The idea that one would improvise with Pachelbel Canon is not too revolutionary; the whole piece is a series of variations that would have been improvised to begin with, as that’s what musicians in the Baroque era did.
So this is a fun way to become more comfortable with that oft-requested piece AND learn to improvise at the same time. It’s especially useful to free up your right hand. Pachelbel’s Canon makes us of the same chord progression over and over:
I V vi iii IV I IV V
In the original key of D, that’s D A Bm F#m G D G A. Play just the root of each chord in your left hand. Notice that you go down a fourth, then up a step, down a fourth again, until you get to the final two chords. (Don’t have levers? The chords in C are: C G Am Dm F C F G).
Now for the fun part! With your right hand, you will be outlining the chord tones to create patterns. It will be easier to play and sound a lot better if you use inversions of the chords to keep them closer together and “under your fingers”. Here’s the progression with slash notation to show you which note is on the bottom of the inverted chords (say, D over A, and play A on the bottom, with D and F# above it, otherwise known as a 2nd inversion D chord):
(Click images for larger versions)
Practice finding the chords in your right hand while playing those roots in your left hand. (Don’t rely on reading them; practice finding the shapes). When you know where they are and can find them reliably, you’re ready to play with them. Remember that the left hand simply plays the chord root on beat one; the right hand will fill the whole measure with notes based on the chord.
Here are some patterns to try:
*Play with rolled chords; two half notes per measure
*Start with the top note; play down and back up in a pleasing, regular rhythm
*Play the chord tones plus one extra “color” note in each measure (a note between two chord tones. If you don’t like how a note sounds, simply move on)
*Play the chord downwards in a triplet pattern (one triplet per beat)
*Create a meandering melody that wanders around the chords
Now its your turn. Anything can work. Regular rhythmic patterns will sound more classical, but how about some syncopation for a Latin canon? What rhythm would you use to make a rock-inspired canon? A dreamy New Age canon? Keep playing and experimenting, and you will stumble into new patterns for your right hand. Have fun and make it yours!
Pachelbel tango? Pachelbel bluegrass? Check out this video by “Pagagnini” for laughs and inspiration for improvising with the canon. The cellist is your left hand . . .
This is the original cool Pachelbel video, the Pachelbel Rant. Rob Paravonian demonstrates just how often this chord progression shows up in music, and you will laugh through the whole thing. Go ahead, watch it again . . .
This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.