Pachelbel's Canon in D: What Songwriters Can Learn

Pachelbel’s Canon in D is undoubtedly one of the most instantly recognizeable pieces of Classical music ever written. (Just pop “Pachelbel’s Canon” into YouTube and you’ll get  hundred’s of versions to listen to). What’s more, it’s loved by almost everyone who hears it; whether they love or hate Classical music, it’s hard to shrug off the beauty and elegance of this time-honoured work. Technically, the piece is pre-classical, having been written before the time of Haydn or Mozart, in 1680, the Baroque era.

So why does Pachelbel’s piece work so well? Believe it or not, this Canon in D have some structural qualities and compositional ideas that translate to being very practical for songwriters of almost any genre. Consider the following:

1) The chord progression is beautifully balanced, a fantastic example of strong and weak progressions woven together, and would work well in pop, jazz, and even other genres:

D  A  Bm  F#m  G  D  G  A

2) It’s a canon because melodic ideas are passed around from one instrument to another. You might look at your own songs and see if it’s possible to do the same with melodic shapes you’ve come up with.

3) Because the chord progression repeats throughout, the bassline repeats throughout. This makes Pachelbel’s canon a “ground bass”, a musical form in which the bassline repeats continuously while upper parts change. In a way, many pop, folk and country songs could come under the heading of “ground bass” because many songs feature a repeating bassline.

Pachelbel’s Canon not only displays a constantly recurring bassline, butmelodic ideas that get passed from one instrumental group to another, and this accounts for the mezmerizing effect it has on listeners.

If you’re looking for this effect in your own songs, try this:

  1) Create a chord progression. (Here’s one you can try):

D  G  A  D  G  Em  A7sus4  A7

  2) Create a melody that works with this chord progression. If you read music, it would help to write it out at this point. If you don’t read music, record yourself humming the melody with a guitar or keyboard playing the chords.

  3) Now create a second melody that not only works with the chords, but also works with the first melody.

  4) Add as many other melodies as you like, and you’ve now got what Pachelbel had: a repeating chord progression with several melodies that are introduced one after the other.

As you can imagine, you can only do this sort of thing once or twice in your career. If everything you write is structured in this way, the audience “gets it” right away, and they’ll stop listening. But for at least once, composing a song the way Pachelbel composed his ever-famous Canon in D can result in a really attractive piece of music.


-Gary Ewer (from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website)

Posted in Chord Progressions, songwriting and tagged , , , , .


  1. I wrote a song and the chorus was “too Pachebelish” as I’d written in my notes because it followed this structure, though it’s in F, not D. But I do like it, and modified the iii chord to have the tonic (F) in the bass in an effort to avoid the strong (to me) resemblance to the Canon in D. But after reading this, I’m glad to know it’s okay to have one song that is “too Pachebelish.” I’m happy to leave it as it is because of this blog post. Plus the tempo is faster, which helps. Thanks!

  2. Peanuts are not nuts and Pachelbel’s Canon is not a canon.

    An canon restates the theme in a latter voice while the first voice goes on and supports it.

    Pachelbel’s is more of a variation on a chord pattern.
    A more more modern treatment than a strict canon.

    • Hi George:

      Pachelbel’s Canon is indeed a canon, though you may be referring to the fact that the bass line does not participate in the canon. A canon is simply a musical work which states a theme, with that theme imitated in subsequent entries in other instruments. Pachelbel’s canon combines the so-called “ground bass” principle of a repeating bass line, while the upper voices are indeed in canon. A quick look at a score will confirm this. Bach also composed work which he called “canons”, but featured a different bass line which was not in canon.

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