Taco Bell Cannon... Pachel's Bells.... Pachelbel by Canon... Taco Bell Musket... No matter what you call it, Canon in D by Pachelbel is one of the most popular pieces of classical music ever. People who don't even like classical music still seem to enjoy Pachelbel Canon. It is certainly a pretty piece, but there are thousands of other pieces with equally beautiful melodies that don't share a fraction of Canon's popularity. So what makes Pachelbel's Canon stick out?
An obvious answer is that this is a piece that many people have chosen to have played for their wedding. Music that has personal meaning can bring back all the emotions of time passed, good or bad. In my life before the KSO I was a Suzuki violin teacher. We often took the advanced violin students to perform at shopping malls and other public places. Pachelbel Canon was one of the pieces they performed and it was always fun to watch couples stop and listen. Some would tear up while others would smile at each other or hug. Our kids could play, but in this case it wasn't the performance that was attracting attention, it was the piece itself.
Emotional association doesn't explain WHY Canon achieved popularity in the first place, though. My theory has to do with the bass line. Not all canons have a bass line. In it's simplest form, a canon is a piece with a melody that is repeated by an additional voice or voices after a given interval. A round is a simple form of a canon. Row, Row, Row Your Boat is a good example of a round. Pachelbel's Canon is similar to Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Voices enter at regular intervals and play identical music. Canon in D adds a bass line in the cello part.
The cello part for Pachelbel's Canon is eight notes that are repeated until the piece is over. If Dante had conjured up a circle of Hell just for cellists, my guess is that their punishment would be to play Pachelbel's Canon for all eternity. Their part has none of the fun of the violin parts. As tedious as it is for the cellist, it is, I think, the key to the popularity of Canon in D. The cello part provides rhythmic and harmonic security. It grounds the listener. Although it is dull to play, there is so much going on in the melody that you don't really notice the cello part when you are listening. It's there, though, hammering the chord progression into your subconscious.
Many pop artists have used Pachelbel's Canon as inspiration. Some have used bits of the melody in their songs, but more often they use the chord progression. "Cryin" by Aerosmith, "Let it Be" by The Beatles, and "We're Not Gonna Take It" by Twisted Sister all incorporate part, if not all, of the chord progression from Canon in D. Doesn't it just make you smile to think of Steven Tyler rockin' out to Canon in D on his tour bus?
For a more complete list of pop artists who have been inspired by Canon in D, visit www.pachelbelcanon.com.