Music & Math: Cryptograms

cross-curricular thumbnails
Wikimedia Commons/Nevit Dilmen

Age Range: Middle School

Learning Objective: Students will create a cryptogram, or musical code, for composing. Students will listen to several musical pieces that were composed using cryptograms.

Note to Teachers: This lesson requires basic note reading skills or assistance.

ENGAGE students

SAY. “We know that composers get inspired by many things. Sometimes they use numbers, patterns, games, puzzles, riddles, or secret codes to put together a piece of music. Let's look at a few tricks they use.”

EXPLAIN. “A musical cryptogram is like a secret code. Composers use a series of musical notes to refer to something else - usually someone's initials, or a name. Look at the notes on this staff. Can you name the notes out loud?

“Maybe you said, ‘B flat, A, C, B natural.’ In English, that is how we would read them. But in German composers often referred to ‘B flat’ as ‘B’ and ‘B natural’ as ‘H.’ If you use that code, the notes on the staff spell: B-A-C-H

“Do you know a famous composer with that name? The German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (YO-hahn seBASSchen Bahk) used these notes to spell his own name in many of his compositions.

“Since music note names are letters A through G, many composers had to get creative about how to encode their own names. Sometimes they used initials or select letters if they weren't able to spell their whole name.”

EXPLORE sounds

CREATE. Time for students to create their own musical cryptogram! Invite students to draw a staff with five lines and four spaces.

Empty staff
Wikipedia Commons

Next, have them decide if they want to use treble clef or bass clef, and to draw the clef symbol of their choice at the beginning of the staff. The symbols below give a reminder of what each clef looks like.

Wikimedia Commons

Finally, say to students: “Choose some letters that have special meaning to you and draw them on your staff. Use the notes below to remind you of note names/symbols for each clef.”

Wikimedia Commons

PLAY. After students have written their cryptograms on the staff, have them try playing their musical riddles on an instrument. If your classroom doesn't have instruments available, students might try an app, like a tiny piano. Or, students could sing it!

EXTEND learning

LISTEN. Say, “The composer Edward Elgar wrote a long piece using cryptograms. The piece is called ‘Enigma Variations.’ Do you know what an enigma is?” (Pause for answers.) “It's a riddle.

“Edward Elgar began by composing a theme, or melody. Then, he wrote some different versions of that theme. We call that kind of a piece a theme and variations. In Enigma Variations, the composer based each variation on one of his friends. He chose fourteen different friends, so each of the fourteen variations has a different riddle or inside joke in it. Sometimes it might be a cryptogram of that friend's name. In some cases, no one knows exactly what the special code or special riddle is. Elgar told his listeners it was a riddle, but he didn't tell them the answer.

“Listen to the most famous variation, called ‘Nimrod.’”

LISTEN. Say, “Composer Rebecca Clarke used the ancient Chinese puzzle of a tangram for inspiration when composing her piece Chinese Puzzle. A tangram is a puzzle that consists of seven pieces that can be arranged into many, many shapes.

“She originally wrote her piece for viola and piano. She asks the viola player to play pizzicato, so the instrument sounds a bit like a Chinese instrument called the pipa. First, listen to the original version. Then, listen and compare a version played on the pipa. What sounds the same? What sounds different?”

SOLVE. Try the Piano Puzzler, or check out these picture riddles from Classic FM. Can students look at these and guess the composers' names?

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.

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