MUS 311 Counterpoint

H. Canon, Chapter 8

Return to Home Page

Return to MUS 311 Menu

Guidelines for writing 18th-century canons:

Canon--a piece in which a melodic idea is duplicated in a second voice before the first has finished.

Compositional process: 

  • Write the leader up to the point where the follower is to enter.
  • Duplicate the leader in the follower.
  • Leader is continued using guidelines for good counterpoint.
  • The new material is then transferred to the follower.
  1. Some melodies cannot be "canonized" well. Others may work well at several different intervals.  A certain amount of trial and rejection comes into play in canonic writing.
  1. The most common harmonic interval found in canonic writing is the octave.
  1. The time interval between leader and follower varies from one note to many measures; however, use of either extreme is rare.
  • A one-note delay is difficult to hear as a canon.
  1. Two-voice canons at the unison are rare, unless written for a solo instrument with accompaniment.
  1. Canons at the unison, 2nd and 3rd may cause the undesirable crossing of voices.
  • If these intervals are desired, instead write the canon at the octave, 9th or 10th.
  1. Canons at the 4th, 5th and 6th are found frequently.
  • Canons at the 7th are somewhat rare.
  1. In canons at intervals other than the octave or unison, it is usually necessary to alter the follower--i.e., avoid accidentals which would make the canon exact--in order to stay within the diatonic scale. Such canons are still considered "strict," as long as the basic pitches, apart from the accidentals, conform to the leader.
  1. The endings of canons are often free to allow for satisfactory cadences.
  1. Canons at the 12th are somewhat common; canons at intervals larger than a 12th are rare.
  • Canons at the 11th are seldom encountered.
  • Canons at diminished and augmented intervals are out of the question due to harmonic complications.
  1. The uses of rests can be an effective "breather" from canonic material.

Canons using Special Devices:

Contrary Motion (inversion)--the upward or downward direction of the leader is reversed in the follower.

  • Stretto--passage in which the musical idea of one voice is overlapped by the same idea in another voice.

Augmentation--the original note values are increased (usually doubled) in the follower.

Diminution--the follower moves in values shorter than those of the leader and may overtake it.

  1. If written at the octave, parallel octaves will occur at that point--AVOID.

Retrograde Motion (Crab Canon)--the melody played backwards accompanies the melody in its original form.

Accompanied Canon--some canons employ accompanimental material in addition to canonic material.

Canons in Three or More Voices:

  1. Most canons are of the 2-voice variety.
  1. In canons with three or more voices, the harmonic and time interval may or may not be used again for succeeding voices.

Perpetual Canon (the Round)--keeps repeating back to the beginning; no true cadential ending, just a decided point of conclusion.

Round--usually notated as a single line with staggered entrances marked.

Catch--type of round. Often, the words overlap, and have double meanings.

Double Canon--two canons sounding simultaneously; one may be more accompanimental, but not necessarily.

Enigma Canon--brain teaser canon, with riddled instructions, and often various clefs.

Spiral Canon--melody ends in a different key; the sequence must be repeated until it returns to the original key.

Return to Home Page

Return to MUS 311 Menu