Week 2: Canon
The detail from Monet's "Poplars in Spring" (right) is a good example of how artists use old ideas to generate new. Notice how the same brush technique that created one tree has been replicated to create five.
Because they produce new melodies out of old, canons have fascinated composers for centuries. Not only does a well constructed canon leader have the ability to produce a new melody, but a new melody (called the follower) that has the unique ability to accompany the leader that generated it. The ability to invent musical lines that can accompany themselves has been much sought after by composers for the last 300 years. You'll be surprised at the many techniques for creating canons. Among the more interesting, the leader of a mirror canon accompanies itself with its exact melodic inversion, while the leader of a "crab" canon accompanies itself with its retrograde. Look long enough at the trees in Monet's painting (above) and you might begin to discern some of these same techniques.
The following readings are intended to acquaint you with these and other processes in music. The readings conclude with speculation as to why J. S. Bach wrote canons...you probably won't be surprised to learn that it meant more to him than good counterpoint. The three listening exercises will let you hear every type of canon, and, in the assignment you'll try your hand at writing some yourself....Bach makes it sound so easy! By the way, when you play with canons, be sure they are of the one-"n" variety (you can sing a canon but cannons can only be shot)!
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©1996 Timothy A. Smith
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