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.
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.
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.
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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