Composing Canons

Copyright Justin Henry Rubin © 2005


Imitation has been, and continues to be, one of the driving forces behind many of the forms that distinguish the Western musical tradition. Of the many polyphonic structures built on the foundation of imitation between independent voices, the strictest is the canon (from the Greek kanon, meaning 'rule').  Despite its apparent rigor, one of the advantages to this form is a straight-forward methodology involved in its composition.  Canons have been used by composers as independent pieces, integral sections of larger works, or a starting point for less-constrained subsequent development. As such, the models below are intended to provide the student with a step-by-step approach to writing their own pieces using this fundamental compositional tool using the vocabulary of the Common Practice.


Two-Part Canons

A. Simple two-part canon at the octave

B. Simple two-part canon at intervals other than the octave

C. Two-part inversion canon at the octave

D. Two-part augmentation canon at the octave

Three-Part Canons

A. Simple three-part canon at the octave

B. Three-part canon at intervals other than the octave

AUDIO and MIDI files can be listened to on this page or downloaded separately here.

A. Simple two-part canon at the octave

1. The first step involves creating a single melodic line that is both brief and has a distinct musical profile. The later can be accomplished through the careful placement of a large leap and a single climax note within the course of the motivic design.  This voice is known as the dux, which is Latin for 'leader'.  The dux will establish what the following voice, or comes (Latin for 'companion'), will imitate.   Note that even when composing for a solo voice, the correct use of non-harmonic tones is pertinent in understanding what pitches will support a triad within a progression.  As well, establishing a clear harmonic rhythm from the outset is useful once the second voice enters.  In the following example, it is clear that the e minor tonality is established in the dux through a melody that outlines the progression of i-iv, wherein the harmonic rhythm is quarter-quarter.  As well, we have provided a strong rhythmic impulse through the alternation of eighths and paired sixteenths.


2. Next, the composer simply copies the dux material in the following bar an octave higher: this is the entrance of the comes.  


3. Now the composer can introduce new material in the dux which complements the comes part above.  We must be careful to employ consonances (primarily 6ths and 3rds) to generate triadic implications between the two voices. Equally important is the rhythmic interplay and continuity: as the sixteenth-note motive has been established in bar one, this impulse should be maintained to a fair degree in the subsequent development of the piece (with the possible exception of cadence regions).  As well, leaps in one voice can be balanced with more scale-based material in the other.  In all, when composing new material in the dux, it must maintain its own individual melodic contour.  To test this, play the new line alone and judge whether or not it still sounds like an independent melody.  Another way to test the balance between the melodic contours of the voices is locating all regions of similar, parallel, contrary, and oblique motion between the voices - none should dominate in the course of a phrase and none should be entirely excluded either.

As in step two, we now copy this accompanying material from the dux to the comes in the next bar - this pattern will be maintained until the arrival of the cadence.


4. Finally, at the cadence point, the composer can chose to make some alterations within the comes - the composer should support the tonal function of the end of the phrase rather than necessarily feel compelled to copy the dux verbatim.  Note that at all times the composer must be aware of the harmonic implications resulting from the interplay between the parts so that the progression proceeds logically.

mp3 download (flute and marimba arrangement)

B. Simple two-part canon at intervals other than the octave

1. Once the student has successfully composed a simple canon at the octave, other techniques can be explored.  One such technique involves composing a canon at an interval other than the octave.  In the following example, a canon at the fifth is illustrated using the same initial melody as the previous piece.  Remember, the procedure is the same in writing all canons of this nature.  Note that once the composer chooses to write a canon at any interval other than the octave (or unison), minor adjustments can be made in the pitch content of the comes in order to more appropriately agree with the overall tonality or a specific tonal region.  In bar three we notice that the D in the treble part has been raised to a D# - although it is imitating the G from bar two in the bass, it is chromatically altered here to imply the major dominant (V) with the dux below.  Similarly, the chromatically raised seventh and sixth scale degrees in the dux at the end of bar two are not raised in the following bar in the comes: doing so may imply a tonal shift towards b minor (which is entirely plausible, but not advisable in such a brief example as this - the student may wish to explore canonic modulation further in the study of the genre).

mp3 download (flute and marimba arrangement)


2. The following two examples are intended as additional illustrations of simple two part canons.  In the first, we have another canon at the octave with the dux in the bass part followed by the comes a bar later.  Note that these canons exemplify a significant High Baroque tendency to alternate and interlock the rhythmic activity between the constituent voice parts in order to sustain a state of near-perpetual motion.

mp3 download (clarinet and bass clarinet arrangement)


3. In the second, a canon at the sixth, we have reversed the order of the entrances, with the treble acting as the dux.  As can be observed in this brief piece, an interesting texture results from the crossing of the dux and the comes, a technique that the student is encouraged to explore.

mp3 download (harp and vibraphone arrangement)

Go on to the next set of canons.

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