Music, the infinite and playful artform that it is, has been laced with secrets and Easter eggs since the days of one Johan Sebastian Bach. The legendary composer, performer and teacher wrote over 1,000 compositions in his long (but famously poorly paid) career – and some of those compositions contained little secrets and Easter eggs.
Maybe he was bored, maybe he just wanted some recognition – who knows. Whatever his motivations, Bach was discovered to be quite fond of a little musical Easter egg, centuries after his passing.
In one of the most famous examples of Bach’s punk attitude to composition, he wrote his name in musical notes: B, A, C, H (in German, the letter H is used for B natural). This little four note phrase appears in quite a few compositions by Bach, and it’s definitely not a coincidence in at least his most famous use of it – the opening of Mass in B Minor.
So, secret codes and meanings in music are nothing new. Since the dawn of written music, artists pushing their craft have toyed with the concept to the point of intentional ruin, only to discover something really cool and musical that applies somewhere else.
The tradition lives on, and here are some of the best hidden secrets in modern music; from the obvious, to the cryptic – to the downright weird!
Hidden (and not-so-hidden) codes in music
Rush – YYZ’s rhythm is morse code for… YYZ
That little triangle rhythm that opens the song (which is possibly the greatest triangle solo of all time), echoed by the drums, bass and guitar, is actually morse code. YYZ is the airport code for toronto, hometown of the Canadian prog rock band Rush. Legend has it, guitarist Alex Lifeson was training to be a pilot when writing the song, and on hearing the morse code of their local airport identifier, decided it would make a good rhythm for a song.
The Shamen – Ebeneezer Goode
Nobody’s going to let their teenage children buy a song about taking drugs and partying. But that didn’t stop this venerable club classic reaching number one with its, erm, “skillfully coded” references to drug use. “Eezer Goode, Eezer Goode, he’s Ebeneezer Goode”, so the song goes.
Listen up kids; Es are, in fact, bad.
It’s definitely not the first time drugs have been coded into songs; Golden Brown by the Stranglers, comes to mind. And it wasn’t the last. One of the 21st century’s biggest hits, Can’t Feel My Face by The Weeknd, is another thinly-veiled drug song.
Aphex Twin – Equation / Formula
Richard D James, AKA the Aphex Twin, doesn’t mess around when it comes to messing with sound. He hid a visual spiral pattern into the ending of Windowlicker – perhaps his most successful and famous tune – which can be only be viewed with a spectral analyser.
The song’s B-side, known as Equation or Formula (it’s actually called ΔMi−1 = −αΣn=1NDi[n][Σj∈C[i]Fji[n − 1] +Fexti[n−1]] – catchy!), hides a full-blown image of James’ face in the spectrogram at around the 5 minute mark.
Tool – 10,000 Days hidden song
This one’s hard to explain in words – so here’s a video explainer. Basically, musical jokers Tool are quite renowned for their secrets, codes and Easter eggs. One of their most audacious Easter eggs, if you can call it that, is a secret song. It’s made of three songs on the album 10,000 Days, layered on top of each other; a finding that only the most diehard fans would have the energy and resources to put together.
Heavy lifting for the listener – but very cool if you’re a big fan!
Iconic sounds made with weird stuff
Aerosmith – Sweet Emotion
The weird spacey vocal that appears over the pillowy bass intro isn’t what we’re referring to – we’re talking about the shaker sound you hear in this Aerosmith song, which was actually a sugar packet shaken into the mic. Low tech, high groove.
Hampenberg – Duck Toy
Remember this? The whole track was based on the sounds produced by a squeaky toy. And while it’s definitely a product of its time, it absolutely cooks – and it’s all thanks to that highly unconventional lead instrument choice. Was this the genesis of the meme-worthy rubber chicken songs we all enjoy today?
Andy Wallace – gunshot samples
This one’s for the engineering and production nerds – Andy Wallace, studio producer, audio and mixing engineer, with one of the most enviable CVs in music, was a pioneer of using unusual sounds to make stuff sound huge. One of his most famous tricks was augmenting snare drum hits with a gunshot sample and white noise, blending them all together to create a consistent, pounding snare. That rock drum sound, made famous in his peak era, isn’t all drums at all, and it would make drum replacement mainstream for decades to come.
How all this can be used in your own music production
Easter eggs and fun instrumentation do more more than just satisfy an artist’s urge to rebel. They add movement and surprise to music, and add to the lore of a band or artist in ways that straight up promotion can’t.
That’s right – they’re good for marketing! Superfans know everything about their favourite artists, and keeping them interested with quirky twists and turns is just another way of building engagement and community – and to inspire the next generation of musical rebels.
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