Jane Ellen

1.08 Johann Pachelbel's Tacos

Jane's Musical Takeaway
bits and bobs and my two cents

Episode 8: Johann Pachelbel's Tacos

There is one piece of classical music so culturally pervasive that people can spontaneously begin arguing over whether it's a Christmas melody, a wedding song, or an ode to a fast food restaurant. If you haven't already guessed, today's takeaway will be discussing the famous Pachelbel Canon (one 'n'). Let me begin by making a few brief points:
1. It's not 'classical' except in the sense of music that is neither pop, nor rock, nor jazz. It might have been written around 1680, which places it in a stylistic musical period known as the Baroque.
2. Yes, the composer's surname (Pachelbel) rhymes with Taco ... well, you know.
3. There's only one 'n' in canon because it's a musical form related to a round (like Frère Jacques or Row, Row, Row Your Boat). In this instance, because the bass line is played over and over (28 times if you're listening to the original version), the repeated part is called an ostinato, a ground bass, or a ground round.
4. Therefore, Pachelbel's Tacos use ground round! Just kidding!

Let's start by listening to the original version as written nearly 350 years ago and performed on instruments of the period by the San Francisco Early Music Ensemble Voices of Music:

I'll bet most of you recognised at least a few bits, or you may well have been familiar with the entire work. With the exception of the opening of Beethoven's 5th Symphony (dit dit dit DAH) it's probably the most famous earworm in all of western European music. So how did this one piece of music turn a fairly obscure German composer into a one-hit wonder?

Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) was famous during his lifetime as a composer, organist, and teacher, but his music was eventually overshadowed by great composers of the era such as Bach, Handel, and Telemann.

In 1968, nearly 300 years after the canon was written, a popular recording by the Paillard Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Jean-François Paillard, was released. In 1980, Marvin Hamlisch adapted Pachelbel's Canon as the opening and closing music for the Mary Tyler Moore film Ordinary People. Those two happy accidents, separated by only 12 years, seem to have ignited a passion for this innocuous little piece, and now there are innumberable recorded variations of Herr Pachelbel's composition. Brian Eno has reduced it to a musical algorithm, Isao Tomita recorded an electronic version, and literally dozens of songs seem to have been at least partially based on Pachelbel's work. Musicians, however, sometimes have a completely different take on the piece. Have a listen to Rob Paravonian of Dr Demento fame, and his Pachelbel Rant:

And then there's the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Christmas Canon:

Finally, since I've already set you up for it, here is one of the versions of that 21st century musical travesty The Tacobel Canon. It's great if you're a teacher trying to turn kids onto classical music; for the rest of us, however, it's yet another groan-worthy earworm:

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. What is an earworm? There are lots of names for these pesky musical creatures including brainworms and stuck song syndrome. The term 'earworm' was first used in a 1978 thriller called Flyaway, written by Desmond Bagley. You can think of earworms as jingles, or television themes, or bits of iconic music that get stuck in your head until you either distract yourself or deliberately listen to something else that you find even more mentally contagious. Examples of earworms include classic television themes like The Brady Bunch or Gilligan's Island, and jingles for fast food restaurants.
  • 2. Why do we remember the bass line? Repetition, repetition, repetition. Here's the bass line or ostinato, the repetitive foundation for the entire composition, isolated from the rest of the work (no need to listen to more than a few repetitions!). Since the video only shows the note names, I've pasted some music below so you can see what the notes look like:

Pachelbel Canon bass line (quarter notes) 

  • 3. So what's up with that bass line? Pachelbel knew a lot about composition; he wrote over 500 works throughout the course of his career. When he chose to use a repeated bass line, he may have been setting himself up for an exercise similar to the famous Bolero written by Maurice Ravel (later used as the theme to the 1979 film 10). Ravel chose one rhythm as the basis for his mathematical exercise, to see if he could compose an entire piece around it. In the same way, Pachelbel's composition is confined to what works - and doesn't work - with the bass line that he chose. For Pachelbel, the Canon may have merely been an exercise in composition and maths, and 300 years later, it has become part of the soundtrack of our lives.
  • 4. Can you explain 'canon' again? Canon comes from a Greek word meaning rule, so naturally there are some rules for writing one. To compose a canon, you write a melody to be played by one instrument for a while; a second instrument also gets to play the melody a bit later on. Both instruments can be joined by a third, or even more instruments, all coming in with the melody at different times. Pachelbel's Canon uses 3 violins, all of which get to play the melody. You already know what the cello gets - a pattern of 8 notes played 28 times!
  • 5. There's actually another half to this piece. It was originally written as a Canon and Gigue, meaning a slow piece of music, followed by a fast piece. For whatever reason, the fast movement never caught on with the general public, and maybe it's just as well since it takes about 5 minutes just to listen to the first half.

Love it or hate it, you have to admire the sublime craftsmanship in this work, composed around a sequence of 8 notes. If you find yourself hanging with some geeky music friends this weekend, casually mention how many songs you've discovered that are based on the Pachelbel Canon. I've already given you a good head start, and there are even more songs linked below.

Even more versions of the Pachelbel Canon!
Graduation (Friends Forever) by Vitamin C
Canon Rock by Jerry C
Hook by Blues Traveler
One Tin Soldier by The Original Caste

If you enjoyed this episode of Jane's Musical Takeaway, buy me a cup of coffee :)