Playful Music and Puzzle Canons with Daisy Abbott

[Guest post from PLA member Daisy Abbott]

I’m aware of lots of talented musicians in the Playful Learning community, so I thought I’d do a quick aside from playful learning into playful music!

I recently learned about puzzle canons (via the wonderful Glasgow Madrigirls ( Specifically, the chessboard canon, a cryptic musical composition laid out on a grid. The singers need to figure out (using a combination of the lyrics and notes provided) where exactly their line goes! This intriguing concept is attributed to Ghiselin Danckerts, a Flemish composer from the 16th century. Though his music wasn’t widely published, his chessboard canon for the hymn “Ave maris stella” (“Hail, star of the sea”) sparked the imagination of other musicians. 

Here is Ludwig Senfl’s canon ‘Salve sancta parens’ (1520). Have a go at it!

Puzzles canons represent a playful and intellectual approach to composition. There are lots more types of puzzle canon and (if you dare!) many to solve at

For our Spring 2024 repertoire in Madrigirls I wrote (invented?) a labyrinth canon. It’s not difficult to ‘solve’, more a bit of fun really. Musically and lyrically, it works in both directions (everyone starting in the same place on the score) or, as I prefer, with the altos coming in at the bottom and the sopranos coming in at the top. You can sing it as a canon or start at the same time. This piece has quite a meditative, plainchant-like feel to it. I like to pretend this is by design but in truth it’s more to do with the logistical complexities of this sort of composition. Feel free to have a go at it!

The thing I found hardest was making the lyrics work in both directions.

Version 1: “Singing, we enter, one by one, voice by voice. We navigate. Together come our voices. We find the winding way through, pathfinding, lighting lanterns, searching, singing.”

Version 2; “Singing, searching, lighting lanterns, pathfinding through the winding way. We find our voices. Come together. We navigate voice by voice, one by one. We enter, singing.”

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