Compose a Canon or Round [Easy]
Learn how to compose a canon or round – it’s easy! Watch the video and read the tutorial below.
What is a Canon?
A canon (or round) is a composition which starts with a single unaccompanied tune. This same tune is then begun by a second player/singer after a short wait of a few bars or so. A third or fourth (or more!) parts can also be added, singing exactly the same tune. As the parts blend together, harmony is created.
The opening melody in a canon is called a “leader” or (or “dux” from the Latin “to lead”). The other parts use the same melody. In some canons. the leader is copied exactly by each part. In others, it might be altered a little bit to help the harmony. Canons where the later parts join at a different interval (a fifth lower, for example) developed into an intricate kind of piece called a fugue. Canons are relatively simple pieces and they are easy to compose!
Some famous canons are the children’s songs “Three Blind Mice” and “Frere Jacques”. Here are the first few bars of Frere Jacques, scored for flute, oboe and French horn. Notice how each part has exactly the same tune, but as the parts blend, they harmonise perfectly.
However, Frere Jacques is a not the most interesting canon. It’s based on the same chord, the tonic, throughout
In this lesson, we’ll show you how to make a really nice canon with intricate harmonies!
How to Write a Canon
1. Choose some chords
Canons are based on chords which span a fixed number of bars. Frere Jacques is based on two bars – you can see that each part joins in exactly two bars after the previous one. It’s up to you how many bars of chords you want to work with, but 2 or 4 is a good number to start with (until you are a canon-pro!).
For this example, we will plan our canon on two bars of harmony (like Brother John).
The next step is to decide how often you want to change the chord. Again, this is up to you. (“Frere Jacques” doesn’t actually change chord at all!) You could opt to change the chord once per bar, twice per bar, three or four times, or a mixture. Have fun experimenting.
We have chosen four chords for bar 1, and four other chords for bar 2.
The actual chords in the plan are completely up to you as well. To play it safe, you can stick to chords I, IV and V. To add a bit more interest, you can add II and VI or even III. If you are a bit of a harmony guru, you could plan in some crunchy Neapolitan 6ths or added 9ths. If you are an anarchist, you could plan an atonal canon. (Let me know if you do, I’d love to hear it!) If you have no idea how to pick any chords at all, take a look at the page on chord progressions.
Write down the chords you’ve picked for your two bars; something like this (we’re in F major):
Bar 1: Dm (VI) – Bb (IV) – F (I) – C (V)
Bar 2: F (I) – Gm (II) – C (V) – F (I)
This is your chord plan.
2. Create Bars 1 & 2 of the Dux
We will simply write ONE note for each chord. Work out which notes are in the chord, and pick one. Don’t overthink it; it really doesn’t matter too much at this stage which one you pick.
In our plan, D minor was the first chord. So our first note can be D, F or A.
Continue the same way for each chord. For a pleasanter melody, pick notes which are close to the previous one you picked (i.e. the melody moves by seconds or thirds). Don’t worry about bigger intervals or repeating a note though – just fill up the two bars!
3. Create the Next Section of the Dux
We are going to make the “dormez-vous?” section of the canon, which is also two bars long.
This time, we are again going to pick a note from our planned chords, but NOT the same one we picked in step 1. E.g. if we picked D from the first planned chord of D minor, this time we need to pick one of the other notes from D minor – F or A. Again, we will just pick ONE note per chord.
For each chord, pick a note which you didn’t pick in step 2. This will ensure that bars 3-4 of your dux are different to bars 1-2.
4. Create More Sections
For bars 5-6, do the same thing. Try to pick the note from the chord which you hadn’t used. So if you picked D as your first note, then F as the first note in bar 3, this time you would be left with A for the first note in bar 5.
For a symmetrical canon, 8 bars is a good length. For bars 7-8 of your dux, you will have to choose notes which you’ve already picked, since most chords only contain three unique notes but we have four phrases. This doesn’t matter at all – by the time this part of the canon is being played, the harmony will be thick and luscious anyway. Pick whichever notes take your fancy from your planned chords.
5. Add Melodic Decoration
“Melodic decoration” simply means “notes in the melody which are not contained in the harmony”. All the notes we’ve put in so far were picked from chords, so they are harmony notes. To make a more interesing tune, we add in notes which weren’t in the chords. There’s a method to this, so that the tune still sounds awesome.
Find places in your Dux where the melody moves by a third. These places are easy to spot because the tune note moves from a line to the next line, or a space to the next space.
The G-B is an interval of a third; so is the A-C.
Then, slot a note in between. You will need to halve the value of the first note (e.g. crotchet becomes quaver, or quarter note becomes eighth note).
6. Copy and Paste
Your Dux is now finished. Because we only have four bars at the moment, first, copy and paste the whole thing on the same stave so that you have eight bars. Then all you need to do is copy it into the other parts in the right place. If your chord plan was two bars, then you need to wait for part 1 to complete two bars, then copy the dux in at bar 3. For a third part, wait two more full bars, and paste again in bar 5. You can add as many parts as you like, but it’s probably more sane to stick to 3 or 4.
Because each two-bar section is based on the same chord plan, the parts will blend together harmoniously. But because you’ve actually got an 8-bar melody, it won’t sound the same all the way through. This is especially true if you choose different instruments to play each part – the different timbres (instrument sounds) make the melody sound different each time it enters.