Musical Cryptography: A Mystery Device

Musical Cryptography: A Mystery Device

A good mystery needs particular elements. Strong characters, motives, opportunities, means, deceptions, red herrings… There’s a long list. In all my mysteries, I also employ what I call a device. A plan, method, or trick with a particular aim, as the online dictionary defines its meaning. Without giving too much away about my Clearwater Mystery Series in case you’ve not read every book, I wanted to tell you about some of the devices I have used in this series and in my other novels.

A Mystery Device

When I talk about a device, I am referring to the thing that needs to be understood for the mystery to be unlocked and the ‘treasure’ found. That ‘treasure’ can be a murderer on the run, a kidnapping victim, the prevention of an assassination, anything. It is the particular aim of the investigating characters.

So far in this series and other books with a mystery or treasure hunt element, I have used murder sites to form a map, a poem to reveal a location, anagrams, the first draft of Dracula and the novel itself (The Stoker Connection), an oil painting, family history (The Blake Inheritance), rare books, unusual poisoning and, on more than one occasion, musical codes.

Here’s an aside. Years ago, when I first moved to Brighton, UK, I had an idea for a madcap mystery adventure concerning drag queens and opera singers. I never finished writing this one, but I spent hours working out the plot and the devices. The story hinged on a piece of coded music. Later, when I moved to Greece in 2002, I set about writing another mystery adventure comedy (I like my mashups), and in it, the device of a musical code. The story, Jason and the Sargonauts, was based on the original Jason and the Argonauts myth but concerned a group of elderly tourists coming to Symi on holiday and their young, gay rep. It is a mix of fiction and historical fact set in the present day and the past and concerns the search for The Golden Fleece. That’s not the original Golden Fleece, but something else, and the key to its whereabouts is hidden in a piece of music. This novel was written under my real name, James Collins, and you can find it here.

A Treatise On The Art Of Deciphering, And Of Writing In Cypher: With An Harmonic Alphabet (1772) by Philip Thicknesse

Wow, that’s a title and a half, but it is actually a real book. I now have a copy of it and dipped in and out of it when writing my current novel. It was written in 1772 and plays a part in the story. Naturally, I couldn’t let the name of the author go by without at least one character making a reference to Thicknesse. It is too good a word to turn down. (Inserts a wink emoji.)

Currently, I am working on the 10th book in the Clearwater Mystery series, ‘The Clearwater Inheritance’, and once again, I have used the device of a musical code. Or rather, a message hidden in a piece of music. It has always fascinated me – the thought that it might be possible to write a message into music that could only be understood by someone who investigated deeply enough, but there has always been the question, How?
How can you translate musical notes into the English language, create a message, and still make the music sound like music?

I shan’t tell you exactly how because that would spoil the story for you, and actually, it’s hard to do in text without bamboozling the non-music-reading reader and without showing images of a score while playing an audio track, but…

The current state of my notebook.

One of the simplest ways to do it would be to have each note represent one letter. Say you started on the note Middle-C, and every semitone going upwards was the next letter of the alphabet. Even if you’re non-musical, you might guess that the word AWAY, for example, would have the melody bouncing from bottom to top of the range in a very untuneful manner.

Then there’s the question of where to start? Who’s to say what note is A and what is Z? There are 88 notes on a modern piano keyboard, any one of which could be A with the consecutive alphabet running up or down. And how do you handle chords and harmonies?

As you might see, it’s a lovely idea but hard to explain, and for this reason, I researched musical codes to see if it was a viable device.

It is, and I am certainly not the first to have thought of it.

Musical Cryptograms

The B A C H motif

A musical cryptogram is a cryptogrammatic sequence of musical symbols, a sequence which can be taken to refer to an extra-musical text by some ‘logical’ relationship, usually between note names and letters. The most common and best known examples result from composers using ciphered versions of their own or their friends’ names as themes or motifs in their compositions. Much rarer is the use of music notation to encode messages for reasons of espionage or personal security. [Wiki]

There are two principal techniques, the German and the French. The most common musical cryptogram is the ‘B-A-C-H’ motif. JS Bach used this, but in the German-speaking world, the note B-flat was actually B, and B-natural was H, so he had more letters available. The French version is even more compliacted. I was interested to learn that several well-known composers have used a musical cryptogram, Bach, Schumann, Brahms, Ravel, Poulenc, Shostakovich and Elgar, among many others.

There is also a method of coding a message in music by way of patterns, where the shape of the phrase represents a letter. If you are interested, check out Atlas Obscura.
With so many possibilities to draw on, I eventually decided that to keep it simple was the best way forward, and so, I was delighted to find a quote that said, In its simplest form, the letters A through G can be used to spell out words or codes. [Ludwig Van Toronto.] I decided to limit myself to seven letters, the basic music notes as used in the English notation system. (Don’t get me started on do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti and the Solfège system of notation.) This naturally presented me with other challenges.

Limited Letters

Michael Haydn’s musical cipher of 1808

How to create a message using only seven letters? The starting place was an anagram solver and typing in A through to G to see what came up. Not a lot. So, bearing in mind that any of those seven letters can repeat as many times as necessary, I searched for anagrams made up from letters such as A and E (the only available vowels) plus DD, GG, F, CCC… and so on. Well, that took some time, but eventually threw up a list of words I could legitimately use.

After that, it was a case of putting the most useful ones in the right order and then building the answer to the riddle around them. I mean, there was no point the message reading ‘You will find it at the zoo’, because, from that sentence, I would only be able to use F D A E. But hang on… FDAE can be arranged to make FADE, and if I add another D, I can make FADED. What’s more, that doesn’t sound too bad if played as music. So, what something is made up of only the seven letters and might be faded? A faded DEAD… A faded DEAF… BED… DEED…

A DEED is a legal document, and an inheritance would be written into a legal document, a deed or, in this case, a fee tail, also called an entail, but still a DEED…


I’ll stop chatting there as I don’t want to give anything else away about what I am currently writing. All you need to know is that you’re in for a treat with the next Clearwater, and you don’t need to be a musician to understand the code. You can leave that to Jasper Blackwood…

Jasper Blackwood at work, 1890

By the way, The Clearwater Inheritance is currently going through its third draft, and I have booked it in for its final proofreading towards the end of May.

I have contacted Anjela about the cover and aim to have the novel released early in June. If you’ve not read Banyak & Fecks, you might want to slip that one in before the publication date because some of what happens in The Clearwater Inheritance relates to what happens in the prequel, Banyak & Fecks.

And now, back to 1890 and musical cryptography…