The Beloved Sounds of Pachelbel’s Canon in D
Posted by Neal on June 25, 2006
We got a set of windchimes last week that maybe one of these days I’ll get around to hanging somewhere outside. When I opened up the box, there was a little card explaining that these windchimes would play Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Now that was an amazing breakthrough in windchime technology. Apparently, the makers had somehow figured out how to make the chimes sound in a particular order so as to play the famous Canon in D. This I had to hear. How had they done it? Was there a motor in there or something?
I pulled out the ordinary-looking windchimes and swung them gently. They did not play the tune I knew so well from weddings, the Cosmos soundtrack, and the GE Soft White light bulb commercial from the 1980s. Instead, they played the same kind of patternless jingling I’d have expected from earlier-generation windchimes.
“That doesn’t sound like Canon in D,” I said. “Let me see that card again.” It read:
Thank you for purchasing this fine musically-tuned Woodstock Chime. It plays the beloved sounds of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
Oh. Silly me. The card did not say the windchimes would play Canon in D; it said they would play “the beloved sounds of” Canon in D — not necessarily in the order in which they occur in that piece. I had failed to notice the warning signs of someone violating Grice’s Maxim of Relevance and flouting the Maxim of Quantity.
The Maxim of Relevance states that a cooperative speaker should not offer information that is irrelevant. Woodstock Chimes violated this maxim by even mentioning Canon in D in the card. Many songs are in the key of D, so if the windchimes can play the notes of Canon in D, there’s a good chance they can play the notes of a lot of other songs, too. So why single out Canon in D for special mention? (To be fair, there are only six chimes in this set of windchimes, so it can play at most six notes in the D-major scale. Let’s suppose that it plays the six notes that show up most often in Canon in D. Even then, there are probably plenty of other songs in the key of D that use primarily those notes.) Assuming the windchime manufacturer is respecting Relevance, then singling out Canon in D is relevant information. Relevant how? One concludes that the chimes play this tune: That would be a relevant piece of information for people who might buy the chimes for this reason, and really, what other reason would there be to mention this one piece from among all the tunes in the key of D? But since this conclusion is completely wrong, and Woodstock Chimes knew it would be wrong, they have violated Relevance.
They did not violate the Maxim of Quantity, however. The Maxim of Quantity states that a cooperative speaker should be as specific as possible while still respecting Relevance. Claiming that these windchimes play the notes in Canon in D is less specific than saying it plays those notes in the proper order with the proper timing. If they could have truthfully made such a claim, they would and should have, by saying simply, “This chime plays Pachelbel’s Canon in D.” Since they opted instead for the circumlocution plays the beloved sounds of J. P.’s Canon in D, I should have taken note. “Hmm,” I should have said to myself, “it seems they are violating Quantity by making this less specific statement than what I’d expect. Maybe they’re sending the message that the more specific statement would not be truthful — in other words, that these chimes don’t actually play Canon in D.” That’s what I should have said to myself. They respect Quantity while seeming to violate it in order to indirectly send a message; in the field of pragmatics this is referred to as flouting a maxim.
Of course, Woodstock Windchimes was hoping I would not pick up on the flouting of Quantity, instead drawing the incorrect Relevance-based conclusion they wanted me to draw. The flouting of Quantity is there just to cover their butts when a customer wants to accuse them of false advertising. (For more linguistic analysis on advertising, see the relevant menu category at The Language Guy‘s blog.)
But you know, I think they actually did lie. Not only do these windchimes not play the notes of Canon in D in order; they can’t even play them out of order. Since these are just windchimes we’re talking about, I’m willing to grant that they’ll only play the first few measures, not the whole piece. The chord progression is I-V-VI-III-IV-I-IV-V, which in the key of D comes out as D-A-Bm-F#m-G-D-G-A. Playing those chords on the piano until they sounded right, I arrived at the melody notes for the first eight bars: F#, E, D, C#, B, A, B, C#. Matching each chime by sound to a key on our recently tuned piano, I observed that the chimes played F#, D, B, A, and G — no E or C#, so they could not play the melody even accidentally. What was even more perplexing is that the manufacturers could have tuned the six chimes to get these six notes, instead of wasting one of them on a G, and another one on a spare D an octave higher.
Maybe instead the chimes are supposed to play the notes that will make up the D-A-Bm-F#m-G-D-G-A chord progression. Well, that won’t work either. To convey whether a chord is major or minor, you need to have the note a third interval up from the root. For A major, that’s a C#, which they don’t have.
In fact, the only way I can see for them to weasel out of this one is to say that the beloved sounds of J. P.’s Canon in D refers only to F#, D, B, A, and G, because nobody really likes the E and C# very much.