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Authors and painters have found many ways to encrypt messages into their creations, but how do you do this if you are a musician working with instruments? Below you will find the data, audio credits, further reading, and a transcript of the podcast.
Credits, sources, and more
Case S01E05 – Messages in music.
There is a general agreement that history’s greatest creator of art and music and literature is Anonymous. However I would like to add that its most alluring, for me at least, is Enigma. A message is already strangely more powerful when it transcends its creator’s name, but sometimes, those messages can be dangerous or controversial. And sometimes, people want the creation, but without the creator attached to it. Conscious of being erased – in several different ways – artists have come up with a surprising range of, well, creative ways of hiding their names and their messages inside their creations for the discerning to find.
Are you a big reader of fiction? If so, you’ve almost certainly come across a novel in which the author has, for instance, written themselves into the plot as a character, or hidden messages in the very fabric of their stories, whether in the form of metaphors, or allegories, or actual codes, and so on. (In fact, in a future episode, I explore a rather chilling version of authors whose books… hmmm… no spoilers…!) Moving on, artists have painted themselves into their pictures. They’ve used combinations of icons or poses or colours or objects that carry extra meanings and therefore convey deeper messages. For that matter, you might want to google the knights versus snails mystery and you can join the ranks of people who are equally baffled by this bizarre historic phenomenon.
More evidence, in case you needed it, of why this podcast is so good. Back to the point though.
Secret messaging is all very well when dealing with images and words, but what do you do if you’re a musician dealing with instruments? How can you hide your name, or your messages, in sounds? I’m not talking here about diss tracks where famous artists make unpleasant passive-aggressive allusions to other famous artists whilst never quite using their names. I’m talking here actually hiding messages away – that is, encoding them – into the music itself in some way.
Messages hidden in music sounds like a terribly modern method of being mysterious, but in fact, it’s been around for quite some time, and in this episode, we’ll look at three quite different cases of musical secret messages, from past to near-present.
Welcome to en clair, an archive of forensic linguistics, literary detection, and language mysteries. You can find case notes about this episode, including credits, acknowledgements, and links to further reading at the blog. The web address is given at the end of this podcast.
Let’s start in the 1600s with one of the most famous composers pretty much ever – Johann Sebastian Bach. Born in 1685 in Germany, Bach turned out music that was incredible in both its quantity and its quality. Having butchered enough of his beautiful pieces when learning the violin in childhood, I’m not even going to attempt a musical critique, but I’ll instead focus on his rather charming habit of getting his name into his music. He did this via what is now commonly called the Bach motif, one of the oldest and most famous musical cryptograms. Bach used the letters of the notes. For the uninitiated, in very simple terms, there are seven notes in an octave: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. The next octave up starts at A and ends at G again. So, to spell out his name, Bach used the musical notes B flat, A, C, B natural. Okay, yes, that’s not exactly Bach, it’s more like Bacb. But he was German, and in German musical nomenclature, B natural is named H. Thus you get B A C H. What’s more, this is also happens to create a cruciform melody – that is, in a slightly convoluted way, it musically also represents a cross, so you can imagine how well this was picked up and used not only by Bach himself but by countless others in celebration of his. So how does this sound?
[BACH motif plays here.]
Naturally, when someone finds a clever way of literally writing their name into the very tapestry of the music itself, as you can imagine, others are quick to follow, and it has proven enduringly popular. In the 20th century, Dmitri Shostakovich created the DSCH motif for himself. This uses the D from Dmitri and the first three letters – the Sch – from the Russian spelling of his surname. It’s written D, E flat, C, B natural, or again in German musical notation D, Es, C, H. It sounds like this:
[DSCH motif plays here.]
And of course, others had a bash at this too. Here is the Sacher hexachord, of the eponymous composer Paul Sacher:
[Sacher hexachord plays here.]
And here is Arnold Schoenberg’s signature hexachord:
[Schoenberg hexachord plays here.]
Hmmm. Not all motifs were created equal, I guess.
As you can imagine, though, if your name isn’t spelled by the first seven letters of the alphabet, or you’re not willing to make a series of substitutions or omissions, it can get a bit awkward to encode words into music in this way. Fear not though, the French had a solution. In the 19th century, a method was created that allowed the inclusion of many more letters.
Imagine a table with seven columns. Each one is headed by a letter, A, then B, then C, and so on, through to G. In the next line down, we carry on with the alphabet, so in column A, we start again with H, and then in column B, we add I, and in column C, we add J, and so on, going round through the alphabet in chunks of seven until we’re finished. If you’re doing this right, Z should be in the E column. In this way, the musical note A represents the letter A and also the letters H, O, or V. Musical note B represents B, or I, or P, or W, and so on. And if you were to play the word BAND as music, you would use the musical notes BAGD.
This is an intriguing idea, but it entails something known as a many-to-one correspondence. That is, up to four letters can be represented by one note. This makes the decryption of messages encoded in this way extremely challenging. Take BAND again which would be played BAGD. Those same notes can also be decoded to produce the words BOND, POND, WAND, POUR, WONK, and… some other words but we’ll just leave that right there. So it’s fun, but it’s not very practical. Not to mention, music made out of secret messages will probably tend not to be all that tuneful. Disguising your top secret message in a jarring, irregular, inexplicable sound-mash would more likely draw attention than deflect it – historically the exact opposite of what you want a disguise to actually do.
Anyway, let’s set aside the mystery of classical motifs in religious fugues and 19th century French musical cryptograms. We turn now to the 20th and 21st century and its sudden taste for grunge, rock, and death metal.
With the modern era of mass-music production – there are a lot of Ms going on in this episode today, I can only apologise – probably the most common method for secret musical messages is a technique known as backmasking. This is where the message is revealed by playing the track backwards, and probably one of the most famous examples of backmasking is the “congratulations” message in Pink Floyd’s 1979 song, Empty Spaces. Not sure what I mean? Here’s the relevant bit of the song played forwards…
[Floyd clip forwards plays here.]
And here it is, played backwards. You’ll have to listen carefully as it’s not all that easy to hear.
[Floyd clip backwards plays here.]
In case you didn’t get it, the best guesses are that it says,
Hello, Looker. Congratulations. You’ve just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the funny farm, Chalfont.
Then there’s a voice in the background that says:
Roger! Caroline is on the phone!
And in response, someone else says:
Some have suggested that this is a reference to Pink Floyd lead singer Syd Barrett’s breakdown. Others think it’s about the character, Pink from the Pink Floyd album, The Wall, and that this message indicates his increasing insanity. Quite what the truth of the matter is, I will leave to you to determine.
As it happens, loads of well-known artists have dabbled in the black arts of backmasking. Some of the more predictable ones are Korn, Eminem, Marilyn Manson, Def Leppard, Cradle of Filth, and Linkin Park. Indeed, those of a rocky, grungy, Satanic, angry oeuvre seem to be especially drawn to this secretive method of sneaking in extra bonuses for dedicated listeners. But some of the more surprising backmasking artists include Eurythmics, Nelly Furtado, and a personal favourite of mine – Imagine Dragons.
Perhaps the example, though, came in the form of The Beatles. They were one of the first, if not the first to do this, when they hid a message in the fade-out of 1966 song, Rain. And then they did it again in 1977, with Free as a Bird. Perhaps driven by their frankly insane worldwide popularity, The Beatles found themselves at the epicentre of a raging conspiracy theory that dogged them from the 1970s onwards. I mean, I should be clear, it was probably one of several thousand conspiracy theories about them, ranging from Masonic mysteries to Illuminati mind-control to the secret of bay 5b and more besides. Their mind-blowing worldwide popularity generated at least as much smoke as it did fire, but since conspiracy theoriana is a little outside of en clair’s remit, we’ll just stick to the backmasking story.
Some listeners became convinced that playing some of the Beatles’ tracks backwards revealed various versions of the message, “Paul is dead”. (Paul McCartney, of course. For younger listeners, he was one of the four Beatles. It would be a bit like One Direction’s music revealing a “Harry is dead” message if played backwards or through a fax machine or whatever.)
For a start, to the best of my knowledge, Paul was, and at the time of recording, still is very much alive. But even if he were suddenly dead at the height of the Beatles’ fame, quite why the band would choose this method of broadcasting such a fact is an even bigger mystery. However, conspiracy theories are what they are, and they are not usually over-burdened by scrupulous external logical consistency.
Now, this isn’t to say that people weren’t hearing… something. But in reality, they were probably falling foul of the last enemy of human cognition known as pareidolia (parry-DOH-lee-ah). Pareidolia is our incorrigible capacity to find meaning in the meaningless, or signal in what is actually just noise. We see faces in wood grain. We hear our baby crying whilst we’re having a shower, and then go check, and they’re absolutely fine and fast asleep. We see ghosts in the machine, or in other words, in this case, we hear words in what is actually just the random garbled sounds of a Beatles’ track playing backwards.
Naturally, Hollywood, got hold of the idea, and since it is an epicentre of rational, restrained thinking, backmasking promptly appeared as a plot device in the cult Satanic horror film, The Exorcist. In this case, hideous sounds from the victim played backwards reveal an evil message. For the curious, there are plenty of YouTube clips of this but if you’re in the office, maybe… er… turn your sound down or use headphones. Anyway, when something like backmasking features in a worldwide blockbuster about the infernal serpent and demonic possession, you can already predict how it’s all going to turn out.
Sure enough, the public discourse on hidden messages – no doubt fuelled by the fact that those messages were often secreted away in angry, loud, young people’s music – led to a veritable moral panic. Certain sections of society developed an absolute conviction that these messages could function like subliminal persuasion. In this twilight of the gods, innocent, impressionable young hearers would be turned to Satan, murder, and worse.
Indeed, in 1988, during his trial, serial killer Richard Ramirez claimed that AC/DC’s song Night Prowler from the Highway to Hell album inspired him to carry out most of his thirteen murders, five attempted murders, and a host of other brutal crimes. In a somewhat dry rebuttal, AC/DC’s guitarist, Angus Young, replied that,
It was the moral majority’s idea to play the record backwards but you didn’t need to play it backwards, because we never hid it. We’d call an album Highway To Hell. There it was right in front of them.
As late as 1990, Judas Priest, a British heavy metal band, found themselves facing a lawsuit from the families of two Nevada men who had killed themselves in a suicide pact. The families argued that the album, Stained Class, contained hidden messages like “Do it!” that were revealed when certain tracks were played backwards. The presiding judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence. Judas Priest themselves added that inserting messages that made fans kill themselves was, at best, counter-productive, and that if they were going to add subliminal persuasion, it would involve commands like, “Buy more of our records”.
Thankfully, the panic over these messages eventually settled down, particularly as psychologists conducted experiment after experiment that repeatedly demonstrated how terrible we are at recognising even the existence of a backmasked message to begin with, never mind the content of that message.
Not all messages in music are hidden in quite the same way, though. For the dramatic finale, we stay in the 1980s and 1990s, but we now turn our attention to television, and in particular, that staple of British prime-time viewing – the police detective drama.
Inspector Morse was a crime drama, created by novelist Colin Dexter, and starring the eponymous Inspector Morse. The show ran from 1987 to 1993, producing 33 episodes in total, generally set in and around Oxford, England. Episodes were two hours long, so they were pretty indepth film-length affairs, each one covering its own story arc from start to finish, and amusingly, Dexter, the author, made little cameo appearances in nearly every single one.
In fact, Inspector Morse is one of the enduring memories of my childhood. I remember sitting on the floor after dinner, hugging my knees, gripped from opening credits to the last scene. I loved how smart it was. I loved Morse’s character, especially the flaws. He’s an odd muse for a ten year old bookworm, but if you have never watched it, even though I know I am unreasonably biased in its favour and am doubtless overlooking all kinds of flaws, I cannot commend it to you enough. Go watch it. All of it. In one giant Morse bingewatch. There, no backmasking needed. Just direct commands.
Anyway, what made Morse really special, though, both in my childhood and still today, was the music. The theme was composed by Barrington Pheloung, and it’s not just that hearing it gives me that feeling like it’s time to fall headfirst into dramatic escapism. It’s more than that. I’m going to play the first few seconds of the opening. You will, I hope, very quickly spot the relevant bit:
[Opening sample of Inspector Morse plays here.]
I’ll be amazed if you didn’t get it, but just in case – the music opens out with… shocker… Morse code playing and gradually fading into the theme music. In many cases, as in this one, the motif here is spelling out M O R S E, and this motif is picked up and played throughout. Here’s another example where the violins take up the code in the background:
[Midway sample of Inspector Morse plays here.]
However, sometimes Pheloung wrote the music differently, and the Morse code spells out different things. Sometimes, it’s telling you the name of the killer. Other times, it spells the name of another character, deliberately, as a red herring.
Come on. Tell me that’s not the best nerdiest thing you’ve ever heard.
So, pay attention in future, because the next piece of music you hear might just have a secret message encoded into it…
This episode of en clair was entirely researched, narrated, and produced by me, Dr Claire Hardaker. However this work wouldn’t exist in its current form without the prior effort of many others. You can find acknowledgements and references for those people at the blog. Also there you can find data, links, articles, pictures, older cases, and more besides.
The address for the blog is wp.lancs.ac.uk/enclair. And you can follow the podcast on Twitter at _enclair. Or if you like, you can follow me on Twitter DrClaireH.
For the record, there is absolutely no backmasking in this episode.