Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

17 Responses to “The Beloved Sounds of Pachelbel’s Canon in D

  1. Just discovered your blog. Great postings…thank you for thinking out loud.

    This posting reminded me of a verse from the Old Testament.

    The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone. Ecclesiastes 6:11

    Thank you taking the time to extend the conversation.

  2. bearing said

    I really, really liked the punchline at the end. So did my husband, who just sat patiently through the whole thing as I read it aloud. Great stuff.

  3. dgm said

    wow, neal! you have “defense lawyer” written all over you (and i mean that in the nicest possible way).

  4. AJD said

    What you have is the roots of all the chords in the recurring chord progression. That seems like the right choice to me, since that series of roots is both the most distinctive feature of the Canon and the obbligato bassline that continues throughout the whole piece.

  5. pchippy said

    Yes, AJD is right. As a cellist, I remember that sequence of notes well. Before either of the violins begins the melody line, the cellist(s) and basses (if any) start sawing away at D-A-B-F#-G-D-G-A, and they get to keep up that repeating pattern or ostinato for the duration of the piece. (It gets a little dull after a while.) Also, note that the second D is an octave lower than the first, but that the second G and the second A are repetitions of the first G and A, thus necessitating only six chimes to play the ostinato part.

    With a little rough math I figure that, in any series of eight chimes sounded randomly, the odds of getting the Pachelbel canon’s ostinato are between one in a million and one in two million. If you live in a windy area, you probably wind up hearing that sequence once every few months on average!

  6. hanabaloo said

    this gives me no information this is use less

  7. Chuck said

    Hello..Folks Am pretty new to **art of piano playing**.
    I wonder if it’s possible,to find a web site that actually displays the first couple of bars for the canon music notes..i.e c, d, e or a

    i’ve found a few sheet music, but they are in music notation-which im learning but can be quite confusing.
    If i can get a hold of the actual music notes, i would be able to practise faster..or make learning fun..

    thanks in advance.

  8. if you could please email me the song of canon in d major
    at its such a sucky email but there

  9. srry that was spelled wrongbut thats my email

  10. Jonah said

    The chord progression listed above shows the second chord in the progression as IV, which it’s not. It is supposed to be – I V vi iii IV I IV V

  11. Neal said

    Jonah: Thanks for catching that. It’s been corrected.

  12. gerard said

    hi! can someone send me a piano chord of “Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major” please because i want to play this song for my Only One Love, Because she have a lukemia and all i want is she become happy… iam verry sad but i don’t lose some hope from her disease… please send me the notes of this song please…… i want to play this song in no time.. and sorry for my english because i am not american i am a filipino.. please reply me.. please.. and Thanks for those who wants to share there talent/,,, ,,,

  13. Looloo said

    I really like the Musical sheet canon but too bad you don’t have it here oh well…

  14. Prince Vallium said

    Fantistic-Thank You.

  15. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    If you want to hear the beloved sounds of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, then Rob Paravonian has got you covered.

  16. Patika said

    Thank you for your diatribe. I found these chimes through a websearch and was very tempted to purchase them as Pachelbel’s Canon in D is my favorite piece to play on both the piano and guitar. Luckily I found a site where I could listen to the chimes. So I listened a few times, and yet I could not hear what I was expecting to hear. I turned up the volume and asked my co-workers and they just heard plain old chimes. (not that I’m websurfing at work, clearly I was ‘on break’) I can only assume that all the employees at Woodstock Chimes CAN hear the canon. And thus the Woodstock emperor is indeed wearing new clothes.

  17. john said

    the chimes play the root of the chord progression – or the bass line… One can safely assume the chimes have no control over the order that they sing, therefore at the time of purchase you should have realized that it will just be random notes in D major, or specifically the roots of Pachelbel’s chord progression I V vi III IV I IV V (D A B F# G D G A) which do in fact match the notes on the chime (D A B F# G).

    Maybe take a class in theory next time… I myself have engineering homework to catch up on.

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