Inspector Ttorse (on Morse code in music)

In a recent episode of Alex Horne’s excellent music-and-comedy radio show The Horne Section, there was a section on the use of Morse code in music. Horne pointed out that the famous opening motif of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which consists of three short notes followed by a long repeated twice (and which sounds like this), spells out the letter V in Morse code. Of course, V in Roman numerals is five.

LuBee composed his fifth symphony about 28 years before the development of the electrical telegraph system that would spur Samuel Morse to invent the original Morse code, so it seems unlikely that this was intentional on the composer’s part, but it’s a fun curiosity nevertheless.

It got me to thinking about other examples of meaningful Morse code in music (because you could derive code from more or less any composition if you really wanted to), and I was annoyed that I could muster few examples, and those that I could were intentional rather than unintentional cases. The latter seem much more like fun.

I’d heard once that the Morse code at the beginning of Barrington Pheloung’s masterful theme to Inspector Morse actually spells moose rather than morse. That it supposedly spells the latter is well known, though that has led to the proliferation of the sub-myth that it spells Inspector Morse among the sorts of people that seem not to be bothered to check facts. This is clearly nonsense due to the brevity of the repeating pattern. But what of the moose thing? Well, I checked it, and to my ears, the following transcription sounds accurate enough to me:

_ _ / _ _ _ / . _ . / . . . / .

…which, sure enough, spells Morse. However, it has been pointed out that the musical spacing of the first two dashes make the following transcription more accurate still:

_ / _ / _ _ _ / . _ . / . . . / .

So, if there is an error in this motif, it’s that it spells out ttorse, not that it spells moose.

In fact, Pheloung used Morse code all over the shop when it came to his incidental compositions for the program. “Sometimes I got a bit cheeky and spelled out the killer’s name in the episode,” he once said, according to this interview. “In the episode, WHOK, which was a bit of an enigma, the culprit was called Earle. So he got plastered all over the orchestra.”

The only other example of deliberate Morse Code in music I could summon from memory was a sampling of an SOS (. . . / _ _ _ / . . .) telegraph message at the beginning of Coldcut and Hexstatic’s audiovisual lament on deforestation, Timber. It’s an excellent recording, but not exactly an interesting example of this phenomenon.

But there are others. The opening piccolo motif in Ronnie Hazlehurst’s theme to the 1980s sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘ave ‘em, transcribed in Morse code, looks like this:

. . . / _ _ _ / _ _ / . / _ _ / _ _ _ / _ / . . . . / . / . _ . / . . . / _ . . / _ _ _ / . _ / . . . _ / . / . / _ _

That spells out Some Mothers Do ave em, though there’s an additional . _ / . _ / . _ pegged onto the end, which is presumably for the purposes of satisfying musicality (since it merely spells out aaa).

The rhythmic intro to Rush’s YYZ repeatedly spells out YYZ, while Roger Waters’ album Radio K.A.O.S. has Morse code all over it – literally, if you count the record sleeve, the code on which spells out the artist, album title and tracklist. Morse code that appears at the end of the album is thought to contain a missing verse to the track The Tide is Turning. Among the more convincing efforts to transcribe the code appears on the Democratic Underground forum, giving “Now the past is over but you are not alone, together we’ll fight Sylvester Stallone. We will not be dragged down in his South China Sea, of macho bullshit and mediocrity.”

So far, only Hazlehurst has gone to the trouble of properly hiding the code inside a melody, the rest relying on relatively undisguised monotone (or in Rush’s case two-tone) code. Pearls Before Swine do a little better in their chorus to (Oh Dear) Miss Morse, though this can hardly be called described as disguised, sung as it is in “dits” and “dahs” (spelling out four letters: f, u … you get the idea).

The Capris’ Morse Code of Love has several claims made about it, including that the bassline contains Morse code. But if the sung introduction is anything to go by “dit da dit dit, dit da dit dit dit dit”, which, so far as I can make out spells out L, L, I, unless there’s an unlikely hidden subtext about the towns and villages of Wales, I suspect it may be meaningless.

There are other examples, but for now, I’m all out of dots.