You want the meaning of life? Look no further than Pachelbel’s Canon. I’m not kidding.

I wake up to the sound of music, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. (Paul McCartney)

You know Pachelbel’s Canon in D, even if you don’t know it by name (which is actually “Canon and Gigue for Three Violins and Basso Continuo.”) The 17th-century composition burst on the modern scene as the opening music to the suuuuuuper-depressing 1980 movie “Ordinary People.” Unfortunately, the piece has become a bit of a cliché, appearing on every “Greatest Baroque Hits” and “Wedding Favorites” album for the past 30 years. And that’s too bad, because (as you may have heard) familiarity breeds contempt. (Rabbit Trail Alert: Leonard Cohen requested, in a Rolling Stone interview, a moratorium on new covers of “Hallelujah”: “I think it’s a good song,” he said, “but too many people sing it.”)

Johann Pachelbel was a German Baroque composer; that he wrote the Canon in D is the only thing I know about him. My favorite version is the Jean-Francois Paillard Chamber Orchestra playing what would be perfection if it weren’t hubris to declare something man-made to be perfect. It’s not too fast or slow, not too fussy, not over-instrumentalized, and has nice dynamic variations. Listen to it here, and then I’ll tell you why you should, again and again.

It is my completely humble and non-hyperbolic opinion that this (nearly) perfect piece of music is a window on the Eternal, for several reasons. A: There is the strong, persistent bass line throughout (about the rate of a heartbeat): a deep, steady and unwavering foundation. (Like God.) B: The high melody flows over the top, with its variations providing unbearable sweetness and piercing sadness and heavy-duty beauty. (Like Life.) And C: The chord structure is grounded in our DNA .

I am reminded of something Elton John said once in an interview with the late David Frost: “When in doubt, write a hymn.”

Rabbit Trail Alert 2: Music theorists (of which I am not one) could tell you that chord relationships-slash-progressions are a Thing. A chord doesn’t just have a letter name (D, G, Am, etc.), it has a relationship to the other chords in the key. As an obsessively passionate music listener and (competent) performer, I experience these profound chord-relationship vibrations in my gut, where God lives. If you are not a musician or a music-lover, you’ll have to trust me on this.

Ninety percent of my favorite songs feature the various combinations of the same chords that you hear in Pachelbel’s Canon, and the songs are by no means all similar. Further: many, many, many of the most-loved pieces of music–hymns and pop songs and sacred classic rock tunes–use the same chords. (Guitar players and other musicians, check it out: D major, A major, B minor, F# minor, G major, D major, G major, A major.)*

The essential chords may be in a different order from song to song, and of course tunes vary, just as the details of life vary from person to person. But the interplay between major and minor in these chords: this is life. And the underlying, repeating harmonic structure, the basso continuo, if you will, unites our heart beats with the heartbeat of the Great Music. This is God in the gut, where God lives.

Music…will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

*All these beloved anthems have their foundation in the same chord-relationships as the Canon in D: Dan Fogelberg’s Old Lang Syne (based on the 1812 Overture), Kansas’ Dust in the Wind, Elton’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, McCartney’s Let it Be. Also: the hymn On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry, the 1938 Heart and Soul everybody plays on every piano they see, and every bubblegum song from the 50’s.

**Oh, and by the way: “Hallelujah” fits here, too, of course, and not just in its chord structure and melody. The secret chord that pleased the Lord “goes like this:  the fourth, the fifth / The minor fall, the major lift…”

***And one more thing: If you’re sitting there saying “Yeah, but don’t all songs pretty much use the same chords, so what’s your point?” then you’ve missed my point. For your punishment, shut up and watch this.

2 thoughts on “You want the meaning of life? Look no further than Pachelbel’s Canon. I’m not kidding.

  1. Absolutely adore this. What you wrote. The music. How can you not – it truly touches our soul. And that you had a link to hear it. Pure joy.

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