Composing Canons

Copyright Justin Henry Rubin © 2005


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 three-part canon at the octave

1. In a three-part canon, the composer must contend with two comes voices.  So although the method of first creating the dux and then simply copying out the appropriate music in the following part, this must now be done twice.  This also gives the composer additional choices regarding the order of the entries and in which voices the comes will occur.  In this example, we have chosen to introduce the dux in the alto, followed by the comes 1 in the bass and the comes 2 in the soprano.


2. Similarly, when we compose a new contrapuntal line in the dux to complement the comes 1, it must be copied to the comes 1 to complement the comes 2.


3. Finally, we must compose a new dux line that both supports the overall harmonic implications and complements the two comes voices yet maintains a melodic integrity of its own.  Don't be surprised if this task seems to be the most difficult part of the composition.  It is wise to remember that a strong melody doesn't presuppose linear activity only - as we see in this example, the dux is comprised mostly of leaps in bar three, however it avoids sounding like an accompaniment and reveals a distinct and independent melodic profile of is own.

mp3 download (woodwind trio arrangement)


4. The following example is an additional illustration of a simple three-part canon.  Of special interest here was the compositional choice to change the direction of one the leaps while maintaining integrity in terms of pitch. Although this was done to accommodate the two hands of a keyboardist (for which this piece was initially conceived), it also serves to keep the ranges of the constituent voices closer so that the counterpoint can be heard more properly.  As well, a Coda is added to prolong the cadence region - note that the independence of the voices is compromised here to create for the listener a clear sign that the conclusion of the piece has arrived.

mp3 download (woodwind trio arrangement)

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

1. When dealing with multiple entrances at intervals other than the octave, the composer needs to choose an approach that will allow the counterpoint between the dux and the comes 1 also harmonize correctly between the comes 1 and comes 2.  In the first example this is accomplished by having each voice entering at the same interval away from its predecessor.


2. To create more momentum in this exercise, sixteenth-note motives were employed as a counterpoint against the eighth-note subject.

mp3 download (mixed ensemble arrangement)


3. In the following example, each step of the tonic triad (e minor in this case) is articulated as the entry point for each of the three voices. Note that in regards to the sixth and seventh scale degree, there is some freedom regarding what pitch will be used (normally dependent upon the supporting harmonic structure).


4. As well, in this coda, the voice structure is expanded to four and a Picardy third cadence is implemented.  The student should exert a sense of freedom in the coda sections of canons lest a strict canon be warranted.

mp3 download (brass quartet arrangement)

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