O Canada Piano Tutorial (+free sheet music)

In the previous video, we talked about Canada’s Classical music history – definitely check that out if you haven’t already. Today we’re building on that topic and doing a tutorial of Canada’s most well-known tune – the national anthem, O Canada.

In this tutorial we’ll talk about the backstory of O Canada, play through it on the keyboard, and then do a bit of analysis to help you learn and practice it.

As with all the tutorials on this channel, the sheet music is available as a PDF download – which you can download here.

This version of O Canada is simplified, and very doable for a student at a grade 1-2 level.

O Canada Piano Tutorial: Basics

O Canada is the official national anthem of Canada. The tune was created way back in 1880 in Quebec by Calixa Lavallée for the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day ceremony, originally titled “Chant national”. Calixa was a musician as well as being a lieutenant – musicians at the time generally had other jobs.

O Canada has unofficially been the anthem since 1939, and officially since 1980.

Lyrics

The original French lyrics were written by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier who was a judge by day, poet by night. These lyrics are still used today, unlike the many iterations of the English lyrics.

(For those of you who don’t know, Canada has two official languages – English and French. Because of this, everything from our cereal boxes to national anthems come in both languages).

The first English lyrics were written in 1906 by Robert Stanley Weir, and they went through significant changes when it officially became the anthem in 1980. It was also recently changed in 2018 to be more gender-neutral.

Interestingly, the English version isn’t a translation of the French – they are completely different lyrics. The French version has stronger religious connotations, and uses language like “carrying a sword” and “bearing the cross”. The English version is less specific and doesn’t talk about religion or war as much.

Here’s the original 1908 version (with slight changes in 1914):

“O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North, strong and free!

From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

In 2018, the line “in all thy sons command” was changed to “in all of us command”, something that people have been trying to change since the 1990s.

O Canada History

At the time of O Canada’s composition, God Save the Queen and The Maple Leaf Forever were also common anthems.

God Save the Queen is still the royal anthem of Canada, but wasn’t chosen as Canada’s anthem because it was too Britain-specific. O Canada better encompassed all European immigrants, though it’s important to note that it’s not representative of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Mozart: March of the Priests

Another fun fact about O Canada is how the opening notes are basically identical to Mozart’s March of the Priests from his famous opera The Magic Flute.

Here are the opening notes to O Canada (on piano):

And here are Mozart’s opening notes.

 

O Canada Piano Tutorial: Basics

Every time we do a tutorial on this channel, we have to talk through the basics.

First of all, what key is it in? There are two scales with no sharps or flats in the key signature: C major and A minor. We can quickly determine which it is by looking at the beginning and end of the piece. The opening notes and closing notes outline a C major chord, which confirms that this piece is written in C major.

I should note that O Canada is most typically in Eb major or F major, since it’s an easier range for singing – but versions in all different key signatures exist. I like using C on the piano since it’s easier for beginner students.

Another thing to look at is the song form. Are there any patterns? Contrasting parts?

Well we can see that by measure 9, the rhythm completely changes – this would be a contrasting section. We can call the first section “A”, and the contrasting part “B”. Does the music ever return to “A”? Sort of. You can see the notes (“O Canada”) are the same as the beginning, but the rest of them change significantly – though they have a similar rhythm. So we’ll call this “A1” – it’s similar to the beginning, but not exact.

Style

Another question to ask is, what style is this piece written in?

O Canada is most definitely a march. Marches are in a stately tempo, usually around 120, since it’s a speed you can walk (march) to. Marches also have a really simple and solid rhythm, again to make for easier marching.

Marches were obviously used for military purposes, but it was a common genre even outside of the military – Chopin, Beethoven and Schubert are just a few composers who wrote memorable marches.

Phrasing

I drafted this version of O Canada for my students, and I left it blank of al markings – an open template. From there I like to encourage my students to mark in the phrasing.

Phrases are marked by slurs. Slurs tell us to play smoothly, but phrasing tells us the shape of the melody. If we were singing O Canada, where would the punctuation be? Where would the natural rises and falls be? Where would a vocalist stop to breathe?

Phrasing gives a piece of music shape. I encourage you to print out this sheet and add in the phrasing manually – I find my students understand it better if they do it themselves. It’s easy to do this when the music has lyrics – phrasing typically follows punctuation. If there’s a comma or a period, that’s usually when a phrase ends.

Without lyrics, we look for natural breaks in the music – is there a held note, or a long rest? I encourage my students to sing the melody and see where they would naturally end up breathing.

Fingering

I also left the fingering blank in this version, again because it’s valuable for people to find and mark down their own finger patterns, and to figure out what makes the most logical sense.

Pretty much all Classical music has specific finger markings already written in for you. But many pop pieces don’t. It’s important to be able to figure out logical fingering on your own (see this video if you want to get more into this topic).

Make sure you’ve played pieces with written-in fingering before you invent your own, though. You want to learn logical ways to move your hands from the minds of masters before attempting your own finger variations.

Harmonic analysis

The last thing I want to talk about with O Canada are the chords and cadences. There aren’t any overt chords in this version (it’s almost all single notes in both hands), but you can still find the harmony if you look for it.

This piece is built on 4-measure blocks. Every four measures, we have a major “punctuation” – a long pause, and a shift to a new part. It’s at the end of these 4-measure blocks that we find cadences, which is a musical form of punctuation.

Our first cadence moves from I-V (C-G), called an “imperfect cadence”. This is a cadence that leaves us feeling incomplete – almost like the music is asking a question.

Our next cadence features a modulation (temporary key change), and moves from D to G chord. Since we’ve modulated to the key of G here, this is a V to I cadence, called a “perfect cadence”. This is the strongest type of cadence and gives us a strong sense of resolution, like a musical period or sentence end.

We have another imperfect cadence next, in the key of C, leaving us hanging. Up next is another perfect cadence in the key of G, just like before.

That takes us to the final A section. We have a ii to V progression (Dm to G), basically an imperfect cadence (noticing a pattern?). That’s followed by a perfect cadence (V7 to I) in the key of C. To end, we have one more perfect cadence, another V7 to I, to really reinforce the point and drive it home.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed this easy (Grade 1-ish) tutorial – it’s a nice break from all the Grade 4 stuff we’ve been doing lately.

xo,

Allysia