Everywhere you look, you see that Pachelbel's Canon in D's chord progression is I-V-VI-III-IV-I-IV-V, but I've had some jazz (piano) schooling and I 'hear' that there's more to it, and it sounds like a tension-release thing.

The I feels like the tension that is released in the V, while V feels like a new tension which is released in the VI, which feels like the tension for the release in III, which feels like the tension which is released in the IV, which feels like the tension which is released in the I. The last part is then the typical I-IV-V where the V will be the tension for the next I, but when you think of it, the same happens there.

Am I correct in this feeling? Is there a more theoretical way to explain this? I don't think the I is the 4 for V, V is the 7/-1 for VI, ... ehm... I know how that sounds.

So any deeper theoretical insight on this?

  • The chords aren't always the same. The earliest surviving source (which is not contemporary with the composer) comprises only the bass line (unfigured, if I recall correctly) and the canon. The so-called IV chord is sometimes a ii(6/5) chord because the canon has E against the bass G. The chord on the F♯ is sometimes iii and sometimes V(6/♭5)/IV because of a C♮ in the canon. Does that change your analysis?
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 12:41

2 Answers 2


Instead of V I which is a closing gesture, the template would be I V an opening gesture.

That opening pattern is then harmonically sequenced, but the sequence is diatonic so the second chord of each pair isn't a dominant, it is not I V | vi V/vi | IV V/IV. Some like that could be describe as all I V. Because it's diatonic, I would say it's a sequence of descending fifth progressions.

When you play this progression with sixth chords as the second of each iteration it's call the falling thirds progression - I V6 vi iii6... - where the bass descends the scale double with thirds above. But in Pachelbel's Canon the chords are all root position and the scale doubled in thirds is above the bass. If you imagine the first chord of the all root position version were a 6/4 chord - I6/4 V vi6/4 iii... - then you have a sort of plagal cadence movement. That certainly isn't a V I dominant to tonic move, but it is a kind of closing gesture.

I can only imagine you are hearing a sort of generic closing gesture (plagal) but identifying it with the specific V I because that is a closing too.

  • I never heard of plagal cadence so I looked it up. I learned a lot of jazz theory, but certainly not all of it. You might be right... I need to listen to it some more to feel it better.
    – scippie
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 13:23
  • It's sometimes called an "Amen cadence" because it's added to the end of hymns to sing "Amen." You can also hear I IV I all the time in blues and rock. I personally don't like to call that a cadence, but many people do. Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 13:34
  • Right. I play blues (and thus I IV I) all the time... Thanks, I really need to give this some time: lots of info in one question...
    – scippie
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 13:45
  • "in Pachelbel's Canon the chords are all root position": sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. The harmony is not the same with each repetition of the bass line.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 3:10
  • @Phoog, OK. Consider my comments as about the opening bars, which is the progression the OP asked about, and not a complete analysis of the entire composition Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 18:05


As you say that you mean the harmony change between the 2nd and 3rd chord (and following):

You probably hear the dominant resolving to the relative chord of the tonic (V - vi = false cadence) like it were a authentic cadence.

You better consider the whole progression as a sequence I-V chords (and their relatives), except the final cadence.

  • I-V
  • V -vi = false cadence (vi = relative chord of I)
  • iv -iii = sequence of the previous progression

etc. etc.

you'll recognize that it's just the scale downwards if you choose each second chord as 1st inversion.

try also experimenting with the variant of major chords (as dominants) like vi - V/vi instead of iii and listen to the difference.

1 of 10 successful pop songs is built on one of these two progressions

  • I thought so (about the I-V) but it doesn't explain why I feel it as it is a V-I and doesn't really explain the flow which I have felt can always be brought back to a II-V-I of some sort. Experimenting is not the point, I can play these things just on feeling/hearing and I play the inversions like second nature so I already knew that they are actually a scale down. The point of my question is, what is the logic in this sequence and as I hear V-I's all the time, how is that? Or are it these false cadences I interpret as the V-I sound?
    – scippie
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 12:46
  • This is you who can only know when you hear a V-I function. Is it from the 1st to the 2nd chord or from the 2nd to the 3rd. This is the crucial point. Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 13:02
  • I must admit it is mostly the 2nd to the 3rd, but if I want to hear it, I can also hear it in the 1st to the 2nd, it also feels like a (maybe different) resolution of some sort. If I had to say which not could not end the song, it would be the 2nd and we need the 3rd to finish the song. I can't say that as much for the 1st to the 2nd, that's true.
    – scippie
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 13:18
  • Then you hear probably the dominant resolving to relative of the tonic (V - vi = false cadence) like it were a authentic cadence. Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 16:57
  • Yes, I think you're right.
    – scippie
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 8:38

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