Music Theory – 0009

This Morse Code experiment turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. I knew I could do it because it is simply a matter of notating each single element and then combining them together. What I didn’t expect was to produce something very messy looking. Let’s first look at the rules and then see where it took me. You can just watch, the mechanics are way beyond the scope of where I intend to take you.

  1. a dot gets one unit
  2. a dash gets three units
  3. there is one unit between parts of a letter
  4. there are three units between letters

To represent “SOS” in musical notation the procedure is rather straight forward. I chose the shortest note value available to us in NotePad which is the 32nd note, the one with three flags.

The letter “S” is three consecutive dots.

A “dot” within a single letter would be a one-unit note followed by a one unit rest. So the first four characters are 32nd-note, 32nd-rest, 32nd-note, 32-rest.

The last dot would be a 32nd-note then followed by three 32nd rests. Those three rests end the first character. You can see the first eight notes and rests in the first picture below.

The letter “O” is a series of three dashes. Those get a value of three units or three 32nd notes, the first two followed by a single 32nd rest and the last followed by three 32nd rests. I tied each of these groups of three 32nd notes together (those are the little arcs between notes, we will discuss those another day).

Finally, we repeat the first figure for the final “S” and don’t worry about any extra at the end of the measure.


That was too hard to perform, although the computer has no trouble playing it. It sounds like “SOS” in Morse Code only slower than you might have heard in a movie unless someone is tapping it against a wall with a brick.

To make this a little easier to look at I combined each pitch sounded with the first rest immediately following it. That made the first three 32nd notes into 16th notes. It made the groups of tied notes into eighth notes. This retains a similar amount of space between “letters” of the code.


In order to make the measure work out evenly I made groups of triplets. I’d rather not cover that today but a triplet is commonly meant to play three notes in the time of two notes of the same value used. So the first triplet of eighth notes below would be played in the time of two regular eighth notes.


Still messy although I can at least play it. Let’s further distill this down and make it really easy. We could use three shorter notes followed by three longer notes followed by three shorter notes. Let’s use eighth notes and quarter notes for this. THAT is reasonable!

I’m going to write a short piece using this pattern. This is hard and I don’t expect it of you. Today is a sit and watch day except you should enter the final piece in order to listen to the result and maybe sing along!

Let’s suppose that our metal band is called “Seduction”. Over time a huge number of fans have banded together to support and follow the band everywhere we play. These fans have called themselves The Servants of Seduction. During a rehearsal we discuss these fans and we decide to dedicate a song to them. Someone suggests we use a motif (a riff, if you must) that is like the Morse Code with three fast notes, three slow notes, and three fast notes. That way, not only do we honor our fans, but we put a rhythmic code that maybe no one will ever notice. Here is a bit of the song we might write, the bass clef has the basic motif and I’ll also try to put it in the treble clef for the lyrics/melody (crap, now I have to write the thing).


It loses something without The Scorpions lead singer over the guitars of Black Sabbath with the sensuous percussion of Godsmack. Oh well.

If you try to enter that, make sure you select the three over four time signature and create at least 17 measures.

Next time we look at an overview of chords related to the C Major Scale. We’re getting close to talking about actually writing music.

10 thoughts on “Music Theory – 0009

  1. I’m in the process of entering this into Notation so I can have a play with it. Why do you have the rests taking up one half of the first measure? why not start the music at the start of the measure. Is it because it helps in the ‘phrasing’of the rest of the piece?

  2. Because it doesn’t start on the first beat? Yes, it does help the phrasing or “the feel” of the rest. This is a pick-up measure. I guess I should have mentioned that, in fact I meant to. Notice how in the bass clef the three quarter notes fit one measure and then the six eighth notes. For the feel of the music I don’t think you will see it until the first full measure of eighth notes start. The song should start with those six eighth notes but then the effect of the Morse Code isn’t there. Everything rhythmically in the treble and bass clefs is that Morse Code rhythm. To start the code consistently from the beginning I had to start it that way, with three “dots”. It also works. It is something you sometimes end up realizing once a piece of music starts taking shape.

  3. I’ve been getting a really strange feeling while entering these pieces into Notion and I’ve just realized that it takes me back to when I was a teenager entering game source code from magazines into my old Tandy MC-10. No real idea of how it was going to turn out but enjoying the discovery process.

      • The “Trash 80”? Yeah, I was aware of that. I started out with a VIC 20, graduated to a Commodore 64, and then I bought the original Mac with 128K and had it upgraded to a Fat Mac with a whopping 512K of RAM. I also remember getting a 20 Meg SCSI hard drive for about two grand and had the damndest time filling it up. My how times have changed!

    • This is very much like blindly entering computer code. You know how you can look at some code segments and know what they will do without trying it out? I can look at some music and know exactly how it will sound just by hearing it in my head. Once you can reliably write a “Hello World” application it is easy to then write a “Hello Solar System” program. That is what I’m after here, explaining how things work and then showing an example. The whole idea is to play with my idea or just use all this as a jumping off point to making your own pieces of music.

  4. Bug or feature? Let’s look at the second and fourth measures. The second measure has three beats on the bottom stave, and they take up all the alloted time for that measure. Three quarter notes on a measure with three beats where every beat is a quarter note duration. Lovely.

    HOWEVER, the top stave has a rest of four beats duration. So when the measure is played back in Notion it takes up four beats with the last beat silent.

    The fourth measure has quarter notes playing in all three of the beats, so there is no extra, empty beat at the end. When this measure is played back in Notion it only takes up three beats.

    Is that the way the music is meant to be played back or is there a bug in here somewhere?

  5. A whole rest takes up the entire measure no matter how long it is. It is like a special case where “whole” means whole measure. It is not always done that way but NotePad defaults to that. You could instead manually enter a dotted half rest or a half rest and a quarter rest and NotePad will leave it be. But if you never touch the measure that whole rest will stay there. It is an irregularity and is not a bug or a mistake. Good eye, though. Something I should have mentioned but now it is here in the comments!

    Every measure should last three beats. If that is not the case, tapping your hand or foot, let me know.

    • Ok, seems to be an inconsistency in Notion that NotePad handles well. I’ve replaced the whole rests with a half and a quarter and it plays without any pauses.

      • That is actually most correct, using a half rest and a quarter rest. More elegant would be to use a dotted half rest since that would be precisely correct. NotePad defaults to a whole rest for an empty measure and Notion defaults to the half rest. When there is to be nothing in the measure you need not do anything at all in either case. What is interesting is that Notion would allow you to enter a symbol with too many beats, something that NotePad will not allow.

        I was able to play with Notion enough to show a bug using the piano. In Four Four time if you just start entering quarter notes it will indeed jump to the next measure after the fourth quarter note; however, if you enter a dotted whole note in the treble clef — which it should NOT allow — you can then enter six quarter notes in the bass clef of the same measure. THAT is a bug, although such measure enforcement is something you can toggle on and off in some programs. You might consider it a feature where you would go back later and correct it, maybe designating that specific measure with a Six Four time signature. In some ways this is handy although in this case it is inconsistent.

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