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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)!


  1. Stein pp. 127-130
  2. Anatomy of a Canon: contains links to examples of each type of canon. Explore as many of these links as you can. As there are many compact disk recordings involved, don't try to listen to each, but do study scores.
  3. Why Did Bach Write Canons? Was this some kind of game or what?
Listening: Check out CDs at the CMC desk, and be sure to click on the short musical examples to go to full scores. Some of these canons will be on the Final Exam so study them carefully!
|Stop CD|
  1. Ten Canons of the Musical Offering
  2. Nine Canons on the Goldberg Variations
  3. Fourteen Canons on the Goldberg Ground
Homework: Assignment No. 3

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