to me:

  1. First, at the time Pachelbel’s Cannon in D Major was written, standard pitch was lower, so today people playing it in the original way play it tuned what is our C#. In other words, this first version sound as if it is C# major. If you do not have perfect pitch you may not even hear the difference. It is also played in C major and Eb major, just for starters.
  2. It was written for only three soloists, three violins and basso continuo. Basso continuo was a lot like the bass part and keyboard chords are in modern dance bands and jazz ensembles.
  3. When something like this was written for three instruments, it was never meant to limit performance to only that instrument. That’s why today you hear it played by different sized ensembles.

Really in C# Major…

This first first version attempts to be very authentic. Of course we don’t know how close it is to what people played more than 300 years ago – we don’t have a time machine – but I like it because it is faster and more energetic. There are also other things about the tuning that catch my ear, too complicated to explain here. But, for instance, the 3rd in the upper violin part it tuned lower at the end. They are using something that is closer to mean tuning.

Brass players like it too., but this time in C major. D major is a horrible key for brass…

This is Canadian Brass, with tuba, euphonium, horn and two trumpets. The tuba player is playing the continuo part. At exactly 1:49 you can see him check his watch. That bass part is the most boring thing in the universe. The other players have interesting parts. So he gets the gardener to take over at around the 3:00 mark. Then he gets to relax while drinking champagne.

Now with guitars, in D major. D major is good for guitars…

And you can go on an on, listening to just about every different ensemble in the world.

Finally, for wind quintet, in Eb

Flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. Flat keys are much better for these instruments. There is at least one wrong note, but it’s interesting.




5 thoughts on “Pachebel’s Cannon

  1. And then there is Parvonian’s “Pachebel Rant” (he should have brought in a gardener). He points out that a lot of music have exactly those bass notes (and chords) so he “can’t get away from it” – to me at the time this was an eye opener.

    The first time I ever heard the Pachebel Canon was during a rough period, and the harmonies gave me a feeling of peace. I like this music. I do not find it boring.

    1. The real humor is about the bass part. He has to play the same 8 notes about 100 times, and it’s boring. The other players have really interesting parts. When I saw that tuba player looking at his watch, I thought I caught him thinking, “When will this EVER be over?” But it turns out that it was all planned.


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