What is a Musical Cryptogram?

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...

To understand the cultural relevance of these music ciphers and how they work, we need to travel back in time.

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.

Caesar Cryptogram
The Julius Caesar Cryptogram

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.

Cipher to put your name in a song
Michael Haydn's musical cryptogram (1808)

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.

Second method for your name in a song
Bücking, Correspondenz systematisch (1804)

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.

Bach motif as a musical cryptogram
Bach's Motif in Music

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.

Musical cryptogram, English Cipher
The English Musical Cryptogram

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 cryptograms 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, an audio 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