I recently wrote an article, on Heavy Blog Is Heavy, about twelve-tone technique, dodecaphony, tone row system, whatever you want to call it (read it here). And while it was fun, I only could go so deep into theory, not to alienate the diversity of readers, each with their own proficiency in music theory. So, this exercise got me into gears and I now want to do more of this, and go as deep as I personally can, so I’m beginning the Advanced Mathematics series, where I’ll pick a topic that takes from both math and music and try to explain it and where we can go with it. Enjoy.
Morse code in music, especially metal, for some reason, is so overdone. When I notice that something is “hidden” within the music as a Morse code message, I just roll my eyes. That’s far from my reaction when I found out this thing existed. Man, when I learned on some music forum that Dream Theater had hidden “eat my ass and balls” in the middle of the song In the Name of God, I was floored. However, when Haken did the same trick to play “Affinity Haken 1985”, on the first song of their latest album, I rolled my eyes and said “of course…” Evidently, it’s not a new thing, the first riff of Rush’s YYZ is Y-Y-Z in Morse code, and examples probably precede that, and new ones come up almost daily. One that I remember quite fondly is the S-O-S message in Watchtower’s song Mayday in Kiev, which takes some artistic liberties with it, such as beginning on the O instead of the S (see 1:47 in this video).
Despite all the overdoneness of it, crafting a riff, a rhythm section, a solo or simply adding Morse code to the background of your track can prove a fun and interesting challenge for any musician or composer. Indeed, it’s what we call creative limitation, and the concept states that restricting ourselves in any way can boost our creativity. Forcing yourself to base your song on Morse code messages, for example!
First of all, let’s learn the basics of the Morse code alphabet, numbers, and punctuation, which you can do here on your own. Got it? From there, the path is pretty straightforward: you make up some words and translate them into music. Want to write CTEBCM? If you choose the International Morse Code, it’ll be -.-./-/./-…/-.-./–! I used slash bars to separate the letters for better visibility. Basically, the hyphens (-) are long notes, and the dots (.) short ones. Usually, this is represented by the hyphens being eighth notes and the dotes being sixteenths, or it can be quarter notes and eighths, or quarter triplets and quarter quintuplets, but I’m not the one resolving this measure. As for the pitch of these notes, you can play it safe (and boring) by aggressively palm-muting open strings, or you can put some life into it and apply the Morse rhythm to a melody, any one, or apply a chord (or scale) to each letter and choose notes within that chord (or scale) to play! Oh… how the possibilities are endless if you have the faintest spark of imagination.
Using Morse code in music gives off a very recognizable sound: long and/or short notes separated by short silences. I mean, it can go almost unnoticed in the context of a djent song, but it’s very striking when it’s part of almost any other genre of music. If you want to be super strict, however, the long ticks (-) are three times as long as the short ones (.); the hyphens and dots are separated by a silence lasting one unit (as long as a dot); the letters are separated by three units of silence, and the words, by seven. However, I haven’t heard anybody in music do this, except when including telegram samples, like the Dream Theater and Haken examples mentioned at the start of this article. Even the Watchtower example doesn’t separate the letters’s elements by short silences, but at least their hyphens last three dots.
We’ve spoken about its rhythmic facet, but not about how we could apply morse code melodically or tonally. Now, you could come up with different systems and they would be as valid as mine, but I’m just making examples here. You’ve basically got two states in which your element can be: hyphen or dot. This means that you could assign each one to an instrument; let’s say guitar and keyboard. Thus, you’ve removed the rhythmic side of the code, but you need to be a bit creative. In order to fully understand what letter you play without the rhythmic pattern of the letters, you’d have to assign one note to each position of characters. There can be no more than five characters to encode a single letter (all five-tick characters are actually numbers), so you could easily apply a pentatonic scale to their positions. Let’s take aeolian A. The first unit of a character’s code would be A, the second, C; the third, D; the fourth, E; and the fifth, G. If we assign dot marks to the guitar and hyphen marks to the keyboard, and we tell them to play the letter X, the guitar will play the notes C and D while the keyboard will play the notes A and E. This chord can last any amount of time, and it won’t affect our understanding of the encoded letter, as we’ve removed entirely the need for rhythm, there. Of course, this is a bit contrived and complicated, but it’s just an example to show you that you can push the boundaries. I didn’t think about this beforehand, I just imagined that system here, on the spot, because we all can. In any case, I’m sure this is a far better way of encrypt your messages – no one might ever decrypt them!
In conclusion, Morse code is somewhat foreseeable and gimmicky nowadays, but it’s a fun way to develop your compositional skills by putting a restriction on them. It’s one way of putting hidden messages into music, either by sampling a telegram or by crafting your music around it. You can take that concept and move it, rotate it, transform it – basically use it in your own personal creative way -, and start applying it to your playing or composition right now. We didn’t really talk about mathematics, today. At least, it was very light material. Consider this a warmup because stuff is slowly going to become more and more complicated.