Instructor
Daine Jordan
Quick Tip
Beginner
Intermediate
22:05

Learning Focus
  • Analysis
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Contemporary
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If you’ve ever tried to learn Pachelbel’s Canon in D on the piano before, you’d discover a large number of different versions available through sheet music. Each one will also be quite different from the last. While you could pick a random one and spend a long time learning it note for note, what if I told you there was an easier way? What if there was a way that we can learn Canon in D without having to read and learn something note for note? In this lesson, we’ll take a closer look at how we can play actually play our own version of Canon in D in 5 easy steps.

Canon in D was originally written by Johann Pachelbel around the late 1600s during the baroque era of music. While it followed some common music trends of the day, it easily withstands the test of time and is reminiscent of the musical trends we see in today’s pop music. It is most commonly played for weddings to set a beautiful backdrop for the ones walking down the aisle.

What is this easy way to play Canon in D?

It’s important to note that Canon in D was originally written as a string ensemble piece, not a piano piece. This is what gives so much flexibility to musical artists to play it in a variety of ways. In today’s tutorial, in just 5 easy steps you’re going to also be able to play Canon in D your very own way! Whether you’re just a beginner or at a more advanced level, you can make it as simple or as hard as you’d like.

In this lesson, you’ll learn:

  • Several popular melody options to use from Canon in D
  • Canon in D’s basic chords and chord progression
  • Several left-hand options to easily create a foundation for any melody
  • Ways to expand the right and left hand to keep the energy going and add variation
  • How to tell a story using all these techniques and create your own complete arrangement of Canon in D

Excited!? Let’s dive right in.

Getting Ready: What is Canon in D?

If you looked at the original Canon in D, you’d technically find a total of 28 different melodies. Each melody generally lasts for the duration of the repeating chord progression (see step #2) which in our case will be 4 measures. After each melody is played by the first instrument it gets passed to the next instrument who will then repeat it, and the cycle continues.

This is what creates the canon aspect of the piece: when the same melody is repeated shortly after it is played by another instrument while remaining layered on top of each other. If done right, as in Canon in D, this sounds absolutely stunning!

After new melodies appear on instrument number 1, they are passed along to instruments two and then three, this effect creates a musical canon as in what Canon in D gets its name
After new melodies appear on instrument number one, they are passed along to instruments two and then three, this effect creates a musical canon as in how Canon in D gets its name.

As this occurs, we are constantly getting rich new layers and textures as each new melody flows into the music. This is accomplished even though the chord progression remains the same. Although written hundreds of years ago, it’s starting to sound more like modern pop & contemporary doesn’t it?

An Easier Way To Create Canon in D’s Texture

We could simply learn all of these melodies note for note on the piano and then try to limit ourselves to creating that feeling and texture in the same exact way as Pachelbel. However instead, you can create the same idea and feeling in a much more easy and unique way by selecting a few favorite melodies and using musical techniques and patterns to create new layers, texture, and development as you go.

That formula is especially useful on a solo instrument such as the piano, where it may be difficult to continue a true canon through each new melody. As a piano performer at weddings, sometimes this is required since I often have no idea how long it will take exactly for the wedding party to walk down the aisle. It usually requires improvising to make it work just right.

That all being said, let’s take a look at these 5 easy steps to play Canon in D.

Step #1: Pick Your Melody for Canon in D

I’ve gone ahead and picked 3 of the most popular melodies from Canon in D that you can start with. Each one will contain faster note values than the last. The first two are pretty accessible for any beginner play. The last one is a bit more challenging, but also one of the most recognizable melodies in the piece.

Melody option #1 for Canon in D in a half note pulse, this melody is easy to play yet possibly one of the most recognizable melodies in the piece
Melody option #1 for Canon in D in a half note pulse, this melody is easy to play yet possibly one of the most recognizable melodies in the piece

Canon in D melody option #2 in a quarter note pulse, this one picks up the energy a bit
Canon in D melody option #2 in a quarter-note pulse, this one picks up the energy a bit

Melody option #3 for Canon in D in a 16th note pulse, while a bit of a more challenging melody it is also one of the most beautiful and recognizable melodies in the piece
Melody option #3 for Canon in D in a 16th note pulse, while a bit of a more challenging melody it is also one of the most beautiful and recognizable melodies in the piece

You will probably notice that as the note values get faster and faster, the energy also increases. Since each of these melodies seems to contain one primary note value, we can think of it as a pulse. The first contains a half note pulse, the second a quarter note pulse, and the third a 16th note pulse. As the pulse speed increases, so does the energy. 

If you want to learn more melodies from Canon in D that you can use be sure to check out the bonus section of Pachelbel Canon in D (Intermediate/Advanced).

Step #2: Know Your Chords for Canon in D

Canon in D’s chord progression is as follows: D major, A major, B minor, F# minor, G major, D major, G major, and A major. They are simple but beautiful diatonic chords in the key of D major. Each one lasts 2 beats in the measure, which means the whole progression is played over 4 measures and then repeated.

Basic Canon in D chords in root position for piano
Basic Canon in D chords in root position for piano

I recommend you practice inverting the chords in such a way that they all smoothly connect to each other in a much more musical way. Playing around using different inversions on each chord you come up with several different ways to do this. Here’s an example:

The canon in D chord progression using chord inversions and voice leading to smoothly connect chords
The canon in D chord progression using chord inversions and voice leading to smoothly connect chords

If you don’t know all your chords and chord inversions, then be sure to check out our Beginner Piano Foundations Learning Tract. 

Step #3: Choose Your Left-Hand Accompaniment for Canon in D

An easy way to play and create versatile Canon in D accompaniment for piano is to use the root, 5th, and octave of each chord. You’re going to want to play that in the left hand below the melody.

The easiest way to create a left hand piano accompaniment under any melody is to use an octave and 5th of each chord, the octave will be created from the root of the chord
The easiest way to create a left-hand piano accompaniment under any melody is to use an octave and 5th of each chord, the octave will be created from the root of the chord

Once that starts to feel easy, you can make small and simple changes to add variation and contrast. If you increase the speed of the note values you use (pulse), then you can start ramping up the energy fast. You don’t even have to necessarily change the notes that you use.

Check out these examples:

Repeating one of the notes in the left hand gives us more momentum and energy, in this case resulting in a quarter note pulse
Repeating one of the notes in the left hand gives us more momentum and energy, in this case resulting in a quarter note pulse

Breaking up the chord in 8th notes and leaving the top note a quarter note adds momentum and anticipation to the accompaniment
Breaking up the chord in 8th notes and leaving the top note a quarter note adds momentum and anticipation to the accompaniment

You can put the left hand in a full 8th note groove and pulse by repeating the middle note once again after the top note
You can put the left hand in a full 8th note groove and pulse by repeating the middle note once again after the top note

I recommend practicing each melody option you can do with each accompaniment option. Take notice of how just a subtle change can affect the emotion, texture, and energy of the music.

If you want to learn more left-hand accompaniment techniques, then be sure to check out Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment Patterns (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced).

Step #4: Add Embellishments to your Right Hand for Canon in D

There are many ways to add embellishments to a melody. One of the easiest and most common is to simply add harmony! To do that you can simply add more notes of the current chord underneath the melody in some way.

You can add harmony in blocked form, which means it’s heard together with the melody. You can also add broken harmony, which means it’s heard before or after the main melody note.

We can harmonize the melody of Canon in d using blocked 3rds or 6ths
We can harmonize the melody of Canon in d using blocked 3rds or 6ths

You can break up the harmony to make patterns that add motion and energy to the music
You can break up the harmony to make patterns that add motion and energy to the music

To learn more techniques like this to add to your right-hand melodies, be sure to check out Contemporary Progressions & Improv (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced).

Step #5: Put It All Together

We’ve discussed many ways to create different colors and energy levels in the music. Now, it’s your job to tell a story with it. 

To do this, you can repeat the chord progression as many times as you like using each melody as you please. However, on each repeat think of simple ways you can change and develop the music. Think of ways you can take the energy level up or down.

You can think about the following elements: 

  • Pulse
  • Range
  • Texture
  • Complexity
  • Dynamics

Here’s an example of how you might do this if you repeated the chord progression a total of 5 times. Notice the story arc I tell using the rise and fall of energy levels:

On the first statement of Canon in D we are starting low in energy, but still establish some motion with a quarter note pulse and a mid range melody #1

Canon in D piano second repeat, faster pulse and more active texture, interval rocking and arpeggios

On the third repeat of Canon in D we bring in a new melody with a faster pulse and increase the range to ramp up the energy

On the fourth repeat of the Canon in D chord progression we are using the highest energy left hand with the highest energy right hand to creat a climax to our story

On the fifth repeat of Canon in D we slow the pulse to a half note, bringing the energy down with a fully harmonized melody #1

A nice ending arpeggio on Canon in D that you can use, arpeggiating the D major chord up the piano
A nice ending arpeggio on Canon in D that you can use, arpeggiating the D major chord up the piano

Summing It All Up

I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson on the 5 easy steps to play Canon in D. I hope you can see now that playing great music doesn’t have to be hard. In my opinion, playing the music in your own style is truly the most enjoyable.

I encourage you to play through each example and really get a sense of it internally. Afterward, try to make it your own by mixing and matching different patterns, altering them, or even adding new ones in the right or left hand.

Be sure to download the sheet music PDF below to have the techniques and examples we discussed at your disposal. If you’re a PWJ member you can also have access to the smart sheet music and transpose it into any key!

If you want a much deeper dive into Canon in D and learn many more beautiful possibilities for both the right and left hand to take your playing to a new level, as well as accompaniment and improvisational techniques for Canon in D, then check out our full course Pachelbel Canon in D (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced).

Here are some other awesome courses at Piano With Jonny:

Thanks for checking out this Quick Tip. See you in the next one!

Blog/Quick Tip written by Daine Jordan

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