Need ideas for easy and fun at-home music learning? Here's our latest Classical Kids Music Lesson.
Listen and learn about how composers sometimes use riddles, puzzles, and cryptograms to help them compose.
Target age range: Grades 3-8, requires basic note reading skills or assistance
1. 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.
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:
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.
Next, draw a staff, with five lines and four spaces.
Decide if you want to use treble clef or bass clef. Draw the clef symbol of your choice at the beginning of the staff. Look at the symbols below for a reminder of what each clef looks like.
Time to create your own musical cryptogram! 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. After you've written your cryptogram on the staff, try playing your musical riddle on an instrument. If you don't have an instrument, you might try an app, like tiny piano. Or see if you can sing it!
3. The composer Edward Elgar wrote a long piece using cryptograms. The piece is called "Enigma Variations." Do you know what an enigma is? 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."
4. 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 sounded the same? What sounded different?
5. Want some more musical riddles, games, and puzzles?
Have a question or suggestion? Contact Katie Condon, music education specialist.