How Musicians Put Hidden Images in Their Songs

by Madeline Mechem

Have you ever listened to a song and felt like the music was painting a picture in your mind, or sending you a secret message? Oddly enough, that might not have been your brain playing tricks on you. Artists often include things like Morse code or manipulated sound bites in their music, adding interesting extra layers and producing “secret messages.” But some synthesizer artists, like Venetian Snares, use computer programs to convert images into sound—and then put those sounds in their songs. A track from one of his albums, “Songs About My Cats,” when analyzed with a computer program, produces sound waves that look like cats, like this:

This is a “spectrogram,” and it is a frequency (kHz)-time analysis of sound instead of the typical, spiky-looking decibel (dB)-time analyses you’re used to seeing on your music player’s equalizer.

Online images and videos of the spectrogram of Venetian Snares’ song “Look” abound, but other works by other artists—like Aphex Twin—are out there, too. Perhaps the most famous of spectrogram pictures is the “Demon Face,” found in Aphex Twin’s “[Formula].”

This picture isn't actually a demon—it's an image of Richard David James, the man behind Aphex Twin—but it’s still really creepy, and a perfect enhancement to the song (not to mention a gift to inquisitive fans).

You might wonder if these works of sound-art are photoshopped. You can test it yourself. We used two free programs—an image-audio encoder and an audio editor—and copies of both the song “Look” and a Microsoft Paint™ drawing of a smiley face.

We recorded a sound and analyzed it. We used a binaural beat (two sine wave sounds between 0 and 1000 Hz that are less than 30 Hz apart), which creates a vibrating, headache-inducing sensation in the ears, to get the image below.

Next, we imported Venetian Snares' song “Look” and turned that into a spectrogram. Even with the quality of the free software, you can still make out what appear to be several cats’ heads.

But are we seeing the cats’ heads in those sound waves because we expect to see them? As a final test, we imported a smiley face from MS Paint into the image-sound encoder. This encoding software takes the image data and turns it into sound data.

After the program was done converting, we took the resulting .WAV sound file and imported that into the audio software, and analyzed it. Lo and behold! The unmanipulated result: Not a bad-looking smiley face, if we do say so ourselves.

Even with simple software, these proof-of-concept tests show that not only are the two well-known and highly circulated spectrograms of Venetian Snares and Aphex Twin songs real, but they can be encoded and decoded back and forth. And, anyone with a computer—and good anti-virus software (just a heads-up)—can make wildly-colored sound art. One tip, though: Don’t listen to the sound files—unless you just enjoy weird, dial-tone-like static sounds.

Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album

Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.


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