The joy of singing in canon: guidelines and resources for using canons in worship, page 1 of 2

One of the greatest musical joys of childhood is singing a round for the first time. What a discovery that "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" can be sung by different voices all beginning at different times!

This same joyful discovery has inspired composers for many centuries to tantalize their listeners both with playful rounds and with their more elaborate cousins, canons and fugues. A round is actually the simplest type of canon, where each voice begins on exactly the same pitch, one after the other, and sings or plays the melody in its entirety often repeating the melody as if in a (round) circle. Fugues and other types of canons are more complex. Not all canons are "circular," and the different voices may begin on different pitches or even at different speeds.

Each of these types of music, however, features a carefully crafted melody that is sung or played by several voices or instruments, beginning one after the other. Such compositions date as far back as the middle of the fourteenth century and reached an impressive zenith in the work of Bach.

Not surprisingly, fugues and canons have also been frequently used in church music. In the history of congregational singing, examples range from the most famous of all canons, TALLIS CANON, to a whole class of hymns called "fuging tunes."

The latter are the result of an energetic attempt at invigorating worship services in small English towns early in the eighteenth century The tune IYNGHAM (PsH 404) is one example. Though not true fugues, these tunes do involve overlapping texts and melodies that sound much like a complex round. Song leaders studied these hymns in singing schools to better help their congregations master them. Such fuging tunes were popular in colonial America and have persisted in American church music for over two hundred years, especially in southern harmony and shape-note hymnals. Many hymns included on the resource list on pp. 42-46, including "What Wondrous Love Is This" and "How Firm a Foundation," derive at least indirectly from this tradition.

Less complex canonic singing, in the form of rounds, has become increasingly popular in many congregations during the past few decades. Recently published hymnals, along with choral hymn-anthems and organ and piano accompaniments, have featured many canons and rounds for congregational singing. This resurgence has given church musicians a striking means for encouraging vigorous and imaginative congregational singing.

However, canonic singing is not without its pitfalls. For while it does add interest to congregational singing, it can also divert attention from the text of a given hymn to the mechanics of how the hymn is to be sung. Canonic singing can sometimes leave worshipers without the security that confident unison singing can provide. By addressing the following six areas of concern, church musicians can minimize these pitfalls and encourage thoughtful and meaningful use of canonic singing.


Canonic singing is most effective when used for carefully selected occasions. It should likely not be used for the first hymn of a service, when congregations need to sense their unity. Also, like a zesty spice, it should be used sparingly perhaps only a few times per season.

Further, canonic singing should always strive to bring life to a given text rather than to obscure it. Canons can, for example, poignantly portray or "word paint" a given text, such as "wandering streams" or "echoing songs." They can also emphasize a given text as it is reiterated by each voice of the canon, such as the line "betrayed, scourged, mocked" in the hymn "O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High," which gains intensity each time it is repeated by a successive voice in the canon. Finally, singing in canon can heighten the emotion of a given hymn, adding a spirited exuberance to "Rejoice in the Lord Always" or a sense of encumbrance to "When through the deep waters."

One example of an effective use of canon involves Brian Wren's text, "I Come with Joy to Meet My Lord." The opening two verses of the hymn, which refer to the individual's approach to the Lord's table (using first-person-singular pronouns— "I") give way to three verses that emphasize our unity at the table (using first-per-son-plural pronouns—"we"). The movement of this text is appropriately mirrored by singing the first two stanzas in canon and the final three stanzas in unison.

Each time canonic singing is used, the congregation should be informed, by printed or spoken announcement, of the reason for its use. Such thoughtfulness fosters imagination and delight in the singing of hymns. The resource list on pp. 42-46 suggests texts especially suited for canonic singing.


Church musicians should also be aware of the following three musical concerns necessary for successful canonic singing:

  • First and most importantly, canons must be sung with an easily discernible and unwavering tempo. A simple hymn introduction or a well-conducted tempo gesture should be sufficient for establishing the tempo.
  • Second, the church musician should be very clear about how much time will elapse between the entry of each voice of the canon (that is, between each group of people singing in canon). Most hymn canons require that the second voice begin at a certain number of beats after the first voice (usually, some small multiple of the basic pulse: 2 or 4 or 8 beats in 4/4 time or 3 beats in 3/4 time, etc.). Most hymnals indicate this distance, called the "time interval" of the canon, for some hymns (e.g., TALLIS CANON). Other time intervals can be determined by the church musician or taken from the list that follows. In any case, it is best to test the canon with a small group of singers to ensure that the time interval is correct.
  • Third, each voice of the canon must render the melody of the hymn in exactly the same way giving the same time value to all rests and longer notes that may occur in the middle of the hymn. For example, the 5-beat note in the very middle of 'Amazing Grace" (saved a wretch like me) must be sung by all voices exactly as it is written in the hymnal to allow for a successful canon on this tune.


In addition, these musical concerns should be clearly explained to the congregation. The people need to know (preferably through both written and spoken announcements) why canonic singing is being used, how the congregation will divide into sections, when each part is to begin, and exactly where the canon will end. A sample bulletin instruction might look like this:

Hymn 500: "How Firm a Foundation"

—stanzas 1-2: Sung in harmony
—stanza 3: Sung in canon to portray musically the "fiery trials" and "rivers sorrow"
—The pulpit side of tlie congregation will begin with the organ
—The lectern side of Hie congregation will begin one measure later with Hie cue of the choir director.
—Stanzas 4-5: Sung in unison

Ideally canonic singing should be rehearsed at times other than the worship service, so that during a worship service, people may concentrate on the text rather than on the mechanics of the canon. Perhaps church education meetings or fellowship meals can provide an opportunity for such a rehearsal. If not, a choir or small group of singers could rehearse the canon prior to its use in a worship service. Children's choirs or church education classes can also be especially helpful. The ease with which children learn rounds and canons often makes them the most qualified leaders of canonic singing!


After these decisions are made, able musical leadership is needed to bring the canon to life. For congregations accustomed to canonic singing, little direction maybe needed—perhaps only the leadership of a few strong singers in each group, an organ accompaniment that highlights the entry of each successive voice, or the sound of an accompanying instrument beginning with each group.

For other congregations, more obvious and clear direction may be necessary provided by a song leader or leaders (having one song leader sing along with each part may be helpful). Such leaders should give a clear, unadorned downbeat when each voice is to begin and provide additional cues as each voice begins a new phrase. As each of these beats is given, the leader should breathe quite actively as if she or he is going to sing the line. (This breath will likely be unconsciously imitated by the congregation, leaving them ready to begin confidently at the appropriate time.)


An additional concern involves the accompaniment of canonic singing. Canons are often most effective if sung without accompaniment, allowing each part or voice of the canon to be clearly heard. Yet, an instrumental accompaniment may be necessary to provide rhythmic stability or to contribute to the "text painting" of a given canon.

Using different types of instruments to play along with each voice of the canon can be effective. For example, clarinets could play along with the first voice, flutes with the second, and violins with the third. Organists can imitate this approach by playing each voice of the canon on a different manual of the organ, each registered with contrasting stops.

Another option involves an accompaniment played by piano or organ, highlighting the entries of each group of singers and providing a harmonic foundation for the hymn. For more complex canons, this requires using an accompaniment other than the printed harmonization of the hymn in the hymnal. Accompaniments especially designed for use with canonic singing can be found both in collections for organ and piano, and in accompaniments to choral hymn-anthems, as noted in the resource list on pp. 42-46.

An ambitious accompanist may wish to write such an accompaniment, using the following steps:

  • Begin by writing out the canon as it will sound, complete with the full statement of the melody in each voice.
  • Add a bass note on every strong beat that can serve as the foundation of the harmony already present in the canonic voices on that beat.
  • Complete by checking that the cadence (ending point) of the canon resembles the cadence of the hymn itself.

Although this is a very simplistic approach, it will certainly help the accompanist learn about the potential problems in a given hymn-canon, and may even generate a usable accompaniment!


Canonic singing can be used with three types of hymns. First are composed canons—hymns designed to be sung in canon and often printed in hymnals with appropriate instructions. These hymns can be accompanied by the harmonization of the hymn printed in the hymnal. Second are hymns that happen to have tunes with the potential to be sung in canon. Use of these hymns in canonic singing requires use of alternate accompaniments and can at times create dissonance as the voices of the canon weave together. The third type includes both chantlike and pentatonic hymns, which have melodies that can be used to harmonize themselves. Singing these hymns (or a portion of them) in canon can create a beautifully ethereal harmony. Instructions pertaining to each of these three types of hymns are given in the resource list on pp. 42-46.

The highest goal of the church musician is to foster vibrant, imaginative, and scriptural congregational singing. If careful attention is given to these areas of concern, canonic singing can be a fruitful means to this end.


Hymns for Singing in Canon for Congregation and Choir:
A Resource List

The following hymns and choruses were composed to be sung in canon. Their hymnal settings include instructions regarding when each voice will begin. Generally, these hymns and choruses can be sung in canon in their entirety. Accompanists can simply use the harmonization for the hymn printed in the hymnal.


[See accompaniment in Thirty More Accompaniments for Hymns in Canon by Donald Busarow.]

"Come, Let Us Eat"
[PSH 303]


"Clap Your Hands"
[PsH 166]


"Go Noiu in Peace"
[PsH 317]


"Heleluyan, Alleluia"
[PH 595]


"Joyful Christinas Day Is Here"
[PH 39]


"Praise and Thanksgiving"
[PsH 631]


"Magnify the Lord"
[PsH 622]


"Pother, I Adore You"
[PsH 284]


"As Moses Raised the Serpent Up"
[PsH 219]

"Though I May Speak"
[PH 335, TH 597]

"An Upper Room Did Our Lord Prepare"
[PH 94]


"Praise the Lord with the Sound of Trumpet"
[PsH 569]


"God Is Working His Purpose Out"
[PsH 594,RL4 25,TH 74]


"Rejoice in the Lord Always"
[PsH 228]


"Shalom, ChevarimJFarewell, Good Friends"
[PH 537]


"Gloria, Gloria"
[PH 576]


[See anthem settings by Kenneth Brown (Oxford University Press, 40.922) and Carl Mueller (G. Schirmer 11163); see accompaniment in All Praise to You Eternal God by Donald Busarow.]

"All Praise to You, My God, This Night"
[PsH 441, PH 542, RL 77 TH 401 ]

"Go with Us, Lord"
[PH 535]

"How Blest Are They Who Trust in Christ"
[RL 591]

"It Happened on That Fateful Night"
[RL 283]

"Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow"
[TH 732]


"I Will Sing unto the Lord"
[PsH 152]


[See accompaniment in All Praise to You Eternal God by Donald Busarow.]

"When Jesus Wept"
[PH 312]


The following hymns have melodies that will create successful canons. The time interval between voices for these canons is indicated in parentheses following each hymn-tune name. In almost all cases, two-voice canons are preferable to avoid obscuring the hymn texts. These hymn-canons should be sung without accompaniment or with an alternate accompaniment that accounts for the harmonic changes created by the use of canon. Notes mat accompany each listing indicate where such accompaniments are available, referring to choral hymn-anthems or to the resource list below.

Generally, only one or two stanzas of these hymns should be sung in canon. The following listing suggests the texts that may be most appropriately sung in canon. Some of these canons will create striking dissonances that may be appropriate to certain texts. Because of this and some other noted irregularities, many of these canons are most appropriate for choral use, perhaps as alternate choral settings of one verse of a congregational hymn. Canons most easily learned by the congregation are marked by an asterisk.

* ABERYSTWYTH (one measure)

[See accompaniment in Thirty More Accompaniment for Singing in Canon by Donald Eusarow (identical accompaniament is printed on the page just before PsH 18.)]

"God Be Merciful to Me"; "... thy salvation's joy impart..." (v. 3)
[RL 104]

"How I Love You, Lord, My God"; "... all creation reeled and rocked ..." (v. 2)
[PsH 18]

"Jesus, Lover of My Soul"; "... let the healing streams abound ..." (v. 3)
[PSH 575 PH 303, TH 508]

"O Jehovah, Hear My Words"; "... lest my feet be turned aside, make thy way before me plain..." (v. 3)
[TH 151]

"Watchmen, Tell Us of the Night"; "... Watchman, let your wanderings cease..." (v. 3)
[PH 20]

"Wild and Lone the Prophet's Voice"; "... So we dare to journey on led by faith through ways untrod..." (v 3)
(PH 409]

"Wind Who Makes All Winds That Blow"; "Fire that fuels all fires that burn ..." (v. 2)
[PH 131]

AURELIA (one measure)

"Hail to the Lord's Anointed"; "... come down like showers..." (v. 3)
[TH 311]

"O Christ, the Great Foundation"; "... attack the powers of sin..." (v. 3)
[PH 443]

"The Church's One Foundation"; "... by schisms rent asunder..." (v. 3); to unison for v.4
[PsH 502, PH 442, RL 394, TH 347]

ALLEIN GOTT IN DER HOH (two measures)

[See Schalk, set 1, p. 2, with melodic alteration.]

"All Glory Be to God on High"; use on Trinitarian stanza (v. 3)
[PsH 247 PH 133, RL 620, TH 102]

ARISE (one measure)

"Come, You Sinners, Poor and Needy"; "... if you tarry till you're better..." (v. 3)
[PsH 534]

AZMON (one measure) "O For a World'; "... equality achieved..." (v. 2)
[PH 386]

"O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing"; "... and leap you lame for joy!" (v. 6)
[PsH 501, PH 466, RL 363, TH 164]

BEACH SPRING (one measure)
[See accompaniment in All Praise to You eternal God by Donald Busarow.]

"God, Whose Giving Yjiows No Finding"; "... to spread the gospel word ..." (v. 3)
[PH 422]

"What A Friend We Have in Jesus"; 'Are we weak and heavy laden..." (v. 3)
[PsH 579]

BOURBON (two measures)

[See accompaniment in All Praise to You Eternal God by Donald Busarow.]

"Rebuke Me Not in Anger, Lord"; "My foes are mighty..." (v. 5)
[PsH 38]

"Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said"; "... let not its weight fill your weak spirit..." (v. 2)
[PH 393]

"Unless the Lord the House Shall Build (Psalm 127)"; "... and weary days of toil partake ..." (v. 2)
[PH 238]


[See Stern, p. 20, with melodic alteration.]

"Abide with Us, Our Savior"; "... to flee from error's night..." (v. 3)
[PsH 565]

"Come Sing a Song of Harvest"; "... to share our daily bread ..." (v. 4)
[PH 558]

"God Is My Strong Salvation" (Psalm 27); "... though hosts encamp around me..." (v. 2)
[PH 179.RL 95]

"Lord, Who Shall Sit Beside Me"; ",,, neath shadows of the morrow..." (v 2)
[RL 264]

"To Bless The Earth" (Psalm 65); "... seed is sown, then come the gentle showers ..." (v. 2)
[PH 200]

CRIMOND (one measure)

[will create dissonance.]

"Behold the Goodness of the Lord" (Psalm 241); "... like precious oil upon the head..." (v. 2)
[PH 241]

"The Lord, My Shepheid, Rules My Life"; "... guides my faltering feet..." (v. 2)
[PSH 23, PH 170, RL 89, TH 87]

DEO GRACIAS (one measure)

"A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing"; "... while endless ages run..." (v. 3)
[PH 141]

"O Love How Deep, How Broad, Hoio High"; "... betrayed, scourged, mocked..." (v. 3 or 4)
[PsH 364, PH 8a RL 342, TH 155]

"O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair"; "... and faithful hearts are raised on high..." (v. 3)
[PH 75.RL 256]

DETROIT (one measure)

[See anthem setting by James Laster,with canonic setting of the second verse with accompaniment (Augsburg 11-2548); see accompaniment in Thirty More Accompaniment for Singing in Canon by Donald Busarow.]

"Forgive Our Sins as We forgive"; "... that broods on wrongs ..."
[PH 347]

"O God, Do Not in Silence Stand"; "... as wind takes chaff from grain..." (v. 4)
[PsH 83]

DIX (one measure)

[See accompaniment in All Praise to You Eternal God by Donald Busarow.]

"As With Gladness Men of Old"; ".. .as with joyful steps they sped ..." (v. 2)
[PsH 358, PH 63, RL 228, TH 226]

"For the Beauty of the Earth"; "... friends on earth and friends above..." (v. 3)
[PsH 432, PH 473, RL 5, TH 116]

DOVE OF PEACE (one measure)

[See accompaniment in Thirty More Accompaniment for Singing in Canon by Donald Busarow.]

"Forgive Our Shis as We Forgive"; "... our lives will spread your peace..." (v. 4)
[TH 494]

"I Come With Joy"; "... with Christians far and near..." (v. 2; or vv. 1-2)
[PH 507]

EIN FESTE BURG (rhythmic)

[See setting in Stern, Schalk, se 1 , with melodic alteration; see accompaniment in Thirty More Accompaniment for Singing in Canon by Donald Busarow.]

"God Is Our Fortress and Our Rock/A Mighty Fortress is Our God"; "... while demon hordes surround us ..." (v. 3)
[PsH 468, PH 259]

ERHALT UNS, HERR (two measures)

[See setting in Schalk. sut 3 with, melodic alteration; see accompaniment in Thirty More Accompaniment for Singing in Canon by Donald Busarow.]

"Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word"; "... your power make known..." (v. 2)
[PsH 598, RL 615]

"O Christ the Healer"; "... our common life declares our ills..." (v. 4)
[PH 380]

"The Glory of These Forty Days"; "... the steeds and chariots of flame..." (v. 2)
[PH 87, RL 242]

"The Law of God Is Good and Wise"; "... its terror in their ear resounds ..." (v. 3)
[TH 150]

ES IST EIN ROS (six beats)

[See setting in Stern; see accompaniment in Thirty More Accompaniments for Singin in Canon by Donald Busarow.]

"Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming"; "... from tender stem hath sprung ..." (v. 1)
[PsH 351, PH 48, RL 204, TH 221]

"A Stable Lamp Is Lighted"; "... the palm shall strew its branches ..." (v. 2)
[RL 205]

EWING (one measure)

"Jerusalem, the Golden"; "... forever and forever ..." (v. 3)
[PH 618,RL 579,TH 539]


[See accompaniment in Thirty More Accompaniments for Singin in Canon hv Donald Busarow.]

GELOBT SEI GOTT (one measure)

[See setting in Stern.]

"Good Christians Alt Rejoice and Sing"; "... bring flowers of song ..." (v. 2)
[PHT 111,RL 326,TH 270]

"O Lord of Life, Where'er They Be"; "... above the chanted 'dust to dust' shall rise our song..." (v. 3)
[PH 530.RL 592]

"Christ Is the King! O Friends, Rejoice"; "... followed the king and round him drew..." (v. 3)
[RL 396]


[See accompaniment in Thirty More Accompaniments for Singin in Canon by Donald Busarow.]

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 30 © December 1993 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.