‘Alpha-melodics’: the hidden sounds of words


What do spelling-derived tunings reveal to us? And how have ‘alphabetic-melodic’ creation methods been used by other cultures through time? Beautiful BAGDAD, crunchy CABbAGE, dissonant DECADE…


Jump to section…

• What is ‘alpha-melodics’? •

And what is the point of oddball musical methods?

In short, it’s a word I just made up. But that’s essentially the point here: ‘alpha-melodics’ is about creating music by using note names to spell out words, codes, phrases, and other meaningful sequences.


Naturally, this is not a new concept. Many of us have used the ‘F-A-C-E’ mnemonic to recall the spaces of a treble-clef stave, while J.S. Bach famously ‘signed‘ his name in The Art of Fugue as Bb-A-C-B (read in Old German as B-A-C-H). And around the same time, South Indian saint-composers were busy encrypting the monikers of Hindu gods in the closing twists of their melodies (read on for more global word-melody).


But what is its purpose? Despite this lofty historical lineage, ‘alpha-melodics’ may still seem somewhat silly. In a way, it definitely is – but this playfulness is core to its value. After all, embracing some creative chaos tends to be refreshing, and it’s essential to just shuffle things up once in a while. Oddball approaches – especially those which involve starting from some situation you wouldn’t otherwise have dreamed up – are fantastic imagination prompts. And who needs a central purpose anyway?


And despite all this talk of ‘shuffling’, melodies produced by this method aren’t really ‘random’. Rather, they are based on non-musical geometries, which present their own structure – chiefly, those found in our written vocabularyConsider the natural structure of ‘A to G spelt’ words such as ‘BABA’ (a repeated fragment), ‘EDGE’ (ends where it began), or ‘DEFACE’ (multiple syllabic resolutions). Here they are:


  • Alpha-melodics: BABA / EDGE / DEFACE:


And there will always be a base level of coherence to any melody made exclusively from the letters ‘A-B-C-D-E-F-G’ – as the absence of sharps/flats means that all these tones fit neatly into the C Major scale – i.e. the piano’s white keys. (This means they also match all the Cmaj modes too: A Aeolian, B Locrian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, & G Mixolydian – as we’ll see, it’s often hard to discern the ‘natural’ root of an alpha-melodic tuning).


So, despite the apparent chaos of spelling-derived methods, many of the resulting melodies showcase their own subtle structures and regularities. In a sense, there’s nothing remarkable about this: could you imagine if our written language really was just a structureless scrabble-bag of letters? (What would it sound like? Well here’s a possible musical equivalent). But the fact the patterns are there isn’t the point – the real fun is in finding them!


• Alphabetic fretboard games •

Why is the guitar such an intriguing setting for all this?

To me, this ‘melodies from letters’ game is almost too open in its basic form. While fairly straightforward to dream up and then ‘melodicise’ a few ‘A-G’ words (DAD, BEEF, DECAF, BEGGED), it’s hard to know how to use the results creatively after that. Naturally, such sequences span the intriguing to the incoherent, and you can definitely have fun jamming around with them – but it can all get a bit aimless quite quickly.


  • Alpha-melodics: DAD / BEEF / DECAF / BEGGED:


One way around this is to impose some artificial limitations on ourselves. And setting our game to the geometry of the guitar’s open strings is ideal for the task. For one thing, our alpha-melodic sequences are just the starting points, rather than the endgame of the exercise: as we’re just using them to set tunings, with the freedoms they offer yet to be explored until we start to jam.


Further intrigue is added by the fact that there are 7 ‘note letters’ in the Cmaj scale (A-B-C-D-E-F-G), but only 6 strings on the guitar. This means that any ‘straightforward’ alpha-melodic tuning must omit at least one scale tone – which summons some natural irregularity for the ear to latch onto. (You can in fact squeeze all 7 letter names in, as ‘Ab-C-D-E-F-G’: a more dissonant arrangement. You can then ‘describe’ the modification you’ve just made with a new tuning: ‘ADD-A-AB’. And if your 1str then snapped, you could ‘ADD-A-Ab‘ for a new one. This is what all this sounds like:)


  • A-B-C-D-E-F-G / Ab-C-D-E-F-G / ADD-A-AB / ADD-A-Ab:


In a way, you’re ‘limiting things in order to open them up‘. This may seem counterintuitive, but it probably shouldn’t: in some way, every act of creation entails the setting of limitations (e.g. the changes of a jazz standard are designed to invite certain harmonic motions while excluding others – and, on a more fundamental level, you have to choose some particular instrument to start learning on at all).


More broadly, this ‘restriction’ principle makes sense in other practical contexts – for example: footballers develop generalised ball skill via restricted passing, dribbling, and shooting exercises on the training field, and then implement them in half-pitch 5-a-side drills, etc (…and what are sports but arbitrary sets of rules anyway?).


Hasn’t every guitarist felt constrained by the instrument’s sheer open-endedness? Ultimately, isn’t there more variety to be found via imposing a range of different constrictions? (…How much can you even appreciate your wider freedoms until they’re taken away?)


Whatever the motive, tuning by spelling certainly leads you to stumble on some fresh, genuinely counterintuitive combinations – as we’ll see, it’s pretty much impossible not to find them once you get going. Here are three fairly well-established cases:

  • D-E-C-A-D-E: ‘Ten Years’ tuning is a fantastic instance of this phenomenon at work, bringing a novel combination of ‘wide middle’ andnarrow outer’ intervals. Like many, it may seem best suited to a restring (5str drops 5 semitones, 2str goes up 3) – but I say just tune really slack if required, then go forth and explore the delicate vibratory physics of the superlow

  • C-A-Bb-A-G-E: Another surprisingly tasty alphamelodic recipe, with an odd octave-shuffling of notes which combine to a ‘crunchy’ C13 chord, with the root(s) right at the bottom. Delicious to the ears – and definitely not a sequence you’d be likely to cook up via any of the usual methods.

  • A-B-C-D-E-F: ‘Alphabet’ tuning forms an ascending A Aeolian scale (‘Natural Minor’). Despite its name, isn’t actually a typical example of ‘alpha-melodicity’ – which is chiefly about using note names to spell out semantically meaningful words, phrases, stories, etc. While the phrase ‘ABCDEF’ probably carries enough semantic weight to fulfil this rough criteria, it’s not really a ‘word’ as such – more like a meta-signifier for the general alpha-melodic concept itself (it’s basically saying, ‘check it out, the alphabet has sequences and ambiguities!’).


So to me, the context of guitar tuning is ideal for some real melodic-conceptual intrigue. But, mainly, it’s fun – and sounds great surprisingly often too. What can you make with these ingredients? Be shameless in being silly – then the silliness can become a powerful method of broader exploration too (no joke!). Next: some basic parameters for our ‘alpha-melodic game’…and some of the ambiguities they raise!


  • Rob Scallon: 7-string C-A-B-B-A-G-E mash-up (2016):

• Challenge: what can you spell? •

On the face of it, we’re limited to these few ‘building blocks’ for our alpha-melodic game. What meaning can you make from them?

A | B | C | D | E | F | G

b (‘flat’) | # (‘sharp’ / hashtag)

And a non-exhaustive word list:

  • 3-letter: ACE(D) | ADD | AGE(D) | BAD | BAG | BED | BEE | BEG | CAB | DAB | DAD | EBB | EGG | FAB | FAD | FED | GAG
  • 4-letter: BABA | BABE | BADE | BEAD | BEEF | CAFE | CAGE(D) | DEAD | DEAF | DEED | EDGE(D) | FACE(D) | FADE(D)
  • 5-letter: ADAGE | BADGE(D) | DEBAG | DECAF
  • 8-letter: DEBADGED
  • (9-letter: FAGABEEFE?)

From here, just choose whichever other rules and limits you feel are appropriate: this isn’t exactly a ‘winnable’ pursuit…

  • For starters, you can form a variety of common names (e.g. EDABEBEAGABE) and other proper nouns (ABBA, BBC, CBC, DECCA), as well as plenty of colloquial/slang (GEE, GAFF, DAGGA) – plus some general-use prefixes (DE, as in ‘de-mystify’).

  • Why retain a requirement for perfect spelling when the overall meaning is clear (BAGDAD)? Or when common abbreviations serve just as well (GF=’girlfriend’, DEF=’definitely’)? Single letters can carry plenty of distinctive meaning in context too (B=’be’, ‘bee’, C=’see’, G=…Ice T or Snoop? Well, it could be said that their past work has more than a hint of A.C.A.B.).

  • You can extend things to incorporate other musical ‘text strings’ too, such as chord names (e.g. Gsus Christ, DAmAGE, or – to add to the rappers above – Golden-Age star Jeru the D-Amaj-A). And, rather less usefully, the dim.7 sign ‘ø‘ matches the Scandinavian (‘oe’) character…

  • Past this point, my intuitions around what should be ‘allowable’ get a little murkier…but really, who cares what I decree? All these bounds are arbitrary – and freely reimagining them is central to the fun! 

• Mellifluous examples •

Some of the best instances of alpha-melodics in action – guitar tunings, ‘mini-stories’, and more. Send in your suggestions!

—Six-string tunings—

Some are reachable without a restring. Others less so…but you can always just go super-slack when required:

  • CABbAGE (‘Cabbage‘): as covered above, forms a tasty, firm-rooted C13 chord (for a real British staple, why not invite a 7-string friend over and ADD BEEF?):

  • DECADE (‘Ten Years‘): has a weird consonance and regularity (=C6/9 with ‘maj & min 6ths sandwiched by 2nds’) – arising from the natural structures of the word itself (‘DE-CA-DE’ almost suggests the re-start of its own repetition):

  • DAD-DAD (‘Papa-Papa’): a logical name for a versatile tuning – which, as a close cousin of DADGAD, has found natural fame via guitarists such as John Butler and John Martyn. The phrase is palindromic (i.e. the same back-to-front), bringing a symmetric, ‘mirrored’ feel to its droning D5 array – excellent for multi-octaved vertical motions:

  • BAGDAD (‘Mesopotamian’): the local tuning of the Tigris river? While it may not involve Iraqi-style melodic microtones, it definitely sounds captivating – as a tense Bm7#5 voicing, which offers up ‘parallel As and Ds’ in similar fashion to the Open D family:

  • FAB-DAD‘: a Dm6 inversion for Father’s Day (I’d dedicate this one to my own fab dad, an avid sonic searcher – but really, all those global concert tickets he bought me as a teenager deserve much more. Also it kind of implies he’s passed away…despite still livin’ it large in rural Somerset):

  • ADD-A-Cb:B‘: enter the meta realm by adding a ‘flattened C’ note as the end of this sequence (Cb=B natural) – all neatly described by its own unfolding. Forms a fifth-less Bm7 chord:

  • C#-EDGE-C#’: further sample the self-referential with tunings like ‘sharp-edged C’ – which describes itself in somewhat more cryptic terms (=dissonant C sharp tones occupy both ‘edges’):

  • DEFACE‘: a shuffled yet uninverted Dm9 formation – actually very harmonious on the, umm, face of it…so, how much subversion and chaos can you paint onto this canvas from here?

  • BEGGED: summons up an (ill-suitedly) relaxed, unrestrained zone for finding fresh melodic fruit (=Em7 or G6) – although some branches offer up more tension than others: compare the central ‘G-G’ pair, and the ‘re-entrant‘ E-D on the top: (i.e. which breaks the ‘every string higher than the last’ pattern):

  • D-DE-GEA‘: well, some say Man Utd’s Spanish shot-stopper has been a bit shaky up high recently…much like this slack-wound Em11 voicing (without a re-string). Brings a teasing geometric uncertainty – ideal for the ears, but again, not something you really want in a goalkeeper:

  • BAD-BAE‘: gotta say it with affectionate intentions (=E7sus4/B):

  • Ichika Nito – DECADE demo (2019):

—Longform: ‘mini-stories’—

What are the longest/strangest/best tales you can construct? Here are a couple of mine, each with a single line ‘alpha-melodicised’… Can you work out which phrases match the melodies?



(the daring exploits of my friend Faye)




(shocking revelations concerning Björn & co.)




(by Suzy Howlett – umm, fair play mum!)


Send me your examples!

Let me know what I’ve missed, what tunings you can spell, etc… I’ll update (‘tune’) this whole project over time and add more here: spellings, sounds, alphamelodic-tuned jams, etc (everything credited!)

• Word-melody around the world •

Disparate examples of alpha-melodicity in the wild: how do non-Latin scripts change the game? And what of fictional imaginings?

—European classical: motifs, ciphers, and more—
  • Western composers have been experimenting with ‘spelling-based melody’ for many centuries. Here are some highlights:

J.S. Bach’s encoding of his own surname into the Art of Fugue – a work he left tantalisingly incomplete – is probably the most famous example from European classical history. If you’re wondering how he dealt with the ‘h’: well, note names were a little different back in the Baroque era – naturally spelling out as Bb-A-C-B (in Old German, Bb=’B’, B=’H’, and also Eb=’Es’).


His son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach went a few tones further, utilising the common Italian spelling of his middle name (‘Filippo’) to spell out ‘C-F-E Bb-A-C-B’, a motif used in his Fughetta in Fmaj. And in the centuries since, many composers have given Bach a shout-out by quoting his fragment in their own works (e.g. in 1964, Arvo Pärt‘s Collage sur B-A-C-H).


  • Musical Espionage & the Bach Motif – 12tone (2017):


Some are just lucky with their surnames – such as Danish composer and violinist Niels Gade (G-A-D-E). Others have handy abbreviations – such as Béla Bartók (B-E. B-A.) and Franz Schubert (‘F. S-C-H’ > ‘F-Eb-C-B’: Eb is ‘Es’). Arnold Schoenberg went even further, finding varied harmonic application for a ‘hexachordal’ encoding of his name (A. Schönberg > ‘A. S-C-H-B-E-G’ > ‘A-Eb-C-B-Bb-E-G’).


And I guess you’re much more likely to end up in a musical cryptogram if your surname only uses ‘A-G’ letters (if so, make friends with a composer…). Beneficiaries of this have included as John Cage (Pauline Oliveros used a C-A-G-E motif in tribute to him), and the pupils of Edward Elgar (specifically, the Gedge sisters: ‘G-E-D-G-E’ in an early Allegretto).


  • Seraphita (Four Orchestral Songs) – Arnold Schoenberg (1913):


Many choose to broaden the available set of syllable-to-note mappings – for example by including ‘Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Te‘ characters. While Dmitri Shostakovich could spell his own name just fine under the ‘German’ system (‘D. S-C-H’ > ‘D Eb-C-B’), he had to add solfége to score that of his student, Azerbaijani piano virtuoso Elmira Nazirova (‘E-La-Mi-Re-A’ > ‘E-A-E-D-A’: if ‘Do= C’), showcased in his Tenth Symphony.


Naturally, hyper-romantic composer types have for centuries been using musical cryptograms to (try and) impress/undress the women around them. Robert Schumann coded his own name into Carnaval (as ‘S-C-H-A’ > ‘Eb-C-B-A’), but – understandably – couldn’t manage the same for his love interest Ernestine von Fricken: so he wrote in her hometown instead (Asch’, as both ‘A-S-C-H’ > ‘A-Eb-C-B’, and ‘As-C-H’ > ‘Ab-C-B’).


Schumann’s friend Johannes Brahms – who rather dubiously encoded his own name as ‘B-A-H-S’ > ‘Bb-A-B-Eb’ – took to scoring the names of (female) friends – including fairy-tale author Gisela von Arnim (‘Gis-E-La’ > ‘G#-E-A’), Johann Strauss’ third wife Adele (‘A-S’ > ‘A-Eb‘), and his once-fiancée Agathe von Siebold (‘A-G-A-H-E’ > ‘A-G-A-B-E).


  • Sextet #2 in Gmaj (‘A-G-A-H-E’) – Johannes Brahms (1865):

BBC: “They fell in love, but Brahms cruelly rejected her, deciding instead to dedicate his life to music. As a goodbye, he wrote her name…into the first movement of his Sextet No. 2 in Gmaj…in bars 162-168: precisely the moment of the piece’s ‘greatest and most aching release’…”


Other composers have dreamed up various ‘full A-Z’ cipher systems, so they can score any words they wish. For me, making things too intricate removes some of the playful immediacy (i.e. I haven’t got around to trying it yet) – but I’m glad others have experimented in this direction.


The so-called ‘French method‘ is probably the most straightforward – where you just write the rest of the alphabet under the ‘A-G letters in basic ‘left-to-right’ rows. While easy to grasp, its ‘many-to-one’ mapping ‘over-compresses’ the original input information, meaning that (even with full knowledge of the coding system itself) you can’t really decipher anything for sure by sound alone. In other words, every word has one melody, but each melody spells out several possible words…


  • The ‘French method’, as formalised by Jules Écorcheville:


Several composers, on the invitation of musicologist Jules Écorcheville, used this ‘French method’ to set permutations of Joseph Haydn’s surname into short pieces to mark his 1909 centenary – including impressionists Claude Debussy (Hommage à Haydn) and Maurice Ravel (Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn: in which ‘H-A-Y-D-N’ becomes ‘B-A-D-D-G: audible up high at the start of the piece).

  • (n.b. My brief overview does little justice to the broader history here – see Eric Sams’ fascinating article for more: “Thus, the papal cryptographic service about 1596 used a music-cipher of nine different pitches, each variable in eight ways, yielding a possible 72 symbols. Such prolifer­ation is over-elaborate…”)

  • Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn – Maurice Ravel (1909):


Naturally, some have gone even further down the rabbit hole. As noted by Christiana Ayele Djossa, Olivier Messiaen created a highly personalised cipher which “matches a different note for all 26 letters in the alphabet”, and also assigns meaning to note length – creating “words that sounded similar to his organ work Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité“. Musical cryptography expert David Loberg Code (yep, real name), adds that “the notes deciphered translated to…French words from Summa Theologica by philosopher Thomas Aquinas – for essence, humankind, paternity, and illumination”.


Today, others continue this tradition – such as composer and fusion guitarist Fabrice Mogini’s cryptogram for Pierre Boulez (‘B-O-U-L-E-Z’ > ‘B-C-D#-A#-E-C#‘). You can even find out what your own name sounds like via the Clarallel algorithm.


  • Boulez Cryptogram – Fabrice Mogini (2015):

“Written for Pierre Boulez on his 90th birthday…the piece is based on the letters of the composer’s name translated into music notes. This is the first composition in the Cryptogram Series…”

—North India: Mahatma’s sargam syllables—

Global instances of musical wordplay add further intrigue. For example, India’s classical musicians use neither Latin characters nor ‘A to G’ stave notation: which shuffles up both sides of our alpha-melodic equation. So how do they go about it? Which musico-linguistic concepts are joined together to create the ‘encoding system’?


One method is to utilise India’s sargam system – which, much like Western solfège (‘Do-Re-Mi…’), matches scale tones to a system of seven note-syllables (the ‘sapta svara‘). In Indian classical, everything is kept relative: so the sequence always takes ‘Sa’ to be the root, regardless of absolute pitch (like the ‘moveable Do’ version of solfège):


  • Sargam syllables (SaRe-GaMaPaDhaNi):


The syllables are even used as a vocal improvisation device in their own right – artists simply ‘name’ each swara (raga tone) as they sing it (like solfege – but unlike our ‘alphabet letters’ – sargam was designed with mellifluosity in mind: just try holding a long tone on the letter ‘F’…). As with our CABbAGEs and DECADEs, the syllables can be combined to spell out sequences with semantic meaning:

  • Raag Mohan Kauns (Gandhi as ‘Ga-Ni-Dha’): As recounted in The Hindu: “[A new raga] was spontaneously created by Pandit Ravi Shankar in 1949. On hearing of [Mahatma Gandhi’s] death, Pandit-ji was asked by All India Radio to play a piece dedicated to the Mahatma. On the spot, he created a variation of the very sombre, powerful Malkauns (one of the six main parent ragas), that he named Mohan Kauns”.

    The new raga introduced a shuddha Ga [major 3rd] to the ascent of Malkauns, resulting in two pentatonic sequences: ‘Sa-Ga-ma-da-ni-Sa’ (1-3-4-b6-b7-8) on the way up, and ‘Sa-ni-da-ma-ga-Sa’ (8-b7-b6-4-b3-1) on the way down. The tension between these two Ga swaras (3 and b3) gives a special prominence to Shankar’s chosen pakad [motif phrase] of ‘Ga-Ni-Dha’. Thus, he spells out the Mahatma’s surname in the raga’s most vital movements – something which the rasikas [connoisseurs] who saw him play it would have noticed.

  • Here’s the sloppily distilled ‘Ga-Ni-Dha’ motif on my sitar:

  • Raag Mohan Kauns – Ravi Shankar (1981): in which motif appears many times (e.g. at 1:56, 12:57, and 18:58):

  • n.b. Technically, the word ‘sargam’ (=’Sa-Re-Ga-Ma’) is another alpha-melodic instance, albeit not such an intriguing one. I guess you could also have Mary (‘Ma-Re’), Gary (‘Ga-Re’), and Danny (‘Dha-Ni’) – although in my experience, these names rarely turn up in the ancient Vedic manuscripts. Here’s the character menu – what can you make?

—Fiction: TV, film, etc—

Naturally, this strand of cryptographic intrigue has also captured the minds and pens of many authors and scriptwriters. A few examples…

  • Dead Space 2 (video game, 2011): Composer Jason Graves worked the phrase ‘D-E-A-D’ into the soundtrack of the survival horror game, using it as a leitmotif to accompany central character Isaac Clarke – an engineer who suffers from dementia-like symptoms after becoming stranded in space.
  • Outlander (TV series, 2016): As noted by Atlas Obscura, musical ciphers turn up as a plot point in the historical time-travel drama: “the sharps and flats in the musical keys reveal a message: that Prince Stuart intends to start a war to reclaim his throne…” (episode Useful Occupations & Deceptions).
  • QAA 48: Michael Flynn (podcast, 2019): I put on an old episode of this great show as a work break earlier today…only to find musical map-cryptograms being used to parody the overconnective impulses of modern alt-right conspiracy theorists, as part of a fantastical tale by storyteller extraordinaire Jake Rockatansky (it appears around 64mins in, but I highly recommend the whole episode…and the hundreds of others from QAA too).

  • Jason Graves – Isaac, Are You There? (2011):

—Questions & further avenues—

If all this has a purpose, I guess it would be to connect our melodic impulses to some amusing, surprising, and fresh methods of creative question-asking. So – in the spirit of expanding on this question itself – what are we still missing? Where else could our game be taken?

  • Which ‘linguistic system + notation system’ combinations would give the most alphamelodic freedom? This article only really covers the possibilities of our ‘Latin script + A-G classical stave’ setup (and briefly, Gandhi’s phonetic name in Indian sargam) – but there are countless more musico-linguistic combos out there to explore. Which matchups would result in differing creative freedoms?
  • How could we strengthen our word-search methods? I confess to having run a few character-constrained search queries through some online scrabble dictionaries for my lists above, and also poured over the Regex search results of Reddit user u/munificent. You could similarly expand these searches to include the ‘bent rule’ parameters too (e.g. ‘fuzzy’ spelling matches, and strings like ‘maj(or)’, ‘min(or)’, ‘sus’, ‘dim’, ‘aug’, etc).
  • Which phrases have composers and recording artists accidentally ‘spelt out’ in their music? And, from the people you know, who has the most fortuitous ‘A-G’ surname available to use? Hit me up for bespoke recordings for any occasion (if your significant other thinks the results sound bad, then just tell them it’s their fault for having their particular name).
  • Which ‘unsolved puzzles’ exist in the field of musical cryptography? Well, we have a few – for example the Dorabella Cipher: a mysterious letter delivered by a pre-fame Edward Elgar to his friend Dora(bella) Penny on July 14, 1887, written in a stange, as-yet-undeciphered script of his own imagining. How would you go about solving it?

Send me your ideas on all the above!

  • The ‘Dorabella Cipher’ letter – Edward Elgar (1887):

(…or could Elgar just be trolling us?)

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George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!

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