An overview of music note ciphers

How can musical notes be used to encode a secret message? People have been dealing with this question for centuries. Today I want to present some examples.

Deutsche Version

Anyone who studies the hidden transmission of secret messages (steganography) will sooner or later come across the idea of encoding letters using musical notes. The idea for this is already several centuries old, and of course there is a chapter on it in my book “Hidden Messages – The Fascinating History of Steganography”.

Quelle/Source: Dpunkt Verlag

Obviously, one could use the note names A, B, C, D, E, F, G for coding (for some reason, the B is called H in Germany), but this is not sufficient. After all, it can be used to encode the sequence of letters B-A-C-H, which is known to have been done by Johann Sebastian Bach.

One can also arbitrarily assign a letter to each note (for example, a half C note can stand for the A and a half D note for the B), but a piece generated in this way sounds rather strange. A censor knowledgeable in music would immediately become suspicious.

Over the centuries, numerous musical note ciphers of varying quality have been created, but I am not aware of any systematic overview to date. This article is therefore intended to provide a basis for such an overview. I will present a few examples below, and hope to compile an ever-growing list through the suggestions of my readers as well as my own research.


John Wilkins

Let’s start with a very simple example. The priest and cryptologist John Wilkins (1614-1672) developed the following code in the 17th century:

Quelle/Source: Public Domain


Daniel Schwenter

A similar code was also proposed in the 17th century by the polymath Daniel Schwenter (1585-1636):

Quelle/Source: Public Domain

The following piece contains a message encoded in this way:

Quelle/Source: Public Domain


Gustavus Selenus

August II. von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (bekannt auch unter dem Pseudonym Gustavus Selenus) schuf die folgende musikalischen Nachricht:

Quelle/Source: Public Domain

At the suggestion of blog reader Gerhard Strasser, an orchestra in the USA has recorded this piece:

The message is hidden in the yellow marked lines.


Maurice de Raoulx

In October 2020, I blogged about a musical note cryptogram by composer and musician Maurice de Raoulx from 1854:

Quelle/Source: Wikimedia Commons

Blog reader and jazz musician Henning Wolter thankfully recorded the beginning of this piece on piano. It doesn’t sound like much of a hit.

My readers have found out quite a bit about the background of the piece, as you can see from the comments to the linked article. To my knowledge, however, it is still not known what message is hidden here.


William and Elizebeth Friedman

Another example of a musical note cipher is the following Christmas card written by cryptologists William and Elizebeth Friedman in 1933:


Quelle/Source: George C. Marshall Foundation

The bottom right explains how the code works. Two notes played at the same time stand for one letter. The message is: HOLIDAYS ARE HERE AGAIN WE SING OUR SONG OF CHEER AGAIN.

Using a music notation program set this piece to music:

A masterpiece certainly sounds different. Nevertheless, such a sheet of music should not immediately arouse suspicion.


Nils Kopal

Cipherbrain reader Nils Kopal also developed a music note cipher last year. It can be used with the software CrypTool. The details are explained in the following video:

The following piece was created using the corresponding CrypTool function:

Quelle/Source: Kopal

As you learn in the video, Nils has offered a prize for the solution of this cryptogram. However, this has been found in the meantime.


More music note ciphers

There are of course many more music note ciphers. I will certainly extend this list soon. In addition, I am glad about corresponding hints.

If you want to add a comment, you need to add it to the German version here.

Further reading: Double Bottom: Ein kryptomusikalisches Gewinnspiel


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