The Music of Life: Pachelbel and Mozart

In 1993, an article dedicated to the so-called “Mozart effect” appeared in the journal Nature. American physicists Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky published an experimental study in which Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K 448, was believed to have evident benefits for human spatial skills. The theory made headlines, though often oversimplified, and there were many conflicting opinions. Rauscher later emphasized that the effect they observed was “limited to tasks involving mental imagery and temporal ordering.”

Subsequent studies established and clarified that music couldn’t increase intelligence, but it somehow provided a tangible, albeit temporary, sense of benefit. Each of us is well aware of what music can evoke within us, even if we are still far from being able to fully explain it scientifically.

Mozart wrote extensively in the key of D Major, so much so that it could be considered his happiest and most prolific tonality. Reflecting on this musical “detail,” it’s no coincidence that the famous Canon by Joseph Pachelbel (1653-1706) was also written in D Major.

The Canon and Gigue in D Major for three violins and basso continuo is now known to the general public, both cultured and popular. Joseph, born in Nuremberg, composed it in 1680 according to the most widespread research.

For other scholars, it was composed in 1694, on the occasion of the wedding of Johann Christoph Bach, a student of Pachelbel and brother of the more well-known Johann Sebastian. It remains a fact that the Canon and Gigue in D Major is now among the most requested soundtracks during wedding ceremonies.

However, its true fortune is quite recent; it began around 1967. Nirvana in fact used it in the song “Tiny Goddess,” which was later covered and translated into Italian the following year by Françoise Hardy in the version “La bilancia dell’amore” (“The Balance of Love”). 1968 was the year when the mass audience truly became acquainted with the canon, recorded by the famous chamber orchestra of Jean Francois Paillard with extraordinary success.

Still in ’68, it was Aphrodite’s Child who used the melody in “Rain of Tears,” a pop-inspired version by the Greek composer Vangelis. It soon became a musical crossover, a “material” borrowed from a different genre, which in the ’60s gave rise to the more specific Baroque Pop, starting from classical experiments by Burt Bacharat and groups like the Bee Gees, Procol Harum, and the Beatles.

Since 1968, it’s impossible to enumerate the songs and films that have used or been inspired by Pachelbel’s Canon. On the website, they had fun counting a total of 139 pop songs that have looked to this composition. From Bob Marley to U2, all the way to Tiziano Ferro.

There are countless cinematic uses as well; one of the cinematic frames that best utilized the canon is in the 2014 film “Clouds of Sils Maria” with Juliette Binoche. The dance of the hypnotic snake-like clouds in the Engadine valley, first captured in 1924 by pioneering photographer Arnold Fanck in the documentary “Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja,” emerges cradled by Pachelbel’s grand composition (

Without delving into the specifics of frequency, pitch, intensity, and timbre, sound is the product of a vibration that moves through the air; our ear deciphers them through a very sophisticated yet simple process. The vibrations pass through us and continue on their way. Sounds with certain characteristics, like the D Major tonality, probably “resonate better” with the physics of life. The buffaloes at the Vannulo estate in Cilento know this well: entrepreneur Antonio Palmieri lets them roam freely on 200 hectares, and besides giving each of them a name (because buffaloes recognize the sound associated with their name—a notion known since the Renaissance), he makes them listen two hours of Mozart in the morning. It seems to relax them and has significant benefits on the quality of the milk. Who knows if Pachelbel’s Canon doesn’t hide the simplest secret of life: on the earth where there is air, which is the physical medium of propagation, everything originated from a small sound, perhaps in D Major.