What Does Canon Mean in Music?

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A musical canon represents a melody that is based on repetition -- in this case, it's not entire portions of a song that repeats -- as with a chorus in a pop song -- but one instrument or voice imitating another throughout the entire piece.

Canon Basics

  • A simple form of an exact canon is a song played or sung in rounds, such as nursery rhyme "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," sung in a group, with one person starting the song, a second one beginning after the first one reaches the word "boat," and a third jumping in at the same place after the second, and each ending at different times. Imitative counterpoint describes what happens in a canon -- a melody is imitated, sometimes on a different instrument, with an identical or similar counterpoint before the first melody completes. The bass line may repeat the melody played by an oboe eight bars earlier, for instance.

Classical Canon

  • A famous classical example of a canon is Johann Pachelbel’s "Canon in D," a perennial favorite at weddings, in movies and in commercials. In some cases, canonic parts may end abruptly so all instrument voices end at the same time, such as at the end of a song. Not all canons are exact canons. A mensuration cannon also features one line or melody imitating another, but at a different speed or time signature, simultaneously. Complete or intricate rhythms are possible using this method.

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