The NoteAlpha system is a method of generating musical ideas from text. It is a type of musical cryptogram that has many historical precedents.

When people are first learning to read music they come up with ways to remember which letter names go with which line or space. Spelling words with the seven letters is one way used to help gain proficiency. Examples are D-A-D, F-A-C-E, and C-A-B-B-A-G-E. It is a short step to apply this idea to the rest of the letters of the alphabet, and there have been many ideas how to do this.


The earliest known version of this system appeared in the Renaissance as a technique called soggetto cavato, first used by Josquin des Prez around 1500, and later named by Zarlino in his 1558 treatise Le institutioni harmoniche as soggetto cavato dalle vocali di queste parole, or literally, a subject 'carved out of the vowels from these words.' des Prez only used the vowels, mapping them to the solmization syllables, and using the resulting notes as the cantus firmus for the Missa Hercules dux Ferrariae and other works.

Many other composers have used some version or other of this technique to add personal touches to their pieces, usually their names or the names of friends. Some other notable composers who employed this technique include Bach, Brahms, Schumman, and Messiaen.

The Matrices

Original Row (NA)

My first foray into this idea occurred in 1976 while an undergrad music student, waiting for a recital to begin. There is a famous organ work by Bach, based on his own name, which gave me the idea in the first place. In German, B is B flat and H is B natural. Being an American I wanted to use the A through G as is, so had to start with H as something else. Being a trombonist I tend to favor flats over sharps, so assigned H to A flat, I to B flat, and up to the first twelve notes. Start over again with M assigned to A, and so on for the remaining letters. The resulting set is shown in example 1.

Diatonic Row (NAD)

Music generated by the original row can be very chromatic, so eventually I decided to come up with a diatonic system. The first set was assigned the first seven letters as the original, but then starting again with A, not A flat. I also transposed this to go from C to B. The resulting sets are shown in example 2. With this set accidentals are used to help set a mode, or to adjust for a leading tone in a minor set. This set is the same as a late 19th century French musical cypher.

Diatonic Row based on Letter Frequency

The next iteration was an attempt at controlling note frequency, for use as tonic or dominant. A quick internet search gives a listing of the standard distribution frequency of letters in the English language. This list, which begins with E-T-A-O-I-N, was then used to assign notes.

Letter-Frequency 1 (LF1) assigns the letters in a weighted scale order, starting with the first four letters on C (tonic), the next four on G (dominant) and so on, as shown in example 3.

Letter-Frequency 2 (LF2) assigns the letters to the same weighted note order, but one note at a time in sequence. See example 4.

Letter-Frequency 3 (LF3) assigns the frequency order to a standard C major scale, as in example 5.

Working Methods

The next step in this system is to assign the notes to words. Example 6 shows my name transcribed with the various sets.

I usually have some theme in mind, an occaision or a person's name. I'll generate a bunch of related words around the subject, place names, occupations, whatever comes to mind. This is the brainstorming session. Playing through the resulting note sets usually shows a few that stand out musically. I'll take these fragments and develop them. Inversions and retrogrades are a good start. My 'English Horn Variations' and the tuba solo 'Two Justins' are good examples of how I've used this system

Using any or all of the versions helps to brainstorm new ideas, develop melodies and implied harmonies. They each have their good and bad points, depending on the word choices. After that it is the craft and skill of the composer to make something out of these pieces.

Enjoy the journey!