Learn about canon music

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josh hild f ok0989Jng unsplash

Canon music is a piece of music where one part echoes or imitates another part is known as what? A canon can be any type of music that imitates or echoes another type.

 The term “canon” comes from the medieval practice of singing a round to the melody and then repeating the melody at Bethlehem Church in Ghent, Belgium. 

By using this technique, two melodies could be played side-by-side and everybody would know when and where one ended and another began.

 This soon spread to other churches in Europe. Eventually, the word “canon” served as a label for musical compositions with multiple melodies playing simultaneously (so called polyphony) such as motets and masses. 

Composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Heinrich Schütz paved the way for the development of polyphonic choral music and stimulated a revival of interest in Renaissance and Baroque music.

 Over time, the word “canon” was used only to refer to the canon procedure (a round) and not other types of compositions.

Canon music is also known as canonic or round.

The term canon is also used by other musical genres such as jazz which imitates another type of music such as classical music.

Some interesting points to know about canon music are :

1. The music usually consists of an imitated voice .

 Although the imitating voice can also be instrumental – that is either copied exactly or modified slightly to produce variations. 

The process of “rounding” between voices creates polyphony, particularly where there are at least three voices, as in much Renaissance music for example, but also during many Baroque pieces as demonstrated by Johann Sebastian Bach’s motets, for example his Jesu meine Freude).

2. It is often used in choral singing. 

Canon derives from the Latin word “canon”, meaning a rule or a standard, and was originally used in music theory to describe a repeating musical pattern. 

This would usually be a melody that is based on a short repeated idea.

3. The imitated voice usually sung by the alto voice 

A canon is typically written in unison or octaves, though not always with all voices singing the same notes.

 There are numerous forms of canonic structure with different voices singing different melodies at different times.

The simple form of a cannon has a melody in a single line, with one voice singing the tune and the other(s) repeating it. 

This type of canon is called a homophonic canon. Amongst other examples, this feature is found in Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli and Bach’s cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 10). 

The use of counterpoint in canons can lead to confusion, leading to the term ‘countercanon’. The use of canonic techniques in counterpoint is called ‘counterpoint canon’.

4. Canons with two voices .

Usually consist of two different melodies playing at the same time, roughly at the same speed. 

The first voice sings one line and the other part sings the other line at a slightly faster tempo.

 These canons are called contrapuntal canons because they involve an interplay between melody and counterpoint. 

In Bach’s Missa secunda, for example, each voice sings a different line from a pre-existing choral cantus firmus part, namely a liturgical fugue setting out Hallelujah.

 The first voice is imitated by another line sung by another singer. The imitated lines differ by the middle note (the ‘cantus firmus’). 

Each part of the canonic version differs from the original fugue subject, usually by a single note. These two voices may also follow different melodic progressions; this is called polyphony. 

The first voice can be singing an anti-melody (a line that is against the tune of the first part), like in Bach’s cantata for double choir Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140).

5. Canons with three voices .

Canons with three parts are called compound canons and often involve counterpoint and contrapuntal canons.

 “The central voice is the main motivic voice, and usually leads throughout.”

According to Schuetz, if the canon has three voices, the innermost voice should be of the same type (for example alto, tenor or bass) as the outer voices. 

The second voice can be either like or unlike (but on a different pitch level).

 If it is unlike, it is called “deuterus”, meaning ‘second’ in Greek; if like on a higher pitch level it is called “tritus”, meaning ‘third’. It would seem that Schuetz’s rules for two-voice canons apply also to three-voice canons.

6. Canons with four voices .

The next stage after three-part canons (tripartite canons) are those where the innermost voice is again unison or octaves. 

Then the next voice is like the second voice in a three-part canon. 

Then comes a polyphonic section and finally a return to unison, either as part of the end of the canon or as an addition (Glock and Pfeiffer).

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