Ladies And Gentlemen, I give you the Canon
Are you ever at a loss for ideas? Do you ever say, “Wow, this A Section is so good! Damn it! How will I ever write a B Section that elicits an equally great feeling?” What do you do? There may be a cure. It was invented a long, long time ago. Maybe in modern day Germany, or France…Italy...Austria… It’s all lines on a map, but it was somewhere around there. For all of you frustrated songwriters staring into the cherries of your cigarettes, I submit, THE CANON.
Yes! The Canon! What is a canon? I’ll tell you. The Oxford English dictionary defines canon as “a rule, principle, or law, especially in the Christian Church.” You may be saying, “Hey! Slow down Dawg! Keep your Christianity out of my Rock and Roll!” To this, I say “Whoooaa! That’s a broad strokes definition and has multiple applications. And don’t call me Dawg. I’m not your dog and this is not 2002.”
Now that we know what year it is not, let’s get a bit more specific. A more suitable musical definition is “a piece in which the same melody is begun in different parts successively, so that the imitations overlap.” Ahhh! Now we’re cracking. Let’s examine why this is helps a songwriter with no place to go.
The above is what is referred to as a simple canon at the octave. In measures 1 and 2, I wrote a melody in the treble clef. That’s easy enough. In measures 3 and 4, I move that same melody to the bass clef. Now comes the magic (or magik if you’re fah-reel). I write a new melody in the treble clef that works well with the melody in the bass clef. For me this is powerful. I’m using the music to write the music. The two melody lines create new harmonic implications. These might be your chords to your B Section. They might be, but don’t limit yourself. You will then take the melody in the treble clef of measures 3 and 4 and move it to the bass clef of measures 5 and 6. And you can continue the process on and on. You are in the same key but you are rapidly creating options for where the song can go. I chose to wrap up 8 bars of this with a perfect authentic cadence.
To make the power of this even clearer, let me put it this way. If you have a cool vocal melody over 4 chords, take that vocal melody and use it for the first measures of your canon. Great! Now take that melody and move it to the bass clef of the following measures. Now write a new melody over that. The resulting relationship, or counterpoint, of the two melodies can set you up with some good ideas for chords. You can keep any or all. You are also generating melodies that can be assigned to other instruments. There are many types of canons and even more types of ways to manipulate motives. These baroque and classical techniques can be quite useful for generating great parts for Rock and Roll Neanderthals like me, and maybe you. Let’s explore another style of canon.
This is an inverted canon at the 7th. What does that mean? So… You write your melody (the leader voice) just like before. This time I used one measure, not two. Now you flip it upside-down (cuz you crazy) and I chose to start at a G (the 7th scale degree) instead of the F (the tonic). This comes with a whole other set of harmonic relationships. Like before, these could be your chords. Or one of these melodies could be your unique guitar line or vocal lines.
To sum it up, I have found that the canon form is helpful in the fast generation of unique and interesting parts. Ironically, this canonic rule can lend itself to quite a bit of artistic freedom. I have experienced a real shift in my ability to write outside-the-box melodies and cool chord progressions with off-beat timings. And the great part is that it all shares a similar DNA. I think we all know how it feels to be really enthused about a great verse section, but feel hopelessly inadequate in your chorus or bridge. I hope this helps you the way it helped me.