Music ciphers are at least as old as J.S. Bach, the baroque composer who embedded his name into compositions with a Bach motif.
From subliminal missives to backward messages, sarcastic ciphers and musical scores hidden within musical scores, some artists are natural spies.
Can you read between the notes?
Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations is one of the greatest musical mysteries in history. The composition written in the late 1800s is made up of 14 variations on an original theme, beginning with one tune reimagined multiple times. What is the original theme, however? Elgar refused to explain his enigma, saying only that the mystery melody doesn’t appear in full in any of the 14 variations. Musicians have puzzled over the compositions for more than a century although in 2019 a young composer claimed to have finally solved the mystery. Britain’s Bletchley code crackers so admired the composer they named their Enigma cipher machine after Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
Taylor Swift hides messages in her lyrics, videos, and social media posts. Swift dropped a cryptic video Tweet with a code for fans to crack before the April 2021 release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version). Swift’s fans have also decoded at least 17 hidden messages in Look What You Made Me Do (2017), in which Swift combines clues and symbolism to throw shade at frenemies like Kim Kardashian and even to mock herself. Nils Sjöberg, the pseudonym Taylor used to write a song for her ex, Calvin Harris, is splashed across a tombstone in the video, and when Swift sings before the letter ‘T’, her past selves try clawing their way back to the top of the heap.
The first instance of musical cryptography appears in music by French composer Josquin des Prez - the first superstar musician born circa 1450 - who created soggetto cavato (a subject carved out of the words). Seven musical notes, Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti, correspond to the first seven letters of the alphabet, A-G. The Germans found a solution for the remaining 19 letters by creating a cipher chart matching the notes of each octave to a letter in the alphabet. While Bach chose to insert his name in compositions, the musical ciphers could also be used to signal an emergency number or pass secret messages.
The Beatles enjoyed burying cryptic messages into their music, first toying with backmasking in the 1965 Rubber Soul album. If you play Rain, backward - and many fans did in the psychedelic 1960s - you’ll hear John Lennon sing the first line of the song during the fade-out. The biggest hoax in rock ‘n roll history started a few years later when a mysterious caller told a Detroit DJ to put on the Beatles’ White Album and spin backward on the ‘number nine, number nine’ intro from Revolution 9 to hear the words: ‘Turn me on, dead man.’ Supposedly this was proof that Paul McCartney was dead and the clues kept on coming. The trouble was that McCartney was very much alive and the ‘Paul is dead’ rumor was one of the biggest hoaxes in rock ‘n roll history.
Mothers may have been right to worry about Satanic messages hidden in heavy metal songs from the 1960s to the 1990s. If Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven is played backward the words ‘Here’s to my sweet Satan’ can be made out. Supposedly The Eagles’ Hotel California played backward reveals: ‘Satan had ‘em. He organized his own religion.’ The Norwegian metal band Darkthrone wraps up the track As Flittermice as Satan's Spys with a backmasked message conveyed in a distorted voice: ‘In the name of God, let the churches burn’. The band Franz Ferdinand decided to tackle Satanic verses in their album Mother, adding in a positive backward message for bassist Bob Hardy: ‘She's worried about you, call your mother."
Sometimes music is just music, however. Heavy metal band Judas Priest was sued for placing subliminal, coded messages in their music after two fans tragically killed themselves in the 1980s. Their families accused Judas Priest of adding messages on the Stained Class album (1978), inciting the deaths through backward masking in Better By You, Better Than Me. The case was dismissed, however. “It’s a fact that if you play speech backward, some of it will seem to make sense,” guitarist Glenn Tipton said at the time. For example, if Stained Class is played backward it would also say: ‘"Hey ma, my chair’s broken", and "give me a peppermint".
Fans enjoy searching for hidden messages in Katy Perry’s songs and videos but they missed her biggest coded missive. Perry took over the iconic Capitol Records Tower needle in Los Angeles for a Morse code record promotion. The Capitol roof lights were re-programmed to flash out the title and release date of her album Prism in dots-and-dashes Morse code. “We changed it months ago and we had it start blinking out: Katy Perry. Prism. October 22nd, 2013," the singer told Entertainment Tonight. “But no one reads Morse code anymore besides that guy, like, in the (Hollywood) Hills that doesn't wear any pants."
Pink Floyd’s lead singer Roger Waters decided to send a sarcastic message to fans hunting for secret messages in the 1979 album The Wall. Gibberish is heard on Empty Spaces until it is played backward: "Hello Luka... Congratulations. you have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the funny farm, Chalfont..." Waters is then called away for a phone call before he can finish telling fans the mailing address.
Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) was so fed up with the debate about subversive messages they produced Secret Messages in 1983, a tongue-in-cheek album devoted entirely to hidden messages and backmasking. Stickers on the cover list tracks and fake mock names of the retailer and manufacturer which are anagrams of the four band members: T.D. Ryan (R. Tandy), F.Y.J. Fennel (Jeff Lynne), G.U. Ruttock (K. Groucutt), and E.V. Nabbe (Bev Bevan). The front and back also carry dots and dashes -Morse code for ELO - while the back cover of the British release has a mock notice ‘Warning: Contains Secret Backward Messages’ - a message that so enraged Americans it was taken off the North American covers.