©Dmitri N. Smirnov:
Music and Morse code

Music is a language, and therefore it can be translated into other languages.  Of course, such a sort of translation may not prove absolutely perfect or correct, but it can help us to perceive music from a new, quite unusual point of view, and can give us insights into music and its structural elements.  One of the main elements of music, rhythm, also represents one of the main constituents of “Morse code” telegraphy.

Morse code was developed by Samuel Morse  and Alfred Vail in 1835, and is a system of representing letters, numbers and punctuation marks by means of a code signal sent intermittently.

Morse code is an early form of digital communication; however, unlike modern binary digital codes that use just two states (commonly represented as 1 and 0), it uses five: dot (·), dash (–), short gap (between each letter), medium gap (between words) and long gap (between sentences).  If the duration of a dot is taken to be one unit then that of a dash is three units.  The space between the components of one character is one unit; between characters is three units; and between words, seven units.

The world standard  :

People often speak or write Morse code using words “Dit” (or Di) for a dot and “Dah” for a dash.  So, the words “MORSE CODE” can be written like this: Dah-Dah, Dah-Dah-Dah, Di-Dah-Dit, DiDiDit, Dit;  Dah-Di-Dah-Dit, Dah-Dah-Dah, Dah-Di-Dit, Dit.

About 10 of the 66 six-element codes are used to represent punctuation.  In addition, some seven- and eight-element codes have been defined.  For example, to indicate that a mistake has been made and for the receiver to delete the last word, the pattern: ......... (eight dots), is sent.

Despite all of these patterns not having clear definitions, it is remarkable that here we have all the combinations of these two ‘dot’ and ‘dash’ elements:

 2 x one-element codes,
 4 x two-element codes,
 8 x three-element codes,
 16 x four-element codes,
 32 x five-element codes,
 64 x six-element codes,
 128 x seven-element codes, etc.

Music is also a great field for combinatory processes.  However, unlike Morse code, rhythm in music operates via multitudes of the most different durations.  But we can see that such multitudinous durations in music can be divided into the “relatively short” and the “relatively long”.  By the way; on beginning to compose music, a composer often thinks in terms of more or less abstract rhythmic patterns consisting of shorter and longer durations, and only afterwards precisely defines them in the time-and-rhythmic framework.

We can apply Morse code to music in two different ways:

1) To use as an analytical tool in order to distinguish and classify rhythmic-motives;
2) To encrypt (encode or encipher) words and meanings within the notated composition.

Rhythmic-patterns or motives can be defined as follows:

Example 1

From the above definition we can gain a clear picture of how a composer can introduce, combine and develop rhythmic-motives in a composition, visibly demonstrating rhythmic structure within a piece.

Example 2. L. van Beethoven, Piano Sonata Op.2, No.1

In the above example we can easily see the introduction of the four-element “H-motive”, then its diminution, shifting in the left hand, shortening and transforming it into the three-element “S-motive”; shifting it again, and also a combination of both these motive forms with the two-element “A-motive”:

Melodic passages read with Morse code sometimes look like the words of some unknown language, as in the following fragment from Webern’s 6 Stücke, Op.6, No 4:

Example 3. Anton Webern. 6 Stücke für Orchester, Op.6, No 4, piccolo part

If a composer uses longer rhythmic-motives or if there is not a clear phrasing or gap between the motives, the task of decyphering becomes difficult and admits a few different interpretations, as the motive of the accompaniment in the following example demonstrates:

Example 4. Pierre Boulez. Douze notations, for piano, No. 4 (1945)

For centuries composers have been encrypting words and meanings in their music: there are many ways of doing this and Morse code represents a very effective means of encryption.

Numerous examples exist of composers purposely using Morse code in their compositions; the following is a fragment from the solo cello part of Messagesquisse by Pierre Boulez, which he dedicated to Paul Sacher:  the name “Sacher” is encoded by various means including by way of Morse code:

Example 5. Pierre Boulez. Messagesquisse for 7 celli (1976), b.13

Simultaneously, the five rests of the celli (2-6) repeat the same rhythmic patterns (with col legni batutti), but in rotation mode, spelling “Sacher” in various presentations:


In the episode before the cadenza, Boulez returns to the same idea, however, this example suggests a different approach:

Example 6. Pierre Boulez. Messagesquisse for 7 celli (1976), bb.117-118

Though the six accompanying celli (playing semitone trills) encrypt the name of the dedicatee in the shuffled order: “Sreach”, the rhythm of the accents in m. 118 present it in its recognisable form: “Sacher”.

The next few examples are from the vast pop music repertoire.  The song “Miss Morse” from the album “One Nation Underground” recorded in 1967 by the band "Pearls Before Swine", has an “adult-rated”-Morse code message in it; the Chorus is revealed to contain a vulgar lyric encrypted via Morse code:

Oh Dear, Miss Morse,
I want you,
Oh yes, I do,
I want you…
Dit Dit Dah Dit
Dit Dit Dah
Dah Dit Dah Dit
Dah Dit Dah

Another song, YYZ, from the 1981 album “Moving Pictures”, is based on the rhythmic code 'y y z' (dash dot dash dash, dash dot dash dash, dash dash dot dot).  YYZ was the transmitter code used at Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport.  In a 1990 edition of the band's newsletter, drummer Neil Peart said that the song is "loosely based on airport-associated images.  Exotic destinations, painful partings, happy landings, that sort of thing."
The song Watching You Without Me from Kate Bush's album Hounds of Love contains the well-known Morse code distress signal: "S.O.S.".
Morse code is featured on Ronnie Montrose's album (Elektra 1982 EI-60034) Gamma 3; the song Stranger contains Morse code which encrypts the word "STRANGER".

Morse code is used in a computer game called "RED STORM RISING", by Microprose.  In the opening Credits there is music which contains Morse code that spells out "THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING".

I remember an impression from my youth when I was once listening to the piano piece Basso ostinato by Rodion Shchedrin (1961): I was stunned to hear in the piano’s upper register something like the tapping of Morse code.  Later, when I got the score, I was disappointed because I did not find any clear corresponding message.  The music seemed to insistently tap out three times in the piece: “pjj2” (.- -.   .- - -.   .- - -.   ..- - -).  The Morse code configurations in Basso ostinato, as it seems to me, appear in fact to have been faked.

When I use Morse code in my own music, I try to make my message clear.  In my solo cello piece written in memory of my teacher Edison Vasilievich Denisov, his names (the first, second and patronymic) are spelt in three different codes including that of Morse code.  The dots and dashes are played here pizzicato: “dots” - secco sul ponticello, and “dashes” - tenuto ordinario (see the lower stave):

Example 7. Dmitri Smirnov Elegy, Op.74(A), for cello solo (1997)

Later in the ensemble version of the same piece, I divided this line between the Bass Drum (Cassa secco) – playing the “dots”, and Tam-tam – playing the “dashes”:

Example 8. Dmitri Smirnov Elegy, Op.74(b), for 16 players (1997)

The next example is taken from my piano piece dedicated to pianist Sharon Anderson:

Example 9.  Dmitri Smirnov.  Metaplasm 1 Op. 135 for piano (2002)

Specifically for this article and to illustrate the possibilities within this system, I have composed a simple piano miniature called “Morse Bach”.  All its components: the pitches of the melodic shape, the harmony and the rhythmic patterns, encrypt the name of this great composer:

Example 10

Let us now look at a further example of how Morse Code can be used practically in music.  If we should like, for example, to encrypt in a piece the word “MUSIC”,  Dah-Dah, Di-Di-Dah, Di-Di-Dit, Di-Dit, Dah-Di-Dah-Dit.:
(-- ..- … .. -.-.)

It can be notated by the following series of note durations:

Example 11

The next step is to work out an exact rhythmic and melodic shape with which we can freely compose.  Then we can add the time signiture, dynamics, expressive and technical performing marks:

Example 12

The composition can be completed by choosing the instrumentation and texture for the piece.  In this example I decided to set the melody for solo piano, and have chosen a polyphonic texture of the inverted canon.  Then a harmonic cadence was added at the end:

Example 13

The clever invention of 19th Century Morse code has a rather long and rich history.  It was heavily utilised as an international standard for maritime communication until 1999, when it was replaced by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System.  When the French Navy ceased using Morse code in 1997, the final message transmitted was:

"Calling all.  This is our last cry before our eternal silence."

Despite this, Morse code is still in use in the Amateur Radio world and, I guess, it is going to continue its adventure in the great world of Music.

12 January 2005, St.Albans

(Text edited by Helen Tipper)