The Pervasiveness of Pachelbel’s Canon in D

Pachelbel’s Canon in D is a beautiful piece of classical music; one which almost everybody will recognise. It’s a favourite for wedding ceremonies and other formal occasions, as well as being a beautiful, relaxing piece.

It’s also perhaps one of the most pervasive pieces of music of all time. If you’ve listened to any music today, the chances are high that you’ve heard at least part of Pachelbel’s Canon in D – even if you haven’t heard anything remotely classical.

How is that possible? Well, it’s simple. Hundreds of musicians put Pachelbel’s Canon – or at least, his chord progression – into their songs. A few examples include:

“Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis

“Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys

“Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance.

Do you hear it now?

So why would so many artists in so many different genres all use the same piece of baroque classical music as an inspiration? Well, the solution is actually fairly simple.

Firstly, a lot of western pop music tends towards a 4/4 time signature – it’s familiar and easy to dance to. Secondly, a four chord progression (or a multiple of four, such as the eight chords of Pachelbel’s Canon) fits well with this time signature because it loops nicely. Finally, the chord progression of the Canon – I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V (or D-A-Bm-F#m-G-D-G-A) – is one that we recognise either through instinct or through societal training as being pleasant – see our earlier blog on Music and Emotion.

Even if you transpose it into another key, it’s still recognisable as the same chord progression – which is why so many songs seem to fit into Pachelbel’s Canon – and why, once you know about it, you won’t stop hearing it! It still works in a minor key, although it’s a little less obvious then.

So, if you’re writing a song in a major key, in 4/4 time signature, and you want a pleasant chord progression, this is a natural choice. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re copying Pachelbel (although some do so intentionally), it just means that you’re making the same choice as he did, for the same reasons!

The History of the Canon

Johann Pachelbel (1653 -1706) was a German composer of the middle Baroque era who created a large body of work; although he enjoyed popularity during his lifetime, his work was largely forgotten when the Baroque went out of style. In the 19th century, some of his organ work was published and scholars started to regard him as an important figure in musical history, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that he really came back into fashion.

The Canon in D Major, originally scored for three violins and a basso continuo, was recorded by French conductor François Paillard in 1970 and it was this recording that really started the surge in its popularity. The Canon was also used as thematic music for the award-winning 1980 film Ordinary People, which further increased its reach.

The 80s also saw the rise of music production companies like Stock Aiken and Waterman, whose prodigious output was seen by some critics as formulaic but which was, nevertheless, commercially successful. Pete Waterman himself credited Pachelbel as “almost the godfather of pop music”, and stated that Kylie Minogue’s debut hit “I Should Be So Lucky” was inspired by the Canon.

Whilst it’s a popular piece of music, and lovely to listen to, it’s not always a popular piece for the musicians who play it… particularly those on cello!

We wouldn’t like to guess how many times the familiar chord progression of Pachelbel’s Canon in D has graced our recording studio in London – but we’re pretty sure it’s a high number and one that’ll carry on climbing!

Here at Soho Sonic, we’re passionate about music and sound of all kinds, so whatever you need to record, we’d love to welcome you. For more information on our services, get in touch with us on 020 7193 4467 today!