Hunting for Easter eggs may seem like a kids activity, but people of all ages can search for musical Easter eggs. In some cases, they can only be appreciated by adults. You've probably encountered dozens of them in your life, whether you realized it or not.
The expression easter egg originated with Atari in the 80's and has since been picked up by creatives across all industries. There's a rich history of filmmakers planting easter eggs in their movies, but what about musicians?
What are easter eggs in music?
A musical easter egg conceals some kind of mystery from the viewer. A core premise is that it can eventually be known and shared with others. These eggs might exist in songs, movies, video games, websites, and even software.
Artists create and hide musical Easter eggs for people to explore once they've exhausted the entertainment value of the main offer. The Easter egg takes on a lasting place in our memory and becomes a cherished part of the brand's lore.
What are the different kinds of musical easter egg?
There are several types of musical easter egg. They can be classified according to the medium they show up in, like songs versus movies. They can also be classified under some special musical taxonomy, like a magical musical instrument. I'll share a number of examples from both groups, so that the concept is clear.
Use this Table of Contents to skip forward if you don't want to see the details on a particular film or game that's listed.
Table of Contents
Synchronizing music albums with movies (Pink Floyd + Oz)
Music trivia (Ready Player One)
Musical Easter eggs in songs
Music is full of easter eggs. One website has crowdsourced 950 examples of what they call music album easter eggs. Many of these amount to 'secret songs' on tapes and CDs that could only be accessed by reverse or fast-forwarding a track far enough in the right direction.
Just a few decades ago, people bought CDs from record shops and would accidentally rewind past the 0:00 of a track to discover a secret song. Bands planted hidden music at the end of albums too. Nirvana's Endless, Nameless jumped out some 13 minutes after the final song seemed to have finished.
Word painting (Music that symbolizes the lyrics or plot)
Word painting refers to music that was written to reflect the literal meaning of its lyrics or story. We'll share a couple of simple examples of word painting here.
Directions like up and down or stop and go are easy to mimic with a melody. You sing an ascending melody about flying or a descending melody about falling. A melody stops abruptly when the lyrics say "stop" or sustain on a note while the vocalist sings the word "stay". You get the idea.
There are more complex forms of word painting. When Michael Jackson sings the word "Change" on Man In the Mirror, the whole band modulates up a half step and they change the tonal center together. You can keep your eyes open for examples of word painting and see what you find!
Hiding images in spectrograms (Aphex Twin & Disasterpeace)
Aphex Twin is credited as one of the first major artists to hide images within a song. His track Windowlicker had a big chunk of white noise that, when passed through a spectrogram reader, revealed a scary face. A number of other high profile musicians have followed in Aphex Twin's footsteps, including videogame composer Disasterpeace on the game Fez.
The free AI music generator and browser app Riffusion lets users type in words and turn them into spectrograms, which are then transformed into music. This creative technique earned them praise on channels like TechCrunch in late 2022.
A musician could type messages into Riffusion, generate music and use it in a song. If it became popular enough, the cult following would endow it with the energy required to be dubbed a musical easter egg.
MIDI Art (Glasys, Jacob Collier)
Most spectrogram art ends up being buried in white noise because the visual complexity is noisy when translated into audio. MIDI art is a second way to embed images into music, but with more opportunity to create something listenable.
Morse Code Music (Rush - YYZ)
Rush may not be the most popular band of 2023, but they still have one of the most popular musical easter eggs in recorded history. It all comes down to an iconic instrumental song they wrote, called YYZ. We've shared the music video below.
The iconic instrumental rock piece was named after an airport code for Toronto International Airport, near the band's hometown. As they flew into the airport, the VHF system broadcasted the "YYZ" in International Morse code:
The rhythm is pronounced and easy to catch. You can listen to the song here:
Musical Cryptograms (Bach, Hazel)
1990's alt rock band Hazel found their own creative use for musical cryptograms. On their song Comet, the lead vocalist sings "And Everywhere Comets Flare" during the chorus. A male background vocalist speaks the letters "A E C F".
The music video shows the band flashing sign language for the same four letters. The bass line under the vocals is playing those same four notes.
Song title acronyms (Beatles, Wu-Tang)
It's common for song lyrics and titles to come from some private joke between the artist and his friends. Desperate to be part of the joke, fans fill in the gaps and find musical easter eggs that the artist never planted in the first place.
A famous example of this is The Beatles song Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, which fans interpreted as an acronym for LSD given the psychedelic nature of the song. John Lennon denied the title had come from that place but so many people had interpreted it that way, the interpretation hatched and gained a life of its own.
The song may not have been about LSD, but other artists have certainly used the technique. It can be seen as a relic of an age where customers read the song title first, before hearing the track. Your mind would draw some associated with the title before ever hearing it.
Wu-Tang Clan's track C.R.E.A.M. features the chorus "Cash Rules Everything Around Me, CREAM, get the money" while Nu Metal band Korn's track A.D.I.D.A.S. stood for All Day I Dream About Sex. These little insights about the songs are not quite easter eggs, but they are nevertheless a special type of musical trivia.
Synchronized Albums (Flaming Lips, Aphex Twin)
The Flaming Lips created a four-CD album called Zaireeka that required listeners to play all of the CDs at once. Fans of music have given this type of album various names, including synchronized albums. Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Vol II came as a two-CD set with similar instructions. The "egg" in each case would be listening to the CDs together at the same time.
Songs that reference other songs (Soundsjustlike)
Musicians often draw inspiration from other artists, emulating styles and techniques within a sub-genre. But sometimes the similarity between songs goes beyond mere inspiration. Sometimes it's theft! You can find and listen to thousands of examples at the website SoundsJustLike.
The backmasking panic (Reversed vocals)
Most people are familiar with backmasking. It's the reverse vocal effect used on rock n' roll albums to conceal a secret message. Classic rock bands like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Electric Light Orchestra, Led Zeppelin, and Judas Priest famously used the technique.
The deciphered message is the musical easter egg that people hunt for.
Christians have objected to backmasking for more than half a century. They point to occultist Aleister Crowley's 1913 book Magick, that stated a sorcerer should "train himself to think backwards by external means". He proposed listening to "phonograph records, reversed" as a means of achieving this altered state.
It's true that Crowley had an impact on the musical underground, but not every artist who uses backmasking is a satanist. Weird Al's 1994 song I Remember Larry featured a backmasked message that said: "Wow, you must have an awful lot of free time on your hands!"
Musical easter eggs in movies
Movies are another place where musical easter eggs can be found. The film score reflects the narrative and action of the film, creating lots of opportunity for word painting. It's common for characters in films to reference musical trivia. I'll be sharing three fields where you could go hunting.
Secrets about the film score (Everything Everywhere All At Once)
A film score sometimes contains references beyond the contents of the movie itself. One of the most recent examples of this is the film Everything Everywhere All At Once. The score's main theme is actually a recurring motif that can be found on all of Son Lux's albums. Fans of the movie can therefore explore many hidden variation of the theme if they venture back through their catalog.
Another Easter egg can be found in the backstory to the Star Wars soundtrack. Composer John Williams famously pulled a segment of his combat theme from composer Gustav Holst The Planets. In fact, it was the theme from Mars: the Bringer of War. So you can see again how a film melody might conceal a deeper rabbit hole... the perfect place for the Easter Bunny to hide their eggs!
Synchronizing music albums with movies (Pink Floyd + Oz)
The synchronicity between Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wizard of Oz" is a well-known musical Easter egg. Pink Floyd band members have repeatedly said the synchronicity is a coincidence. Drummer Nick Mason even denied the rumor outright, saying, "It’s absolute nonsense. It has nothing to do with The Wizard of Oz."
It doesn't matter what the artist's intention was. Once a musical easter egg reaches a certain degree of popularity, it takes on a life of its own.
Music trivia (Ready Player One)
Films often make subtle references to pop culture, bringing the audience deeper into the experience as insiders. Ready Player One is a prime example of this, making direct reference to easter eggs as a plot device.
Scored by Alan Silvesteri, the film contains several musical easter eggs. He uses sound design elements from Back To the Future, in a self-aware play on the film's retro-futurist theme. The film also makes references to recognizable music video tropes, like band Devo and their energy dome hats.
The "magical" music easter egg
Now that we've made our way through some of the most common types of musical easter egg, are you ready to go one layer deeper?
Across all mediums, you'll find the archetype of a magical musical instrument, capable of transforming the world in unexpected ways. When you spot one of these moments in a story, you'll recognize it now.
Magic flutes and warp whistles
The expression magic flute is usually traced to Mozart's opera of the same name. History shows that the idea goes back much further, into pre-civilization. Bone flutes are some of the oldest known instruments and many indigenous cultures used flutes in their ceremonies and rituals.
Secular society has the same indwelling need for these archetypes, so we get them through games like Zelda: Ocarina of Time, where a small flute-like device is used to play magical songs.
As recently as 2022, Pokemon Legends: Arceus featured a magic Azure Flute. These instruments form a recurring motif you can hunt for, like easter eggs.
Melodies used by Aliens
The 2012 film Prometheus featured an important scene where an ancient alien plays a short flute melody to activate a massive space ship. This scene references back several decades, to a chain of cinematic moments where aliens and music mixed. Maybe this comes from early myths of angels playing harps in the sky?
The 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the early examples of this theme, though there have been several of other examples. In Futurama, the characters use an otherworldly instrument called the Holophoner. It displays a holographic show of lights when held in their hands.
Piano melodies unlock doors
Another common motif is the piano key that unlocks or chambers. The wordplay seems painfully obvious once you recognize it. We find examples of this in Batman Returns, when Bruce Wayne plays a melody on his library piano to open the Batcave.
Think back to that scene in the Goonies where the kids use a melody on the back of their treasure map to play a skeleton bone organ. It opens up a trap door and they escape the bad guys just in the nick of time.
Keep an eye open for these semi-magical piano key motifs in other shows like Scooby Doo or games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill.
Conductor wand as a wizard staff
We recently wrote a feature piece about a bell puzzle in the new Harry Potter game, Hogwarts Legacy. Players use their wizard staff to strike bells in the distance. When you play the notes from the Harry Potter Hedwig Theme, a treasure chest falls from the sky.
Other games have toyed with this idea of the conductor's wand as a magic wand. It seems meaningful that sheet music is written on a "staff". Zelda Wind Waker built their entire game mechanic around this concept of magical-musical wands:
The Open Sesame effect (Doctor Who)
Say the magic words Open Sesame and you'll have access to a cave full of treasure! This motif has re-appeared for decades, ranging from spoken passwords to songs that have to be sung correctly.
In this Doctor Who episode, the magical child is asked "can the secret song open the secret door?". They are being pursued by demons, but when all seems lost, the little girl sings a magic melody that opens a secret door and they escape. Do you notice the resemblance to the Goonies? You can watch the moment here:
Sympathetic magic (Brian Wilson's Fire Disaster)
Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson was experimenting with psychedelic drugs when he wrote a track called Mrs. O Leary's Cow. Named after the historic Chicago Fire, the track features strings that slide up and down like firetruck sirens.
To make the studio recording more immersive, he brought buckets of burning wood into the studio. Shortly after, a building burned down near their studio. Brian took responsibility for it, even though his fire never got anywhere near them. He believed superstitiously that he had caused the fire with his studio music antics.
Brian Wilson wasn't the first person to believe music had a magical impact on the environment. Many indigenous groups sing rain songs and dance to summon rain. The South American word icaros translates to magic song and is believed to carry information from the spirit of native plants in their ecosystem.
Did Brian excite the fire spirits with his musical ritual, or was it all a crazy drug trip?
During the Renaissance, occultist Henri Cornelius Agrippa wrote extensively about the use of music in sympathetic musical magic. Over the centuries, many of the great mystery traditions have embraced the power of music to change reality.
Dream Melodies (Beatles - Yesterday)
A dream melody is one that comes to you while you're sleeping. They tend to be very pleasant and difficult to capture upon waking. Paul McCartney famously wrote the Beatles song Yesterday after hearing the melody in a dream.
Secret songs can even be found outside of traditional media, in weird places like hacked software. The keygen genre is made up entirely of songs that used to play when you downloaded and unzipped a cracked software file. Hackers made the songs as a personal signature, and to reward the user for downloading the app and launching the installer.
It's amazing to think about how much depth there is to music and to life in general. Are there any musical easter eggs that we missed? Let us know!