A musical cryptogram is a series of music notes generated from text.
When someone refers to "the words of a song" we usually think of lyrics. But what if there was a second, more mysterious type of musical word? A word that was never spoken aloud and yet, could be heard by those with ears to hear...
AudioCipher published a MIDI generator plugin in 2020 that lets users transform words into melodies and chord progressions. This VST is designed for use with a DAW and helps music producers overcome creative block.
In August 2022, Scottish composer Lomond Campbell revealed footage of a new modular synthesizer he called the Unsung Machine. The device correlates English alphabet letters to individual MIDI pitches. Alongside the eight-wheel encoding device is a recording wheel for storing words and play wheel that acts as three-way cross fader.
To understand the cultural roots of these modern musical devices, we'll need to travel back in time, to their early origins in "musical cryptograms".
Origins of the Musical Cryptogram
In ancient Rome, powerful people like Caesar required a way to pass messages between each other in secret. One of the most popular methods was used by the emperor so often that it was named after him!
The Julius Caesar cryptogram is based on an encryption method called substitution. This means that one letter is subbed out for another. So it could be that A=C, B=D, C=E, and so forth. When you're done swapping in the new music note letters, the final phrase looks like gibberish and nobody can read it. Unless they have the key, of course.
Use of Musical Cryptograms by 17th Century Spies
Musical codes changed the game for spies in a small but meaningful way, as early as the 17th century. To exchange messages securely, they would use the type of cryptograms discussed above. But messages like "ASFHJ QOIW QFKL" looked suspicious whenever someone was caught with them. Your life could be on the line, even if the interceptor never deciphers the coded message.
One famous document survived this historical period and outlines the basic principles of a musical code. John Wilkin's book Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger makes claim to a technique used among the initiated to send messages that remained undetected.
By connecting each alphabet letter with a single pitch, it became easier to write music shorthand. You could quickly write a message using music notes. But if anyone saw the sheet music and thought to investigate it, you might have a problem. Big leaps in the intervals between each note looked suspicious.
A second variation can be found in a German system published in 1804. In this cipher, each alphabet letter corresponds to a short melodic phrase. This solves the problem of melodies that look unnatural, due to jumping all over the place. But if the message was too long, the redundancy of melodies could become obvious at a glance and give away the pattern.
J.S. Bach was the first major composer to take up this kind of system for creative purposes. He didn't need to rely on a substitution cipher though. Bach took advantage of the fact that German musical scales had eight notes labeled A-H and used those note to spell his name in a song. Thus "B-A-C-H" became a four note melody for his compositions, most notably in the Art of the Fugue.
In this way, the short melodic cell could act like a watermark to identify Bach's original material. That's not how it played out in reality, because only a small selection of his music features the signature. But it's interesting to think about why he might have decided to use the technique in the first place.
So... is that all there is to the history of musical ciphers? No way!
When we broaden our view to include cultural artifacts from the past fifty years, there are indications that these audio codes have remained at the heart of our favorite storytelling.
Musical Cryptograms in Popular Culture
There are references to musical cryptography throughout several movies and video games. The reason we don't remember seeing them is actually simple.
Storytellers don't explicitly talk about the magical power of music in their character dialogue. Instead, they use them to drive the story.
Writers have presented countless variations of the magical musical instrument. In Batman Returns, Bruce Wayne plays a short melody on his office piano. It acts like a key and opens a secret door in the bookshelf, leading to the bat cave.
Melodies serve as plot devices that add an air of mystery. They're a classic symbol of magical power. Music has emotional power of its own, but when combined with a practical use like unlocking a door, it takes on a heightened role.
This principle is at play any time we punch in an ATM pin and hear music tones.
Musical Cryptograms on Piano (Batman, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Goonies & More)
Pianos are one of the classic ways a musical cryptogram has been woven into the plot of movies and games. In this video we've highlighted several examples of classic scenes where pianos were used to achieve an extra-musical purpose.
In most cases, a musical cipher is played on a piano unlocks a hatch and reveals an item. Sometimes it opens a door or passageway. And in some rare cases, like the Korean film The Secret, a special melody can be used to time travel.
Games like Resident Evil and Silent hill used melodies as part of a riddle. The popular indie game Undertale uses the same piano puzzle feature.
The Warp Whistle in Prometheus, Mario, Zelda, Adventure Time and more
Warp whistles are a classic instrument of choice for magic melodies in pop culture. In the Mario series they allow your character to teleport between worlds. Zelda expanded on this idea in the iconic game Ocarina of Time, where players use their controller to perform a melody and enact magical effects. You can hear the same motif in music from both games.
From changing the time of day to conjuring his trusted steed, Zelda's melodic codes were used like magic spells. But Mario and Zelda are only the tip of the iceberg. Mozart famously wrote an opera called The Magic Flute dedicated to the freemasons, that likely inspired the theme in the games and movies that followed.
Musical Cryptograms and Aliens in Futurama, Close Encounters, Star Trek
These encoded melodies are so powerful that script writers have even used them as a symbol for alien communication. We see the most shining example of this in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The most important scene, included in the video above, depicts a group of humans trying to communicate with a UFO that has just landed. They successfully make contact through music and lights, but it's more than they bargained for!
How to Create Your Own Musical Cryptograms
Musical cryptograms are a creative aid that any musician can draw inspiration from. There are a few options out there so we'll save you some time and share our favorite options.
If you want to get your feet wet and try generating a classical composition right within your browser, Clarallel is a great free option. The app was offline for a few months but re-emerged in February 2023.
Written by musician and creative developer Kai Konishi-Dukes, the app uses an algorithm to turns words into music. Not only did it produce a cryptogram based on the letters you choose, but it also added harmony.
ClassicFM used the expression musical cipher to describe Clarallel's output and featured this example.
If you'd like to try out a similar app, there's a French cryptography website called Music Sheet Decoder that you can experiment with instead. Just be aware that it won't create songs or MIDI files for you.
Best Musical Cryptogram Maker for a DAW Producer
If you make music in a digital audio workstation and would like to try out a musical cryptogram maker, the best option on the market is AudioCipher.
With AudioCipher, you'll be able to type in words and turn them into MIDI notes. The melody and chord generator is available as a standalone and VST3/AU file that you can access straight from your effects rack.
Simplicity: If your goal is to come up with new musical ideas quickly, AudioCipher lets you do that in a creative way. Choose a key signature and drag the MIDI file to any virtual instrument in your DAW.
Low-Cost: Most melody generator plugins cost between $49-99. By comparison, AudioCipher's cryptogram maker is only $29.99.
Unique: AudioCipher is currently the only cypher generator VST on the market that creates melodies using musical cryptograms.
Fun: Sometimes it's nice to just have a little extra inspiration. With AudioCipher you can use this technique as part of your workflow toolset.
Final Thoughts on Musical Cryptograms
The deeper cultural meaning of these cypher codes may be best kept slightly obscured and in the dark. Magic works best when it's handled in this way. That's how storytellers use them to add surreal elements to important scenes.
Summary of Musical Cryptograms
Most musical cryptograms connect alphabet letters to music note letters
You can use them to send secret messages without being noticed
Musicians can use them to create music with hidden, embedded text
Musical cryptography focuses on encryption, whereas music cryptology includes the analysis and decryption of a musical cryptograph
If you really want to understand what musical ciphers are all about, there's only one way to find out. You need to create your own music based on a cryptogram and see what happens.
For readers who are interested in melody generators but want to explore alternatives to AudioCipher, check out this list of the 5 Best Random Melody Generators.
Musical cryptograms are a tool for creativity, but they have a deeper cultural meaning that is often overlooked. Now that your eyes are open, see what other examples of musical cryptograms you find in popular culture and let us know!
P.S. A special thanks to journalist Christina Ayele Djossa of Atlas Obscura for doing the groundwork and inspiring this article.