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How Pachelbel's Canon became the godfather of Pop

Pachelbel's Canon
Pachelbel's Canon

It would be cruel to call Johann Pachelbel a one-hit wonder (especially as we have over 290 pieces by him here on 8notes), but his brilliant and hypnotic Canon in D has certainly penetrated popular culture as few other classical works have achieved, becoming a soundtrack in commercials and movies and a favorite choice of brides and grooms-to-be. But as a source of inspiration its influence goes beyond that and has led to the piece being referred to as ‘the godfather of popular music.’

Who was Johann Pachelbel?

Johann Pachelbel (1653–1706) was a figure of greater significance than this one work, his large body of music, especially his many pieces for organ, being widely performed during his lifetime. He also exerted considerable influence through his work as a teacher, his pupils including the older brother of J.S. Bach (who went on to teach his more famed younger brother).

Despite this, and in common with many composers of his time, changing tastes following his death led to his work, including his Canon in D, being largely forgotten.


Twentieth century interest in Pachelbel can be traced to two events. In 1919, scholar Gustav Beckmann first published Pachelbel’s Canon in D. This sparked some initial curiosity and some performances. It was not until 1968, however, when the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra recorded the piece, that Pachelbel mania really began.

A number of other recordings followed as others tried to emulate the success of Jean-François Paillard. In 1976, for example, an album by Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, entitled, ‘Pachelbel Kanon: the Record That Made it Famous and other Baroque Favourites’ became the top selling classical album of the year. The Canon’s transition into popular culture—for example it was used in a ‘Pure New Wool’ ad campaign in the 1970s in the UK and Ireland—completed its penetration into wider consciousness.

What are the characteristics of the piece?

A canon, is a piece of music that consists of a musical line that is repeated and overlapped at spaced intervals. It is the same principle as a ‘round’, as heard in nursery tunes such as Hey Ho, Nobody Home or Christmas is Coming. The spacing out of the melody helps to build interest as the overlapped lines interact with one another to form ‘counterpoint.’

The canon parts are accompanied by a ground bass. A ground bass is a repeating figure that occurs all the way through a piece. It is a relatively common baroque device, the most famous example of which is perhaps Purcell’s aria When I am Laid in Earth from his opera ‘Dido and Aeneas.’

Pieces that use a ground bass are sometimes also referred to as a ‘chaconne.’ A feature of the chaconne is that the bass is combined with a repeating chordal pattern, as it he case here, the chords D, A Bm, F# min, G, D, G, A, being heard throughout.

The combination of these repeating elements—melody, bass and chords—gives the piece its hypnotic quality. Pachelbel avoids the repetition becoming tedious by his masterly manipulation of the canoning upper parts, which tend to grow in momentum as the piece progresses.

The godfather of pop music

This term was coined by Pete Waterman, who described the Canon in D as ‘almost the godfather of pop music because we've all used that in our own ways for the past 30 years.’ The most borrowed element of the canon, however, is not so much its intricate contrapuntal writing, but its chord sequence. This has been used as inspiration of a number of songs over the years, for example in the chorus of Oasis’s ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ (1996):

The opening of chords of the Beatles ‘Let it Be’ (1970):

A more explicit use of the Canon, occurs in “Graduation (Friends Forever)” (1999) by Vitamin C, which also makes use of the work's melodic material:

Other songs known to be inspired by Pachelbel include Kylie Minogue's "I Should Be So Lucky” (1988), the Pet Hop Boys' cover “Go West” (1993), "Streets of London" by Ralph McTell (1974), "Basket Case" by Green Day and many others.

Today, Pachelbel's Canon is one of the most popular pieces here on and we are happy to offer it in over 60 different arrangements so whatever instrument you play or group you play in, we more than likely have a version for you!

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