The Pachelbel Canon in D: What You Probably Don’t Know

by steve

Pachelbel's Canon: What You Probably Don't Know

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How many weddings have you been to where you haven’t heard Pachelbel’s Canon in D? Ever wonder how this piece got to be so famous?

Chances are, you probably heard the Pachelbel Canon in D in almost every wedding you’ve attended. It is one of the most frequently used pieces of classical music. But the Canon begins in obscurity. After all, it was only a ‘canon’—a common but not especially remarkable form of music used at social gatherings primarily in the 15th century (well before Pachelbel’s time).

Like most other Baroque era music, it may have been enjoyed by the people of its day but had been long forgotten until being rediscovered in the early 1900s.

Obscurity to prominence

Johann Pachelbel was a German composer who lived from 1653-1706. He was one of the great organist-composers of his day and his church music remains very highly regarded. Sadly, most of his music has been lost.

The Canon in D is insignificant by comparison to his larger sacred works. It’s not the piece he likely would have chosen to become his most famous work, let alone one of the most well-known pieces of classical music! Nevertheless, that’s exactly what it has become.

Pachelbel wrote this piece near the end of the Baroque era, probably around 1680 (though some sources think it was 1700). It was originally written as a short chamber work, to be played by three violins and a basso continuo to be played at a tempo much faster than today’s performances.

After being rediscovered, the Canon (with its accompanying Gigue) was published in a 1919 scholarly article by Gustav Beckmann. It was published as sheet music a few years later in 1925. Arthur Fiedler, founder of the Boston Pops orchestra, recorded it in 1940, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that it started showing up in recordings and becoming truly well-known.

What seems to have really launched the Canon’s popularity was its discovery by Hollywood when it was used as the theme to the 1980 film “Ordinary People”.

Its charming grace makes it a favorite today for mainstream uses of classical music, including compilation CDs and weddings. Especially weddings.

Where does it get its appeal?

There are several reasons why the Canon in D is so appealing.

First is its sheer simplicity—it is very simple but yet very elegant. The melody repeats continuously. It is very easy to listen to, being harmonious throughout, charming, and with a memorable lyrical quality.

Second, many people have an emotional attachment to the piece because of its popularity and its use where emotions run high (such as weddings). Many use this attachment as the basis for including it in their own weddings (see below).

Third, it’s about the only piece of classical music that many, including brides, can recognize and name. That makes it a safe choice when searching for music.

Fourth, it’s musical style is such that it can be repeated over and over … and over again, yet ended at nearly any time. This is convenient when there’s an unexpected need for extra music, such as in weddings when the bridal party is delayed.

The Canon and you

While the Pachelbel Canon in D is certainly a beautiful work and has countless arrangements making it very flexible, it is overused. Not just overused, incredibly overused.

Wedding Music Unveiled recommends against it because of this. Music that is overused diminishes the personal nature of your wedding music by making it common with the music of so many other weddings. It’s too bad because it really is a nice piece of music for weddings.

If you are considering the Canon for your wedding, here’s a challenge. Try to find another piece of music, just as beautiful, that would express your wedding joy in a more personal way (a way not shared with tens or hundreds of thousands of other weddings each year). Classical music has hundreds of beautiful, melodic pieces that would work well for weddings. Many of these works may appeal to you and allow you music as unique as you.

Check out our articles with ideas for wedding preludes and processionals (here and here) or just look on our Music Suggestions category page for ideas to get you started.

A conundrum

The Canon is otherwise a very wonderful choice for a wedding. Many feel a special connection to this piece which is exactly what Wedding Music Unveiled recommends for your wedding music—this is what best expresses your joy. Except when everyone else is expressing the same thing. It’s like having a favorite song that gets overplayed and loses its appeal.

What are your thoughts

Leave a comment to let us know what you think about the Pachelbel Canon in D. Your comments are always welcome and appreciated!

© 2010, Wedding Music Unveiled. All rights reserved.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Mindy January 28, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Interesting! Small wedding in March will use this piece of music. Overused from a vendor perspective maybe, but it’s not our wedding is it? If you want to talk about overused, let’s talk about 1 Corinthians 13. Sigh.

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dave January 28, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Thanks for the comment!

The Canon in D is certainly considered overused from a vendor perspective (a lot musicians are convinced they could sleep through it and still play it well), but the vendor or musicians’ perspectives aren’t relevant (to the points in this article) as you mention. Brides and couples shouldn’t choose their music to please their professionals.

Nor should they choose the music to entertain their guests (who will probably hear the Canon in D at most weddings they attend each year).

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Mindy January 28, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Agreed!
I had forgotten to mention that the coupe using it in March were slightly embarrassed for using it (they know it’s overused too), but they love it and we support love =-)
On another note…I bet I could play it even today, 30 years since intermediate strings (but not well, lol)!

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Steve January 29, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Nice comments! Yes, I Cor 13 is certainly overused, and the context of that passage isn’t even about weddings, it’s about using one’s spiritual gifts wisely in the church. Oh, well, that’s an article all by itself! While the Canon in D is certainly overused, I agree with you that ultimately the couple chooses their wedding music, and if they want the Canon, well, then there it is! From the musician’s standpoint, though the piece is overused, there are so many variations of it that the musician can still enjoy playing it. And for the creative musician, we can also improvise and “jazz it up.” In my experience, couples (and the wedding guests) like the fresh interpretations. I’m curious if, in your experience, you’ve only played it straight, or if you’ve added some of your own personality to it, and people’s reaction to your interpretation??

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Stephanie February 4, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Some people strive to be different. Some people don’t.

I suppose many musicians can fall into the “striving to be different” category, which can make sense for their desire not to play overused music.

But a lot of brides out there have other top priorities, and the one’s who do care will take the time to search out “something different”

I like your website and consider it an awesome tool to find music. But PLEASE stop telling me not to use Pachelbel’s Canon. It really depends on the capabilities of my chosen organist along with my taste. I obviously know it is overused…but I honestly wouldn’t care if I have an overused song playing at my wedding….just look at most wedding dances!!!!

maybe in the future you could have different pieces in a spotlight, instead of reminding me how overused pachelbel’s canon is. (i just received the 2-4-10 email….which is about to make me discontinue with your posts…..)

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dave February 4, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Hi Stephanie and thanks for the feedback!

I do intend to continue featuring specific pieces of music. This particular piece is one that has a love-hate relationship with people which is important to highlight. Some people need a little extra encouragement that it’s OK to look beyond the obvious choices for a special piece of music. Whenever you see a recommendation against overused music, which I always try to approach from the bride’s point of view, not the musician’s, I try to make sure it’s accompanied by something along the lines of “but if it is the perfect piece of music for you, then please use it”.

Thanks again for your comment and your support!

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Steve February 4, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Hi, Stephanie!
Thanks for leaving a comment. I’m glad you find this website a valuable tool. I think you’re absolutely correct in pointing out that “it really depends on the capabilities of my organist … and my taste.” As Dave also pointed out, we want to encourage the use of fresh music and get the bride to at least consider thinking “outside the box.” However, there’s plenty in the box. And something overused can still be considered “special” in a wedding. Brides have a ton of details to sift through when planning a wedding and music is typically not one of the top details. So regardless of the musical selections, the musician needs to be the person to one, offer suggestions, but also two, accept the bride’s choices and play those pieces as though they were written specifically for that bride’s special day. Thanks again! Keep the comments coming!

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karen August 25, 2010 at 2:37 pm

True. It’s overly used (so the term is)however I wouldn’t mind having the same March music to hundred of brides out there. For me what matters is the context of the music and not the unique nor the music suggested by some wedding organizers. What matters to me is the relevance of the context of the music to my special day. Yes, I’m thinking of mixing it with other music. I may not be good of rearranging music, but I’ll leave it to my my music arranger :)

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cathy March 10, 2011 at 6:37 am

Nice post! its interesting, and i enjoyed reading specially to the comments, and i agree it is overly use , but i won’t mind i still love it, thanks for sharing!

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