Canon in D Piano Tutorial

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In today’s episode, we’re going to do a Canon in D piano tutorial, also known as That Wedding Song. It’s one of those classical pieces that almost everyone knows, but a lot of people don’t know much about this tune other than that it’s used at weddings a lot.

So what we’re going to do in today’s episode is talk about the history of this piece, I’ll play through the arrangement (sheet music is linked below), and then we’ll talk about little theory things and interpretation ideas.

Let’s get started!

Canon in D Sheet music

The version of the song we’ll be using today is 2 pages long, so it’s definitely a simplified version. There are tons and tons of different arrangements of Canon in D, so I invite you to go wild and play it in a way that suits you best.

Canon in D sheet music

Backstory

But first things first – backstory time!

“Canon in D” is just as often called “Pachelbel’s Canon”, because it was – you guessed it – written by a guy named Pachelbel. Pachelbel was a German composer in the Baroque period (think 17th century), so this tune is quite a bit older than many people think.

So one thing that often happens to music over large periods of time is that it goes out of style. So in Pachelbel’s time, people were into his music, but once the Classical era rolled along, people were so over it. So though Canon in D is very old, it only recently gained popularity in 1968, when an orchestrated version of it was recorded, became popular, and then spawned a whole slew of artists to record their versions of it.

What is a Canon?

One of my students recently asked me why this song was called “Canon” in D. As you may or may not know, a canon is based on a series of repeating parts. In piano, what that usually means is one hand plays a series of notes, and the other hand copies it at a staggered pace (usually a bar or so behind the main tune).

But when we play this song on piano, it sounds like chords and melody – it doesn’t have the imitation of a canon.

So I did a little reading and it turns out the answer should have been obvious. Canon in D was originally written for 3 violins and a basso continuo (a bass instrument and keyboard). The three violins played the canon, repeating and imitating each other. And since we only have two hands, that imitation is lost on the piano.

Just to give you an idea of how this canon thing works, I’ll show you a quick clip of Canon in D. It’ll start with the main tune, that descending pattern, and after 10 seconds or so, the main tune will re-enter in the second voice, while the first voice goes and does something different. Then about 10 seconds later, the 3rd voice enters with that original tune, while the second voice imitates the first, and the first voice does a new thing.

Make sense?

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Canon in D Piano Tutorial

So let’s start with basics. This song is called Canon in D because it’s a canon, and because – this is an easy one – it’s in the key of D. You can see that in the key signature with two sharps, which just means that every F and C in this song are played as a sharp.

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We also have the Italian marking “Largo”, which is telling us to play this song slowly. Again, that should be fairly obvious if you’ve heard the song before.

What I like to do with new music is hunt for patterns. What form is this song written in? Does it just randomly meander through notes, or is there an apparent structure to it?

The first thing you’ll notice is the left hand follows a 4-bar left hand pattern. This pattern repeats throughout the whole piece. Even when the pattern switches to quarter notes, you’ll notice the notes themselves are the same (D, A, B, F#, etc). And near the end, when the left hand turns into a broken 158 pattern, it’s still the same set of notes (D, A, B, F#, etc).

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This is good news! This means that every four bars, the left hand is essentially going to repeat itself, and the right hand part is going to morph into something different.

There’s actually a pretty cool pattern happening in the left hand notes themselves. The left hand note pattern is as follows:

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So you can see that you’ve got this down a fourth, up a second, down a fourth, up a second, and again, until the last bar, which moves to the dominant (A), the perfect lead-in note back to the tonic and the start of the pattern again. I just think it’s cool – there are definitely some chord/note patterns like this that composers will use in their pieces, and this is probably one of the most-well-known patterns.

One other note I’ll make is that I didn’t end up writing in fingering or dynamics for this arrangement. Usually I do, but sometimes it’s good to figure out your own way through the arrangement. If you print this out, I highly recommend adding in finger markings so you stay consistent.

As for dynamics, I trust that you’ve heard this piece enough times that you should have a sense of its mood. For me, the overall arc of this song is starting soft, growing in volume until you hit all the 16th notes where you’re loud, and then getting quiet again toward the end.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Canon in D piano tutorial! Have fun playing around with the arrangement, and feel free to manipulate it as you see fit, since this song is practically begging to be improvised with.

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.