Showstoppers and Spies
Musical Codes, Now and Then
A new article in Wired by Lily Hay Newman tells the fascinating story of an American saxophonist named Merryl Goldberg, who in 1985 traveled to Moscow with three fellow musicians on a goodwill visit. She carried with her a spiral-bound notebook containing pages of hand-notated music. When they arrived in the USSR, they were pulled aside and given the once-over by humorless Soviet security officials, who pored over the music book but decided against confiscating it.
Still, the interrogation was a little rough and scary, for the authorities suspected Goldberg was intending to meet with several dissidents and human-rights activists, but ultimately there was insufficient evidence to deny entry.
Actually, that’s not true. There was more than enough evidence to not only expel her but to punish her contacts—it’s just that they didn’t find it because her sheet music contained a self-invented code to hide their names, addresses, and other incriminating information.
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The main problem with such a code is that musical notes span only from A to G. That leaves you in a pickle if you want to use a word starting with H and above. So Goldberg’s variation—apologies, but sometimes you need to go for the laughs—extended the range by using the twelve-tone chromatic scale, included sharps and flats, added a bass clef, and threw in numerous half-, quarter-, and eighth-notes, plus various markings indicating tempo, slurs, and ties.
In the end, it wasn’t the code that got Goldberg and her partners expelled from the Soviet Union: It was the KGB, which had been surveiling them during their impromptu concerts in Tbilisi (Georgia) and Yerevan (Armenia) with refusenik musicians. They were picked up, escorted back to Moscow, put under armed guard, and deported to Sweden.
The Coded Madrigal
Merryl Goldberg wasn’t the first to have come up with a musical code, but she was one of only a few who’ve actually used the technique. Though you might assume that musical codes would be an excellent way of transmitting information, they’re exceedingly rare in the secret world for one good reason: They’re easy to detect by someone who knows how to read music while at the same time being difficult to construct.
Goldberg, for instance, had to get creative to cover all the required plaintext and any half-competent balalaika-player in the KGB would have instantly known that while the notation was technically playable, “it would have sounded less like a tune and more like a cat walking across piano keys,” as Wired put it. It’s probably a lot simpler, in other words, to use invisible ink to scrawl a message on a real sheet of music than it is to use music as the code itself.
A striking example of the trouble caused by musical code occurred in the early sixteenth century, when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V tried to warn his ally, the Venetian doge, Andrea Gritti, of an imminent rebellion against La Serenissima, that great lagoon power.
Unfortunately, Charles omitted to inform Gritti of his novel method, which meant that when the doge received the imperial gift of a madrigal, a song intended to be sung without instruments, he summoned the celebrated Flemish maestro di cappella of St. Mark’s, Adrian Willaert, to perform it with his troupe. Certainly!, replied the eminent musician, who quavered and quivered upon seeing the uncatchy composition. As the annoyed doge calculated how much it had cost to procure the services of Willaert, who he suspected could not read music, a certain Giambattista de Ludovici asked whether he might look at this strange song.
The next day, Ludovici, who happened to be one of Venice’s leading cryptographers (I’ll deal with the Venetian Secret Service in future newsletters), appeared before the doge and announced that he and his four-man team had cracked the emperor’s secret message.
The Universal Language
That’s one of the only historical examples of a musical code I’ve been able to find, and keep in mind it comes from Agostino Amadi’s cryptology manual of 1583, Delle Ziffre, so the story might be a little embroidered, given the Venetians’ love of sprezzatura over buttoned-up accuracy.
Whatever it was, the madrigal scheme seems to have been a secret world one-off, and, considering how much confusion it caused, that would be understandable. Indeed, as late as the Second World War, Creighton Churchill of U.S. Army Intelligence wrote a memo on the subject of musical codes for William Friedman, the legendary codebreaker, but the idea went no further, being self-evidently impracticable.
For standard cryptographic purposes, it appears, music is a poor medium. But what if instead of trying to hide something you want to reveal it?
A little more than a century after Ludovici’s success, musical codes experienced a minor, and short-lived, revival when in 1641 John Wilkins, described by his biographer Barbara Shapiro as a “science-fiction writer, linguist, encyclopedist, scientific entrepreneur and administrator, bishop, politician, and preacher” (people wore more hats in them days), published a cryptology handbook snappily titled, Mercury: Or, The Secret and Swift Messenger, Showing How a Man May with Privacy and Speed Communicate His Thoughts to a Friend at Any Distance. In it, he used notes as a stand-ins for letters. It was a straightforward substitution code, as you can see from the photo, but Wilkins had an ulterior motive.
Wilkins happened to be married to Oliver Cromwell’s sister and, like the future Lord Protector of England, desired to propagate the Puritan faith as widely as possible. With Latin dying out, he, like several others in his circle, set about inventing a new universal language, a kind of 17th-century Esperanto, so that all men could heed the word.
In Wilkins’s case, then, “encoding” a religious message into music would allow everyone to understand it. One could talk to others by way of a tune, at least on paper. He soon discovered that translating letters-into-notes doesn’t work, not if you want something hummable.
Thereafter musical codes went into abeyance, more or less, until Merryl Goldberg invented hers. The one she used, though, was different in concept and execution from Wilkins’s (and Charles V’s) in that its notation was only a means of retaining information for her own use. There was no message to it, or in it.
In her case, music was the message, its own universal language. As she recalled from her time performing with the human-rights activists: “When we’re playing music no one can take away that sense of freedom and empowerment. Playing together and communicating with people through music is like nothing else.”
Just as those little gray fellas from outer space communicated with us via John Williams’s five-tone Hello, Earthlings! sequence from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony conveys a powerful love for all humanity, so too did Merryl Goldberg and her friends bridge politics through their music, coded or not.
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Further Reading: I. Iordanou, Venice’s Secret Service: Organizing Intelligence in the Renaissance (Oxford: University Press, 2019); G.F. Strasser, “Diplomatic Cryptology and Universal Languages in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” in K. Neilson and B.J.C. McKerchen, Go Spy the Land: Military Intelligence in History (Westport, CT; Praeger, 1992).