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.

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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.

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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.

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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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New Puzzle Sets for PDCW App and Daily POP Crosswords!

Hello puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!

We’re excited to announce new puzzle sets for both of our marvelous crossword puzzle apps! Yes, whether you’re a fan of our Penny Dell Crosswords App or our Daily POP Crosswords app, we’ve got something special for you!

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First off, for Daily POP Crosswords users, we have our latest featured set, That’s Entertainment!

Consisting of ten puzzles, all with themes focusing on television, film, and the entertainment industry in general, this puzzle set offers the smart, pop culture-savvy cluing you’ve come to expect from PuzzleNation, collected for your convenience and enjoyment!

Of course, that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to featured sets! In our puzzle library, you can find all sorts of topics, ranging from the 1960s and superheroes to summer reading and more!

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And for the Penny Dell Crosswords App, we have a new deluxe puzzle set available! If you’re looking for something lyrical and melodic, we have our new Music Deluxe bundle!

With special themed puzzles and loads of great crosswords at all difficulty levels for you to enjoy, these bundles are a fresh and fun way to relax and keep your puzzly wits sharp!

Both sets are available now for in-app purchase, so don’t miss out on these terrific new puzzle bundles!

Happy puzzling, everybody!


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Puns: What Sweet Music They Make

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There’s nothing like a bit of shameless punnery to improve my mood. Sure, a deftly crafted and immaculately executed pun can be a delight, but there’s something about a labored, ridiculous pun that just brings me joy.

You know, like the one about going into surgery and being given two options: an old anesthetic or a paddle to the face.

It was an ether/oar situation.

BAM. Silly punnery afoot.

You can find it in many forms, like crossword clues and Tom Swifties. There’s even the O. Henry Pun-Off competition each year where punsmiths from all over the world gather to show off their linguistic limberness.

And what a treat it is when the puns are packaged in a song.

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I recently stumbled across a wonderful example on YouTube when I found the channel belonging to singer, musician, and actress Malinda Kathleen Reese. Her channel, simply called MALINDA, has over 250,000 subscribers, and features not only her lovely voice and impressive musical chops, but a wide variety of creative endeavors involving music.

She’s crafted songs about subjects both joyful and sad, often incorporating submissions and suggestions from her viewers. One is made up entirely of old Facebook statuses she posted. Another features compliments she’s received online, while a third is composed from hate comments.

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Whether she’s singing what she sees, composing a symphony with a deck of cards, testing the reliability of the website RhymeZone by using it to write a rap, or performing with an orchestra of singers and musicians assembled for a virtual performance, Malinda is as ambitious as she is innovative.

And, as you might expect from this blog post’s introduction, she has a song made up entirely of shameless puns.

Enjoy, won’t you?

What a treat!

You can check out Malinda’s works on her YouTube page and stay up-to-date with her current projects on her Twitter account, and if you’re feeling so inclined, support her on Patreon so she can continue making marvelous musical melodies like the one above.

Thanks for brightening our days, Malinda!


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Janie’s Got a Pun: The ReHASHtag Game

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You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or @midnight’s Hashtag Wars segment on Comedy Central.

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzlyBands, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles with musicians, singers, bands, and more!

Examples include: The Beat-the-Clock-les, Brick by Brick Astley, or Kris
Krossword.

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


U2 at a Time

Sheryl Crows Soundgarden

Sheryl Letter Crow

Men at Framework

Framebjork

Patchwork Swayze

Alphabet Bowling for Soup

Mixmaster Flash and the Furious Five / Grandmaster Flash and the Fancy Fives

Fancy Jackson Fives

The Cracker Jackson 5 / Cracker-Joe-Jackson

Fill-In Collins

Wilson Fill-Ins

Fill-INXS

The Four Topsy-Turvy Fill-In / ZZ Topsy-Turvy Fill-In

ZZ Top to Bottom

Tina Turnabout

TurnabOutkast

Danzig-Zag

Zigzag Marley

RadioHeads & Tails

The Lemon Heads & Tails

The Lemon Headings

Bobby V-Words

Scramb-Led Zeppelin Words

Diagram-Les Paul

Mixed Nikki Sixxes

Throw-Burt-Bach-arachs

Neil Sudoku

Siouxsie Sioux-doku and the Banshees

Hüsker Sudokü

Kenkenny Rogers

Paul Simon Says / Carly Simon Says

Crypto Graham Nash

CryptoGram Parsons

Sly & the Crypto-Families Stone

Sly and the Family Ties

The Partridge Family Ties

Ringo Starr Words / Ringo Starrspell

ABBA-cus

Bay City Rollers of the Dice

Derek and the Missing Dominoes

Grand Funk Railroad Ties

Earth, Windowboxes & Fire

Tower of Letter Power

Flower Power Station

Rufus WainRight of Way

Point the Wayland Jennings

Steve Cropperfect Fit

Susan TedeschiWord

Green Daisy

Sum Words 41

KC and the Sum Words Band

Mathboxes Twenty

Hearts and Flowers

Stepping Rolling Stones

Alice in Chain Words

Sir Mix-and-Match-A-Lot

Busta Pairs in Rhymes

Dexy’s Midnight Punners

New Kidz On The Letterboxes / New Kids on the Blockbuilders

Bull’s-Eilish Spiral

Simple Minds Tickler / Simple Minds Boggler

Right Angles Said Fred

Quote Questlove

Mariah Carry-Overs

AccorDionne Warwick Words

Ella Four-Fitzgerald

The Blackout! Crowes / The Blackout! Eyed Peas / Blackout Sabbath!

Roberta Flack-out!

LudaCrisscross / Kiss-Kross

Chaka Khancellations

Fats Domino Theory

Neil Diamond Mine / Neil Diamond Rings

Alphabet Soupertramp

Cros-Styx

The Lucky Clovers

Miles Around the Block Davis

End of The Skyliners

The Who’s Calling / The Guess Who

Charlie Watts’ My Name

Duke Skellington Key

DartLorde

“My Sudoku” by The Knack

Dell Amitri / Dell La Soul

Tom Penny Publications and the Heartbreakers

Daily Iggy POP Crossword


One puzzler even paired puzzly bands with puzzly songs and albums!

MegaSudokuDeth (“Peace Sells . . . But Who’s Calling?”)

Sonny & Share-A-Letter (“The Beat the Clock Goes On,” “I Got You Know the Odds Babe”)

FleetWord Math (“LandSlide-O-Gram,” “Go Your Own Word Ways”)

Guns N’ Rows Garden (“Sweet Child O’ Diamond Mine,” “Live and Let Diagramless”)

Bingo Crosby (“White Crisscross”)

The Rolling SteppingStones (“Rhyme Time Is on My Side,” “Paint It Blackout!,” “Ruby Cluesday”)


One intrepid puzzler went so far as to rewrite the lyrics to Bungle in the Jungle by Jethro Tull! So please enjoy Bungle In The Jumble…

My friend says she’s bored, yeah she’s lonely and older
I thought, “She needs puzzles.”, and that’s what I told her

With fun illustrations they’re hers for the taking
She can finish several while her cookies are baking

Now she is hooked; she is terribly spellbound
She quickly deciphers and shares whatever she’s found

Bungle in the jumble, well for her that’s a breeze
Don’t give her easy puzzles, ‘cause she’ll say they’re a tease


Our readership also got it on the fun!

Laura Campbell offered up SyllacroSTYX and Bananaramagram Magic Squares. (Judy Schumacker on Twitter also pitched Bananaramagram Magic Squares!)

Sandra Halbrook posted Christopher Cross Sums, and Roni Gunn shared Slay-er-cros-tic.

Terrific puns all around!


Have you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzly Bands entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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Farewell, Keith.

The puzzle world is a relatively small one, and sadly, it grew smaller last week, as friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough passed away.

On more than a few occasions, I’ve asked my fellow constructors and cruciverbalists for their help on blog posts, whether the topic was advice for solving crosswords, constructing puzzles, or writing dynamic clues. Keith was often the first person I would turn to for help.

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A long-time member of the Penny Dell Puzzles family, Keith specialized in crossword/variety magazines, blending a knack for charming and clever cluing with eclectic themes for the many variety puzzles he crafted and edited. His varied interests ensured that he never ran out of ideas for interesting themes or intriguing twists on worn-out crossword tropes.

Keith was equally at home in a classroom, in an orchestra, and in a crossword tournament, a true lover of both the arts and the sciences. His affection for music was well-known — many bands, including The Optics and The Gene Gnomes, can attest to his skill playing the tuba — and yet, he could unravel a deduction problem or a fiendish math puzzle as easily as he could read the notes on sheet music.

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Having worked together for more than a decade, I struggle to recall all of the topics we covered in conversation together. We talked Nobel Prize nominees and quantum physics one week, then Looney Tunes cartoons and silent comedy film shorts the next.

We would dissect the minutiae of Breaking Bad and Twin Peaks, share stories about our dogs (I prefer labs and retrievers, Keith loved his poodles), or recount entire George Carlin routines from memory. When he found out I was a wrestling fan, he laughed and told me about the time he met Mighty Igor outside a sandwich shop. (He grew up in North Carolina, a hotbed for wrestling in decades past.)

And, of course, we talked about puzzles. Keith was a pro at whipping up new clues for crosswords, and they were often as immensely clever as they were completely inappropriate for a family-friendly audience. Several of the funniest clues that I’ve featured in previous blog posts were his — and he was always striving to find new ways to clue tiresome words or to push the boundaries of humdrum constructing and “appropriate entries”. (Just last week, he had to re-edit a puzzle of one-word film titles because he tried to sneak “Caligula” past the censors. *laughs*)

One time, while trying to fix a submitted crossword, he turned to me and asked with a smile, “I know this is a long shot, but is there a non-offensive way to clue ‘witch hunt’?” (The best we could come up with was “pressing engagement.” And no, that would never ever make the cut.)

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I’ll miss his humor, his wit, and his friendship. And I know that I’m far from the only one who feels that way.

Kind words have been pouring in for days now, as people share photos and memories of Keith. The Winston-Salem Symphony dedicated a concert in his memory a few nights ago. (I pilfered several of the photos in this post from those I’ve seen shared.)

It was my privilege to work with Keith for over a decade, and I’ll miss him very much. I’ll miss the fascinating, weird, unexpected bits of trivia he’d throw my way. I’ll miss the music references he would gamely try to explain to me. I’ll miss the way he was always a half-step faster than me on brain teasers and word puzzles. I’ll miss the sly ways he pushed the creative envelope. I’ll miss him a different way every day.

Farewell, my friend. Farewell, Keith.


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A 5-Letter Word Related to Crossword Skills? Try “Music”

A few years ago, I wrote a post discussing the curious intersection of music and puzzles. It centered around several studies about the effects both listening to music and performing music can have on individuals taking tests or solving puzzles.

There were two intriguing takeaways from these studies:

  • Both adults and children perform better on tests, puzzles, and problem-solving exercises when music is involved (ex.: if they listen to music before or during the test).
  • Children who are given music lessons often achieve greater heights in other subjects, including math and sports.

But it didn’t occur to me until much later that the connection between music and crosswords in particular has been in evidence for quite some time.

There are two 7-time champions in the history of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament: Dan Feyer and Jon Delfin. Think about that. Fourteen out of forty-one ACPT tournaments have been won by one of these men. Practically one out of every three!

And both of them have a musical background as pianists and music directors.

But they’re not the only ones. Constructor Patrick Blindauer, puzzler and actress Whitney Avalon, Lollapuzzoola co-founder Brian Cimmet, and even our own Director of Digital Games Fred Galpern are all musicians.

So what’s the connection between music and crossword puzzles?

No one can say for sure, but there are theories.

In the crossword documentary Wordplay (and quoted from the article linked below), former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent mentioned why he felt that musicians and mathematicians were good fits as crossword solvers:

Their ability to assimilate a lot of coded information instantly. In other words, a piano player like John Delfin, the greatest crossword player of our time, he sits down and he sees three staffs of music and he can instantly play it. He’s taken all those notes and absorbs what they mean, instantaneously. If you have that kind of mind, and you add it to it a wide range of information, and you can spell, you’d be a really great crossword puzzler.

Crossword constructor and psychology professor Arthur Schulman — known for a series of seminars entitled “The Mind of the Puzzler” at the University of Virginia — would agree with that statement. He posited a correlation between word puzzles, math, and music, in that they all involve a quick and intuitive understanding of symbols. It’s about “finding meaning in structure.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Dan Feyer built on this idea, stating that music, math, and puzzles all have pattern recognition in common, quickly recognizing combinations of blanks and spaces and mentally filling in possible answer words, even before reading the clues.

Now, clearly, musical skill and proficiency isn’t required to be a good crossword solver — I’d classify myself as a pretty good solver and I have an almost magical lack of musical talent — but it’s intriguing to ponder how puzzling could easily be wrapped up with a musical bow.

Do you know any other puzzlers with a musical background, or are you a lyrical solver yourself? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!