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The 300-Year-Old Godfather of Pop Music

Updated on September 11, 2013

It was probably before the 1700s when Johann Pachelbel, a Baroque German composer and organist, composed his Canon. It was just a short piece of music which became forgotten perhaps faster than it came to existence. And so the Canon remained written on a piece of note paper amongst other papers left by the composer, whose name never gained major popularity.

Everyone heard of Beethoven, Bach or Mozart, but who on earth is this Pachelbel? So it took more than 200 years before the Canon could reach a wider public. In 1919, the piece was published and it rapidly gained widespread popularity, most probably due to its touching and unforgettable melody.

However, the Canon did not end up only as a melody known to everyone familiar with classical music. The melody, as well the unique sequence of chords used by the composer, began to circulate in popular music.

But before we present some of the modern adaptations of the Pachelbel's Canon, let us say at least a few words about Baroque European music in general. It was around 450 years ago when Europeans discovered the major and minor musical scales. This discovery gave birth to European Barque music, a music unknown to the world before. We may know names such as Bach, Haendel or Vivaldi. What most people do not know about is that this particular moment in history of music has completely re-shaped the European perception of musical aesthetics. And after some time, it affected the whole world. Almost the whole popular music we can hear nowadays, whether it is in Japan, Russia or USA, is written in major and minor scales discovered 450 years ago in Europe.


The Canon, however, has a special place in history. It's hard to find any other classical piece, which would be a direct inspiration for so many songs written in the XX and XIX century, as well as other adaptations in popular culture. I will highlight only some of them, the ones I like mostly or the ones I find most significant or popular. To some extent I will base myself on available lists, but there are also a few songs not listed anywhere which I will mention.

So... let's start off with the list!

1. Probably the oldest popular song based on the Pachelbel's Canon is "Oh Lord Why Lord" performed by the Spanish group, Los Pop Tops.

2. The crazy Japanese singer you are about to see is Togawa Jun with her song, Mushi no Onna. I completely do not understand what she is singing about, but she sounds mad.

3. Dr. Octagon features the Canon in his song, I Got to Tell You.

4. And here we can hear a German band, Sweetbox, with their hit song, Life is Cool. It's really sweet.

5. We can hear an adaptation of the Canon by George Winston in the Korean comedy, My Sassy Girl.

6. Is there anyone in the world who hasn't heard Scatman's World by John Scatman? Yep, the Canon's chord sequence is there.

7. Go West by the Pet Shop Boys was a real hit back in the 90's. The song was originally written by the band, Village People. However the Pet Shop Boys version is the one most of the people heard.

8. The recent hit from Indonesia, Sayang by the pop singer, Shae (yep, they really like this Canon in Asia!). "Sayang" means "beloved". This particular song seems for me to be the sweetest adaptation of the Pachelbel's Canon harmonics.

9. And finally, a guitar adaptation of the Canon. This is just marvelous.

As we can see, the Canon fits to many modern musical styles and songs based on its harmonics and gained widespread success. Let us ask ourselves a question. Does an average Malay/Indonesian listening to the sweet voice of his native singer, Shae have any idea that the piece on which the half of the melody is based was created more than 300 years ago, somewhere in Germany and remained in the composer's desk among other papers filled with notes for more than 200 years?

Sometimes, if we start to explore the history behind the things we know and like, such an exploration can lead us to astonishing discoveries. This is surely the case with Pachelbel's Canon.


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