Crypto history expert Prof. Gerhard Strasser once wanted to test if a musical cryptogram from the 17th century really sounded like music. Here’s the result.

Coding a secret message in musical notes is not very difficult. With a substitution table like the following (it was was made by clergyman and cryptologist John Wilkins in the 17th century) every text can be turned into sheet music:


However, there’s an obvious problem. Notes that are assembled in order to code a secret message usually sound awkward, when played. Some cryptologists therefore tried to develop more complex musical note codes (e.g. with each letter being coded by a whole group of notes), in order to get reasonably well-sounding compositions. For instance, William Friedman once developed such a code for a Christmas card. A few more are vailable in my new book Versteckte Botschaften (2nd edition), which is going to be published soon.

One of the more advanced musical codes is described in the famous crypto book Cryptomenytices written by Gustavus Selenus (i.e., Augustus the Younger, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg) in 1624. For instance, the following piece is printed in the Cryptomenytices:

Cryptomenytices-Music-1-614 Cryptomenytices-Music-2-614

There’s a message coded in the tenor voice: Der Spinola ist in die Pfalz gefallen. Vae illi.

Translation: Spinola has invaded the Palatinate [1620/21]. Woe to them.


Musical cipher played by a string quartett

At the Euro HCC in Bratislava I met Prof. Dr. Gerhard Strasser, professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and a leading expert on Duke August’s crypto activities.


Gerhard gave a very interesting presentation about Duke August. As one of the highlights of the whole conference, he played a recording of the musical piece shown above, played by a Pennsylvania string quartett decades ago.

Thankfully, Gerhard provided me this recording and allowed me to put it on Youtube. Here’s the recording (the notes actually coding the message are marked yellow):

Considering that the primary goal of this composition was to code a message, it sounds extremely good.

Now you might ask, how exactly the musical notes code looks like. To be honest, I don’t know. I didn’t find a description in the Cryptomenytices, which are written in Latin. The book is available online (the chapter about musical codes starts on page 324). Maybe a reader can show me how the code works.

Further reading: Tony Gaffney’s starlight steganogram


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Kommentare (9)

  1. #1 Rich SantaColoma
    12. Juni 2017

    It does actually sound very nice, and that is surprising considering it enciphers information of some other kind.

  2. #2 Thomas
    12. Juni 2017

    As Dr. Thomas Ernst pointed out (Klausis Krypto Kolumne, Dec. 6th 2016 #3), Duke August derived his musical cipher from the “steganographia nova” by Count Friedrich von Oettingen-Wallerstein. Count Friedrich explained the substitution with an example:
    By the way: Are there new findings about Fridericus Hollandtus from Lüneburg who (at least partially) composed the music?

  3. #3 Tien
    14. Juni 2017

    I am not an expert, but it sounds very good for me. It always fascinates me how people can think of music without hearing it and compose it like they do!

  4. #4 Martin
    18. Juni 2017

    Beim Lesen dieses Artikels würde ich an einen Aprilscherz denken, wenn es nicht schon Juni wäre. Jeder Musiknote kann ein beliebiger Code zugeordnet werden. Ich denke an die Fuge b a c h von Bach. Diese Tonfolge ist nicht codiert. Die Tonhöhe entspricht den Notennamen. Dass das Stück des Artikels gut klingen würde, falls es professionell und auf Originalinstrumenten gespielt wäre, ist nicht auf eine geniale Codierung zurück zu führen. Codiert ist höchstens das Fugenthema. Der Rest ist Harmonielehre und Kontrapunkt. Der Stil des Stückes und die Notenpartitur deuten zudem eher auf eine Datierung ins 16. Jahrhundert hin.

  5. #5 Klaus Schmeh
    18. Juni 2017

    @Martin: Ist das tatsächlich so einfach? Kann man aus jeder beliebigen Notenfolge (darum geht es ja, wenn sich die Noten nach einer kodierten Nachricht richten müssen) ein gut klingendes Stück machen?

  6. #6 Ranthoron
    19. Juni 2017

    I remember a historical novel (“The Devil in Music” by Kate Ross), that had some sort of message hidden in a live performance of a singer based on the tritonus.
    But since this is all that is mentioned, this might just pass as an interesting sidenote…

  7. #7 Martin
    20. Juni 2017

    Ich habe nicht geschrieben, dass es leicht sei, gut klingende Musik zu komponieren, der ein Code zugrunde liegt. Ich werde aber versuchen, ein Computerprogramm zu schreiben, das genau das automatisch macht. Es muss aber “gut” klingen, Zwölftonmusik oder Atonalität ist wohl nicht erwünscht. Ich melde mich wieder, wenn ich es geschafft habe.

  8. #8 Klaus Schmeh
    20. Juni 2017

    @Martin: Das klingt spannend. Über ein solches Programm würde ich gerne bloggen.

  9. #9 Klaus Schmeh
    9. Januar 2021

    Jim Gillogly via Facebook:
    Sounds quite good, actually! I think you’d need a skilled composer to encipher it, though, to get the other parts to blend and harmonize credibly, as this one did around an essentially random tenor line. As a former chamber music tenor singer, I suppose I must suggest that the obligation of each voice in a four-part piece is to support the tenor.