What is a Canon in Music? (ANSWERED!)

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  • What is a canon in music?
  • How does a canon work?
  • What are the different types of canon?

So, I am sure you have heard the word Canon in reference to music, and if you were anything like me, your first thought was large guns, not counterpoint, right?

And although Tchaikovsky’s first performance of the 1812 Brandenburg Overture did involve an actual canon, we won’t be shooting today.

Canon is a musical counterpoint technique, and we will break it down for you here.

Musical Canon 

Put succinctly, Canon in music is a compositional technique that makes use of counterpoint. The term involves a melody being played and then imitated after a given time interval, like a beat or a measure.

So in a Canon, you will hear a melody, then after an interval, you will hear the same melody imitated by other parts. Sometimes, the imitation is exact, sometimes with alterations.

How Does Canon Work?

As I mentioned earlier, Canon in music is a contrapuntal technique. So maybe a very brief description of counterpoint is in order before we continue.

Counterpoint in music theory addresses the relationships between melodic lines played simultaneously in a composition. These melodic lines are sometimes referred to as “voices.”

Usually, the melodic lines will have a harmonic reference point in common, but how the melody is shaped will change. So, with that in mind, let’s look at Canon.

What is Canon?

Canon is a specified rule in music that is often considered a characteristic of classical composition but has been present in folk traditions from at least the 13th century.

In a Canon, you will hear a single melody played, followed by several imitations of that melodic line played after a specified time interval, for example, a beat or a measure. These melodic imitations can sometimes have minor alterations but as always, have the same harmonic reference point.

How Does Canon Work?

As I mentioned, a melody line is stated. So, first, you will hear a melody played. This is called the “leader” or “dux.” The dux is the melodic line that the other voices will imitate.

Have a look at this example of a simple canon.

The dux is followed by imitations. However, the way that these imitations occur can vary. It can be an exact repetition of the same melodic line, or it can be changed in some way. For example, the melodic line might now have notes of longer or shorter duration, or the pitches or intervals could be reversed.

What are the Types of Canon?

The simplest type of canon to understand will be a round. You know this one; we have all done it as kids.

Think of singing “Row, row, row your boat” as a kid. Remember how someone would start singing, and then the next voice would come in at the second row and sing the exact same part? That is a simple canon. See, not that difficult, even if the jargon can get confusing. Music is great like that.

Frere Jacques is another great example of a round. You can listen to a simple canon in D here.

The level of complexity can increase exponentially with a canon. From the simple canon, we can alter a follower melody so that it is read in the opposite direction to the leading voice. This is called a retrograde canon.

When the pitches are reversed, this is called a “retrograde” of the melody. The reversal of intervals is called a “mirror” of the original melodic line.

To elaborate, a mirror canon involves the intervals of the lead melody staying the same length but moving in the opposite direction. 

And when the composer says, “why not both?”, it is called a retrograde-mirror canon.

Musical Canon: A History

Okay, so we have covered the basics, but I am a giant nerd, so I am not going to be happy unless I give you a bit of musical history as well.

The earliest example of a canon in western music is a 13th-century composition called Sumer is Icumen In. It is a medieval “rota” or round. Listen to it here, and compare it to what you know about a round so far.

The canon became such a widely used compositional technique that it is now considered a key characteristic of classical composition.

You can see examples from all classical periods. From Bach and Handel in the Baroque period to Haydn’s String Quartet in D minor in the Classical period, all the way through to Beethoven’s Symphony No.4. There are so many beautiful examples of this compositional technique out there.

All I can do is recommend that you keep your ears open and listen. Musical math is cool.