Musical Cryptography: Hiding Messages in the Music!

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In previous posts, we’ve explored many ways that messages can be encrypted or hidden. We’ve talked about legendary encryption methods like Caesar ciphers and Vigenere ciphers, as well as simpler auditory ones like Morse code and tap codes. We’ve seen encryptions through blinking lights, woven through crossword grids, and even knitted into scarves.

But did you know that composers can encode messages in their music, and have done so for centuries?

No, we’re not talking about subliminal messaging or tales of backwards messages hidden in metal songs. We’re talking about musical cryptography, and it turns out there’s not just music between the notes, but messages among them as well.

haydn

Now, to be fair, there is no evidence that musical encryption has ever been used for spycraft. (Sorry, Outlander fans.) Most of the time, composers simply entertained themselves by hiding the letters of their name or the names of others into compositions just because they could.

This sort of musical wordplay appears in compositions by Ravel, Debussy, and Shostakovich among others. Johann Sebastian Bach did this often enough that the succession of notes B-A-C-H is now called a Bach motif.

According to Western Michigan University Music Professor David Loberg Code:

Sometimes a musical version of a name is a subtle reference in the piece of music… Often it is very prominent; it is the main theme of the piece and is heard over and over. In that case, whether or not you know exactly how the composer translated the name into musical pitches, it is obvious that it is meant to be heard… They were not secretive about it.

It even proved therapeutic for some composers.

Johannes Brahms incorporated the notes A-G-A-H-E in bars 162 to 168 of the first movement in his 1868 piece “String Sextet No. 2 in G major.” By doing so, he included the name of Agathe von Siebold, a young woman he had fallen in love with. He and Agathe made plans to wed, but he later broke off the engagement to focus on his musical career.

But, by encoding her name into one of his works, he both honored her and gave himself closure on a relationship that would never be.

notes

The musical nature of this encryption technique makes it effective — because casual listeners wouldn’t notice anything hidden — but it also means that longer messages are harder to include naturally.

You see, the “spelling” can affect the music. Obviously, the more complex the message, the more it interferes with the actual musical composition and flow of the piece. To the untrained ear, this wouldn’t necessarily jump out, but to a trained ear, or at least a person experienced in reading music, it would be fairly obvious that something was amiss.

Musical ciphers are attributed to various composers (like Haydn) and even to writers like Francis Bacon, but arguably the greatest success story in musical cryptography goes to French composer Olivier Messiaen.

messiaen

His cipher matched a different note to each of the 26 letters in the alphabet. Unlike many other composers, he managed to develop a cipher that closely mirrored his own compositional style. Because of the similarities between his cipher and his traditional musical works, there was less of a chance that listeners would detect anything was off.

He managed to translate the words of philosopher Thomas Aquinas into an organ piece called “Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité,” and cryptographers and musical historians alike praise him for doing so with complex rhythms and rich tones without spoiling his own works.

It’s clear that it takes both an artistic flair and a puzzler’s mind to make the most of musical cryptography. But then again, those two pursuits have crossed paths many times before, as evidenced by musically minded solvers like Dan Feyer, Patrick Blindauer, Jon Delfin, and friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough.

Perhaps the best of musical cryptography is yet to come.

[For more details on musical cryptography, check out this brilliant Atlas Obscura article by Christina Ayele Djossa.]


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Rock Your World With These Puzzly Mysteries!

Dighton_Rock-Davis_photograph

[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

We’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months discussing treasure hunts, but those are far from the only puzzly adventures that can send solvers out into nature. If you prefer your puzzling to have a codebreaking or cryptographic angle, we’ve got you covered there as well.

There are three mysterious stones in the United States alone that bear mysterious messages that have boggled the minds of puzzlers for decades upon decades.

In Massachusetts, an eponymous state park museum is the home of the Dighton Rock, a stone covered in petroglyphs that has baffled viewers for centuries. (The earliest writings about the rock date back to 1690!)

judaculla

[Images courtesy of Atlas Obscura. Look at the difference
between the two photos. Time is definitely running out…]

In the mountains of North Carolina, the petroglyphs of the Judaculla Rock defy decoding. Even dating the petroglyphs proves difficult, with estimates placing the origins of the rock’s message between 200 BC and 2000 BC. Sadly, efforts to solve the mystery of this former sacred site of the Cherokee people are fighting the forces of time itself, as erosion threatens the integrity of the glyphs.

And for solvers in the Southwest, New Mexico has the Decalogue Stone, which bears an inscription that, depending on the language used to decode it, could be a record of the Ten Commandments or a report from a lost explorer or warrior. (The possibility that it’s a hoax has been floated by more than one investigator as well.)

rock-inscription

[Image courtesy of The Connexion.]

But for today’s mystery, we turn toward the country of France, more specifically the village of Plougastel-Daoulas in Brittany, the home of a rock that has baffled solvers for at least a century.

Unlike the Dighton Rock, which was moved from the waterline of the Taunton River, the inscription on this rock spends most of its time submerged in the Atlantic Ocean, revealing itself only at low tide. The 20-line inscription utilizes letters from the French alphabet, but the actual language used has eluded solvers. Suggestions include Basque and Old Breton. (There are also two dates on the rock: 1786 and 1787.)

Those dates lead some articles to estimate that the inscription’s origins date back as far as 250 years, but I think that’s unlikely. The rock was only discovered four or five years ago, so that’s a huge window wherein those dates could’ve been carved into the rock.

So, what makes this rock so interesting, given the examples we’ve shared above? Well, this rock inspired the village of Plougastel-Daoulas to host a contest last year to decipher it, offering a prize of 2000 Euros to anyone who could translate it.

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[Image courtesy of The Daily Mail.]

In February of this year, the prize was awarded to two solvers who pitched different solutions to the inscription:

The first hypothesis came from Noël René Toudic, professor of English, who has a degree in Celtic Studies. He said that the inscription was likely about a soldier, Serge Le Bris, who may have died at sea during a storm. Another soldier, Grégoire Haloteau, was then asked to engrave the rock in memory of the dead man.

The second hypothesis came from reporter and writer Roger Faligot, and comic book author and illustrator Alain Robert. They suggested that the inscription was by someone expressing their anger against those who caused the death of a friend.

Despite those pitches — and all of the headlines declaring the mystery solved — this case is not officially closed yet. Perhaps other towns will follow the Plougastel-Daoulas model to encourage both visitors and solvers.

It certainly couldn’t hurt.


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Kickstarter Roundup!

Oh yes, it’s that time again.

For years now, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have been hotbeds of innovative puzzle and game design, and I’m always happy to spread the word about worthy projects that I think will delight and intrigue my fellow PuzzleNationers.

So let’s take a look at some projects that are currently seeking funding and see if any pique your interest! (This time around, we’ve got twice as many recommendations as usual! So much puzzly potential!)


atoz crossword

The first is a project by Fireball Crosswords and Fireball Newsflash Crosswords constructor Peter Gordon, entitled A-to-Z Crosswords Volume 2: More Petite Pangram Puzzles.

The project is easy to explain, but mindblowing to think about. Every single day for 24 WEEKS, you get a 9×11 crossword puzzle that contains all 26 letters. The puzzles range from easy to medium in difficulty, arrive by email, and are constructed by Gordon and professional puzzler Frank Longo.

This is a very cool project that deserves your support — they’re a little more than a third of the way there, with 9 days to go — and you should definitely check it out!

puzzle postcard

The next project is Puzzle Postcards: Season Two by the Enigma Emporium.

Last year, Wish You Were Here was part of our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, and it’s fantastic to see that the Enigma Emporium is Kickstarting another puzzle postcard mystery this year.

Essentially, an entire mystery is concealed within a handful of postcards, challenging you to mine them for every scrap of information as you uncover a series of coded messages. It’s spycraft in an envelope, very clever stuff.

Already funded with 12 days to go — and carrying a solid track record of previous successful Kickstarter projects behind them — I cannot recommend this one highly enough. I loved Wish You Were Here, as well as the follow-up series.

fuzzies

For a change of pace, our next project is The Fuzzies.

Basically, this is a Jenga-style dexterity game, but made out of little fuzzy balls instead of pieces of wood. And instead of choosing which piece you remove and place on top, that is determined by a deck of cards instead.

I don’t know how it works — actually staying upright in the first place — but apparently it does.

This family-friendly game has already tripled its funding goal with 29 days to go, so it might be right up your alley.

enigmas

The next project we’re sharing today is the ENIGMAS deck of puzzle playing cards.

David Kwong — constructor, magician, and all-around puzzly fellow — has masterminded a puzzle mystery and a series of hidden messages and ciphers, all contained within a deck of cards.

ENIGMAS marries some of the ideas from his Enigmatist show — specifically the historical aspects — with an ingenious puzzle hunt to create an intriguing solving situation. Plus, once you’ve cracked all the puzzly elements, you’ve still got a beautiful deck of cards to enjoy.

This project has blasted well past its funding goal, and with 9 days to go, they’ve added a special limited-run deck of red cards (to compliment the standard blue deck) that will only be offered to Kickstarter backers and never sold in stores. With a pedigree like David’s, you can’t go wrong!

sherlock

Our next project is bigger and no less ambitious. It’s Sherlock’s Mysteries: An Interactive Puzzle Adventure (not to be confused with another Sherlock-based Kickstarter running right now).

Combining board game and escape room elements, this project contains 10 mysteries (described as chapters) that combine into one interwoven narrative where you try to save the life of Sherlock Holmes!

By combining murder mystery-style solving with puzzles like ciphers and deduction puzzles, this project definitely tries to encapsulate the experience of being the Great Detective from the comfort of your own home.

About halfway to its goal with 21 days left, this project isn’t a lock (given the price tag of $135 to experience the entire story), but it’s definitely worth a look. (I’m especially intrigued by the fact that certain levels offer “refill kits” that allow the experience to be played more than once!)

shivers

For something just as puzzly but more immersive from a roleplaying point of view, there’s The Shivers.

In this game, someone has gone missing in the house owned by the Shivers family, and you play one of the family members trying to solve the mystery and defeat dangerous foes at work in various sinister and creepy scenarios.

This gameplay is bolstered by pop-up 3-D models of the various rooms of the house, bringing the setting and different stories to life right before your eyes.

This is a very clever combination of puzzle hunt, roleplaying game, and pop-up book that I’ve never really seen before, and like some of these other projects, it has blown past its funding goal with strong support from interested gamers and puzzlers.

legacy

Following the escape room/puzzle mystery at home template, Legacy: Quest for a Family Treasure is our next project to discuss.

You receive a black box in the mail, and inside, you discover in your estranged father’s will that there is a family treasure hidden somewhere in Europe. And you’ll have to unravel secrets of the past in order to secure your future.

This immersive mystery involves audio and video clues, physical evidence to pore over, and even incorporates Internet searching into the gameplay. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the level of depth and attention to detail in this one, and clearly I’m not the only one, as the project has already met and surpassed its funding goal with 10 days to go.

The familial element adds a neat twist to the mystery-at-home genre, and I suspect this project will do very well.

labyrinth

The last project we’ll be sharing today is The Labyrinth: An Immersive Multi-Platform Puzzle Challenge.

There’s a lot of stuff included in this one: puzzle boxes, ciphers, maps, tools. They’re sending you a CRATE full of material here. The goal is to move through the various chambers of a labyrinth, solving puzzles as you go.

With 55 puzzles included — and an expected solve time of 8-10 hours — this is a breathtaking amount of puzzly paraphernalia. So there’s cost to consider here. The full puzzle costs $195 (there’s even a more expensive deluxe edition), so although that easily makes it the priciest project we’re discussing today, but also one of the most visually impressive.

And yet, with 14 days to go, they’ve already passed their funding goal nine times over. Check it out and see what you think of the expansive puzzle selection offered here.


Have any of these games or projects hooked you? Tell us which ones you’re supporting in the comments section below! And if there are any campaigns you’re supporting that we missed, let us know!

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Did a Typo Help Defeat the Enigma Code and Win World War II?

During World War II, the Enigma code was one of the most daunting weapons in the German arsenal. Cracking the code would be the key to intercepting crucial information and outmaneuvering the Nazi war machine. In fact, unraveling the secrets of Enigma was so important that both England and the United States poured massive resources into building their own codebreaking operations, Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall, respectively.

Loads of fascinating information about the day-to-day operations of Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall have emerged over the last decade or so, and one of the most peculiar anecdotes to make the rounds recently claims that a typo is partially responsible for cracking Enigma.

As the story goes, a man named Geoffrey Tandy was recruited by the UK Ministry of Defense to work at Bletchley Park as part of their growing team of cryptography experts. Scholars and professions from all over the country were being enlisted in the war effort, and cryptographers (or cryptogramists) were at the top of the list.

But Tandy wasn’t a cryptogramist. He was a cryptogamist, aka an expert on mosses, algae, and lichen.

Despite the error, Tandy remained at Bletchley Park, and a year or two after his mistaken hiring, his expertise proved invaluable when a German U-boat was sunk and cryptographic documents relating to Enigma were recovered. You see, his experience preserving water-damaged materials and specimens helped salvage the water-logged documents so they could be used to crack the German code.

And thus, a typo helped end World War II.

cryptogam

[Image courtesy of Did You Know Facts.]

It’s a great story. And like many great stories, there’s a hint of truth to it. There’s also a lot of exaggeration to make it a tale for the ages.

It was no fluke that Tandy was recruited for Bletchley Park. In addition to his cryptogamist credentials, he was assistant keeper of botany at the National History Museum of London. His work included managing the voluminous library, working with fragile documents and samples, and a facility with multiple languages.

Those linguistic skills and organizational talents made him a perfect choice for Bletchley Park, since they were recruiting all sorts of experts. Remember that the field of cryptography was in its early stages. You couldn’t just go looking for cryptographers. You had to build them from scratch, as well as the folks who would be support staff for those codebreakers-in-training.

That would be Tandy’s role. He was part of a division known as NS VI, responsible for archiving foreign documents and helping the cryptographers deal with any technical jargon they might encounter, particularly in foreign languages.

tandy

[Image courtesy of the National Museum of Australia.]

So where did the typo idea come from?

Well, it’s entirely possible it came from Tandy. The cryptogram/cryptogam mistake is just the sort of joke that would appeal to linguists and other professorial types, so either another member of the Bletchley Park team or Tandy himself could have downplayed his credentials in tongue-in-cheek fashion with the story of an erroneous typo.

As for the other part of the story — where he saved the documents — there is some debate as to whether that happened. As the story goes, he used his knowledge of preserving documents to save a waterlogged set of cryptographic codes from a sunken U-boat.

[Image courtesy of Military Factory.]

The anecdote as reported usually cites the year 1941, whereas many books about Bletchley Park’s codebreaking efforts reference a U-boat from 1942, U-559, where documents AND a working Enigma machine were recovered.

I believe he DID participate in rescuing/preserving documents from a U-boat because it’s not some great heroic deed, it’s literally part of why he was hired in the first place. The crux of the anecdote is on the wordplay and the faux-fortuitousness of his employment, not on the actual events.

So, in the end, no, a typo didn’t help end World War II. But Geoffrey Tandy certainly did.


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The Beale Ciphers: A Puzzly Treasure Hidden Since the 1800’s?

There’s nothing quite like a treasure hunt to spark the imagination. From The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to the adventures of Indiana Jones, from tales as far back as Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” to stories as recent as an episode of NCIS: New Orleans last year, a treasure hunt can turn a crime story or an adventure tale into an irresistible narrative for the ages.

Thankfully, there are a few treasure hunts lurking out there in the real world, offering clever solvers the chance to live out their own adventure. In the past, we’ve explored the mystery of Forrest Fenn’s Rocky Mountain treasure, we’ve chronicled efforts to locate all of Byron Preiss’s The Secret treasures, and we’ve suggested tactics for cracking Jason Rohrer’s A Game for Someone hunt.

But as intriguing as those hunts are, none of them have spanned more than a century of searching. (Without resulting in unfortunate demises, that is. We’re looking at you, Oak Island.)

No, that singular honor belongs to a treasure hunt known as the Beale Ciphers.

beale_papers

As the story goes, a man named Thomas J. Beale buried a treasure trove of gold and silver somewhere in Bedford County, Virginia, in the early 1800s. Beale then encrypted the location of the treasure, the contents of the treasure, and the names of those he wished to have the treasure. Beale handed off those encryptions to an innkeeper, then vanished, never to be seen again. (His promise of later providing the key for the ciphers was never fulfilled.)

The innkeeper failed to crack the ciphers, then held onto them for decades before passing them along to an unnamed friend before his death. The unnamed friend spent twenty more years trying to unravel the encryptions (managing to solve the second of the three encrypted messages). Eventually, the friend published the encryptions and the story of Beale’s treasure in a pamphlet he began selling in 1885.

So, how do the ciphers work?

It’s simple, really. Take a book, pick a given page, and number all of the words on the page. (Or just start at the beginning of the book.)

If you’re using A Tale of Two Cities, for instance:

1 It
2 was
3 the
4 best
5 of
6 times,
7 it
8 was
9 the
10 worst
11 of
12 times…

So, using the first letters of each word (and the corresponding number), the word BOW could be encrypted 4 11 8 or 4 11 2 or 4 11 10.

This grants people in the know two advantages. The code is incredibly difficult to break on its own, because unlike a cryptogram (or any other message encrypted with a Caesar cipher or a one-to-one relationship between coded letters), each appearance of a given letter could be a different number, not the same one over and over.

Plus, if you know the key (the book and page number), decoding it requires no puzzly skill at all.

It’s diabolical and effective, as proven by Beale’s trio of ciphers, since only one has been cracked (because the solver stumbled upon the Declaration of Independence as the key).

[The second Beale cipher.]

The decrypted text from the second cipher:

I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford’s, in an excavation or vault, six feet below the surface of the ground, the following articles, belonging jointly to the parties whose names are given in number three, herewith:

The first deposit consisted of ten hundred and fourteen pounds of gold, and thirty-eight hundred and twelve pounds of silver, deposited Nov. eighteen nineteen. The second was made Dec. eighteen twenty-one, and consisted of nineteen hundred and seven pounds of gold, and twelve hundred and eighty-eight of silver; also jewels, obtained in St. Louis in exchange to save transportation, and valued at thirteen thousand dollars.

The above is securely packed in iron pots, with iron covers. The vault is roughly lined with stone, and the vessels rest on solid stone, and are covered with others. Paper number one describes the exact locality of the vault, so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.

bealemap

Of course, there are some problems there, even with the cipher that treasure hunters consider solved. You see, there are some irregularities with the solution. Not only are there four misspellings in the translation, but a variation on the original Declaration of Independence must be used or the cipher doesn’t decode correctly.

Now, mistakes happen. (As we learned with the story of Brian Patrick Regan.) But if there are mistakes in the two unsolved ciphers as well, that only makes the chances of finding the proper key even slimmer, because a mistake in the early numbers of the code might convince someone that they’ve got the wrong key, even if they have the right one!

Do you find that challenge daunting, fellow puzzlers? It’s understandable if you do. The other two ciphers have resisted the best efforts of even master cryptographers and cryptanalysts.

Given that the Declaration of Independence was the key for the second cipher, many aspiring treasure hunters have tried using other famous historical documents as possible keys for the other ciphers, including the Magna Carta, the Constitution, the Monroe Doctrine, and more, as well as the plays of Shakespeare and the Lord’s Prayer.

bealemontvale

There are also plenty of reasons to doubt that this treasure exists at all. (The same question marks hang over some of the other treasure hunts we’ve mentioned, like Forrest Fenn’s.)

There are questions regarding the language in the pamphlet, where the gold was supposedly found, why Beale would bother encrypting the names of the people he wanted to inherit the treasure, and even whether Beale himself ever existed in the first place. (Famous skeptic and investigator of the supernatural Joe Nickell believes the pamphlet is a fraud.)

But does that mean the ciphers are? Not necessarily.

An analysis in 1970 by Dr. Carl Hammer of Sperry-UNIVAC indicated that the number patterns are not random. He believed that further attempts at cracking the ciphers would be worthwhile.

Heck, even our old codebreaking friends Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband William tried to unravel the Beale ciphers, but without success. She called the ciphers “a diabolical ingenuity designed to lure the unwary reader.”

And, of course, not every hunter has come away empty-handed. One team of treasure hunters stumbled upon a cache of Civil War artifacts while hunting for Beale’s trove.

So what do you think, PuzzleNationers? Is the Beale treasure real? Will it ever be found? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Take Puzzles to the Next Level with a Puzzly Experience!

Hey there, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and naturally, our thoughts turn toward the upcoming holiday season. (Particularly with all the Black Friday advertising!)

Sure, we could use this opportunity to talk about our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, which went live Tuesday and features all sorts of marvelous games, puzzles, and products.

We could also talk about our fantastic lineup of apps, from Daily POP Crosswords and the Penny Dell Crosswords App to Penny Dell Sudoku and Classic Word Search. Of course we could do that.

But instead, today we’d like to talk about puzzly experiences.

If you’re looking for an engaging and interactive puzzly adventure to share with the puzzlers in your life, there are all sorts of options available to you.

There are yearly puzzle hunts like BAPHL, the Boston Area Puzzle Hunt League. There are crossword tournaments like Lollapuzzoola and the Indie 500 (plus local ones all over the country!). Murder mystery dinners, scavenger hunts… not only are there places that host all of these, but there are even kits available online that let you host your own!

More Escape Rooms pop up every year — from Breakin Escape Rooms in London to our friends at Escape 101 in Connecticut — and one near you is just a Google search away.

But there’s one particular puzzly experience I want to highlight as an option for you this holiday season.

Magician and crossword constructor David Kwong is launching a one-of-a-kind puzzle experience, The Enigmatist, at the High Line Hotel in New York City during the month of January.

Advertised as “an immersive evening of puzzles, cryptology and illusions,” the show is based on the experiences of William and Elizebeth Friedman’s work at Riverbank, a peculiar hotbed for codebreaking in the early days of the twentieth century.

David is a master at melding the world of puzzles with illusions, magic, and sleight of hand, deftly employing both humor and skill to wow audiences, and I expect he has outdone himself with this show.

The Enigmatist sounds like a unique and amazing puzzly experience, and if you’re interested, you can get tickets here.

For full details, visit the Enigmatist website. I think the show will be something truly special.


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