Although the prolific organist-composer Pachelbel wrote many brilliant liturgical works, as well as lucid and uncomplicated toccatas, preludes, ricercare, fantasias, fugues, and ciaconnas (chaconnes), and a work of sheer genius -- the Hexachordum Apollinis (1699) -- it is only one of his most admired works, the Canon in D Major (actually a passacaglia with 28 variations), that has been exclusively quoted in films, such as The Wedding Planner (2001), Stradivari (1989), the television miniseries Cosmos (1980), Bad Timing (1980), and the exceptional Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (Every Man for Himself and God Against All; aka The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser) (1974).
In director Robert Redford's Academy Award-winning Ordinary People (1980), the characters in an idyllic well-to-do small American community seem always to talk at each other rather than with each other, trying to maintain a superficial air of aloof chit-chat which bypasses real communication about personal feelings. The opening credits for the film occur in silence against a background that changes from flat black to a lightly clouded blue sky. The sound of a solo piano slowly fades in with the upper scale-wise notes of Pachelbel's famous Canon in D Major. The pianist adds the bass and middle voices as picture-perfect locations of the landscape are seen: a perfect autumnal lawn, a dock with a sea gull, a country lane covered with fallen golden leaves, a winding paved road (wordless choral voices enter in parallel thirds), the ideal white gazebo in a park, a church, and a music practice room with a choir of teenagers singing. They add words (not in the Pachelbel original score) to the Canon: "In the silence of our souls, O Lord, we contemplate Thy peace." In the context of the movie, the music serves both as a gentle, soul-soothing texture and as an expression of emotional repression. In a later backyard scene between Conrad Jared (Timothy Hutton) and his mother (Mary Tyler Moore), the Canon is heard lightly in the background as Conrad, who has tried to commit suicide, attempts to speak of his older brother Buck, who was killed in a boating accident. Later, Conrad has an epiphany in the psychoanalyst's office about "who it is who can't forgive who" as very thin echoes of the Canon are heard. In an especially effective sequence, Conrad finds out that his friend Karen, who was also a patient at the hospital for the mentally ill, has committed suicide. This sets off a sudden montage of images, accompanied by a version of the Canon with contemporary harmonies: the boating accident in a furious storm, Conrad's suicide scars as he throws water on his face from a bathroom sink, Conrad running to the office of the psychoanalyst (Judd Hirsch) where he realizes that he blames himself for his brother's death. As the movie concludes, after Conrad and his father speak in the backyard, the camera pulls away as the Canon, this time in its original orchestration for three string parts and continuo, underscores the final credits.