The esoteric search for "hidden" melodies

A. Example
B. Explanation of method
C. Philosophical commentary

A. Example

Gershwin's "Someone to watch over me" is revealed to contain hidden subtexts of other tunes!

"There's a somebody I'm longing to see":
10 notes. 10 is of course the 10th month of the earlier calendar, i.e. December.

"There's a somebody I'm longing to see. I hope that he turns out to be someone who'll watch over me.":
25 notes. December 25th, Christmas.

This is therefore an Advent piece, not only because of "Vom Himmel hoch" and "Joy to the World" but because of this hidden numerological symbolism. It's unmistakable. "Valet will ich dir geben" and "Herzlich tut mich verlangen" then of course look forward to Passion Week.

If we take the eight words that underlie the "Vom Himmel hoch" we get: "To see", "he turns", "be", "lamb", "wood", "watch". This is a reference back to the story in Genesis chapter 22 of Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac.

The reader is invited to circle the notes of the chorale "O Lamm Gottes unschuldig" in here:
C C C G G A G. That's the hidden reference that proves this is all about the Christian doctrine of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, combining the Christmas and Passion Week references into a unified theme.

This song by the Gershwins, from the show "Oh, Kay!" in 1926, is revealed to be a secret (esoteric) statement of evangelical theology.

Indeed, the opening line of the verse, earlier in the song, suggests as much:

There's a saying old
Says that love is blind,
Still we're often told
"Seek and ye shall find."

B. The analytical procedure

DISCLAIMER: The analytical procedure used above is absurd and the "results" are meaningless! It's arbitrary. It's forced. It doesn't prove that the Gershwins thought of any or all of this. It also doesn't prove that they didn't. It doesn't prove anything. It certainly doesn't prove or disprove any "composer's intentions" on their part, one way or another. This method is nothing but meaningless drivel. That's the point.

Johann Sebastian Bach used chorales, and ornamented chorales, on many occasions. That's indisputable. But, that's not sufficient proof in itself that he used or ornamented them intentionally on every occasion where later creative individuals have been able to wring familiar-looking patterns from his sequence of notes.

That is, it's trivially easy to come up with arbitrary patterns that look like they might be there, if forced and explained vehemently enough. That process itself turns out to be unreliable because it's so easy and arbitrary. It doesn't serve as proof, one way or another, that Bach deliberately implanted or ornamented any particular chorale on any particular occasion; it can't be derived merely from looking at the notes and seeking those patterns that one would hope to find there.

Many non-unique patterns can be "discovered" there; it's about the planting of the seeker's own expectations and hopes as an unstated premise. Perhaps the seeker is sincere, and perhaps not; it's not clear from the results, because the results are arbitrary and non-unique. Other criteria than the patterns themselves have to be brought into the picture.

That is, that particular esoteric pursuit of "finding" chorale melodies by omitting unwanted in-between notes IS NOT SCIENTIFIC. It's something else. The results aren't "verities". The results are not derived through research. The results are derived by guesswork, and the forcing of evidence beyond its uniquenesses.

That's all my claim is. The absurdist example presented above, from the Gershwin piece, is merely a demonstration that it's trivially easy to come up with four or five pseudo-connections in less than an hour, in a composition written by a sufficiently strong melodist and improviser (as Gershwin and Bach both were).

The melodic features in the chorales are so commonplace, so common to so much music (scales going up and down, simple diatonic leaps, and so on), that it quickly becomes arbitrary as to what is "found" by picking out individual notes here and there within more complex lines of music. Such "finding" isn't research; it's merely creative writing.


C. Philosophical discussion of the above:
Wishes, intentions, and fish

Someone wrote:
"This debate reminds me of the ornate attempts to interpret hidden messages in Shakespeare or hidden codes in the Torah (when properly printed in Hebrew). The more obscure the quote, the more fun things can be done with it. On the other hand, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, back in the days when folks bought milk from the farmer down the road, 'Some circumstantial evidence is persuasive, as when you find a trout in the milk.' "

I reply:

Yep. Good point.

I believe the important philosophical or logical distinction here, with regard to Bach's music and the discernment of "Bach's intentions" for that music, is as follows:

  • 1. {There is a trout in the milk} is something that can be discerned by anyone who's ever seen a trout; that thing in the milk is either a trout or it's not. And if it's some foreign substance merely resembling a trout, that might be bad enough in itself. There shouldn't be any big non-milk items in the milk. It's obvious to everyone. Such truth is readily observable.

  • 2. {"Bach's intentions" were equivalent to "XYZ's wishes"} is a much less observable claim; indeed, it's extremely unlikely. If it's a valid claim, the phrase "XYZ's wishes" can be substituted into the message whenever XYZ claims to be revealing the contents of "Bach's intentions". And vice versa, the phrase "Bach's intentions" can be substituted into the message whenever XYZ is merely expressing personal wishes and preferences. That's what a valid equivalency is, that substitutability. "XYZ's wishes" completely contains and completely expresses "Bach's intentions", and vice versa.

Now, some XYZ might claim that these things are indeed equivalent, that "Bach's intentions" are indeed fully known to XYZ, and that this is all as self-evident (as obviously true) as a fish's presence in a bucket. But it's convincing only to XYZ, unless XYZ can substantiate it with sufficient evidence! (And some XYZs certainly try their darndest to do so, but without the necessary research skills or the broader information or the hands-on experience with the material....)

From anyone else's perspective but XYZ's, "Bach's intentions" are some historically past thing, they're complex, they're not completely knowable through written materials, and they're not necessarily only a single thing on any given occasion, but rather a considerable range of possibilities. Nor are they assertable for all future occasions as a restriction on the way things must be in the proper realization of "Bach's intentions" (i.e. the fulfillment of "XYZ's wishes", according to that claim of equivalency).

So, to anyone other than XYZ, the claim that {"XYZ's wishes" are equivalent to "Bach's intentions"} is not as obvious as seeing a trout in the milk, as to convincing anyone who is not XYZ.

In support of XYZ's case, the treasure hunt of pointing out chorales by selectively omitting notes is not only unconvincing evidence to support such a claim by XYZ, it's non-evidence because the process itself is arbitrary, fallacious (i.e. the process delivers non-unique results). So, Bach deliberately hid in there all the chorales that XYZ has "found", as part of "Bach's intentions"? And, "XYZ's wishes" as to what's seen there are absolutely equivalent with "Bach's intentions"? And this claim is supported by a process of non-evidence as if the evidence were overwhelming? No, it does not advance XYZ's argument at all to assert that it is.

Instead, it weaken's XYZ's case if the assertion of equivalency is based only on fallacies such as this, then there's no reason for anyone other than XYZ to recognize "Bach's intentions" in XYZ's statements.

To be taken seriously, XYZ would do better to understand that "XYZ's wishes" and "Bach's intentions" are not equivalent. In presentations, XYZ would be more convincing by stating forthrightly that various pronouncements are only expression of "XYZ's wishes", rather than using the pretentious, misleading, and unsupportable claim that "Bach's intentions" are being presented at all.

And, if XYZ happens to use the phrase "Bach's intentions" anyway, any readers trying to understand it should probably put in the mental substitution "XYZ's wishes" as that's all that is really being claimed by XYZ, hidden under misleading language (or self-deception).


That is, there are different types of circumstantial evidence in different situations. What's obvious to one observer by circumstantial evidence might be absolutely non-obvious, and indeed unconvincing, to another. Some fields and situations lend themselves to observation by untrained observers, more readily than others do.

  • "There's a fish in the milk." (obvious to everyone)

  • "Those performers and scholars are doing unacceptable things in Bach's music judged according to XYZ's wishes." (obvious to everyone, by XYZ's assertions about his wishes if they're ever stated forthrightly as such)--XYZ being a consumer, here, not Bach.

  • "Those performers and scholars are doing unacceptable things in Bach's music judged according to Bach's intentions." (not immediately obvious at all, to anyone; and it's especially obscure to people whose notions of "Bach's intentions" rely mainly on statements by authorities, of various levels of reliability).


As an aside: I am a composer myself, and I know that my own intentions about my own music are different from occasion to occasion; and that they're much more complicated than merely a collection of notes and rhythms. I can't even remember my own intentions about earlier compositions from one year to the next. I turn into a different person as life goes along, and I might see earlier work substantially differently, later. My intentions toward my own music, whether I'm performing it myself or someone else is, are that something with musical integrity and expressivity be done, treating the composition as a sketch for competent performers to fill out differently on each occasion, according to circumstances. From this perspective, especially as a practical church musician, how could I expect that "Bach's intentions" were ever any single thing, either? I don't! I believe it's absurd that anyone should operate from such an assumption.

Looking back at my own older compositions, I can't prove or even remember what I was thinking or intending at the time. So, how could anyone do so to another person's work, with any degree of certainty? A good performer puts across a reasonable interpretation, with conviction and fluency. If additional ideas emerge from the music, ideas that I never consciously put there as the composer, it can sometimes be exhilarating. At least, it usually indicates that the performers were thinking about and engaging the material. That's better than not doing so. The resulting performance should be judged not by how well my alleged "intentions" were served, necessarily; but by how convincing and appropriate the product (the performance) is in the situations where it is used.


Even if the presence of a fish in the milk seems obvious, intention is difficult to prove. When and why did the fish get in there? Is it a malicious prank by somebody to spoil the milk, or an honest accident that nobody noticed until now, or is it somebody's earnest but ill-conceived method of transporting trout? Did it happen in the milking barn, somewhere enroute, or at some time after delivery when the bucket was on the front stoop of the house? Who all handled the milk between the cow and the stoop, and what motivations might any of those people have to do something dishonorable?

And, things that appear obvious or certain to a casual observer still might not be credible to a more trained or experienced eye. The expert observer is supposed to know the broader background around a situation, and know the possibilities that things might be coincidences and/or explainable by more elegant theories (such as the normal behavior of the material being studied). In a lunar eclipse, part or all of the moon disappears and it might also acquire a reddish color; anybody can observe these things and make up some interpretation (more or less plausible in cultural context) as to why it is happening. To an untrained observer, the moon is perhaps being damaged or changed in some way. This might be cause for great alarm. But to an observer more expert in the ways of the moon, it's merely moving in its normal orbit and something else (the earth) is blocking the path of light to it, and some refraction of that light is happening as well; it's all merely an easily explainable coincidence with a theory that has already been tested before. The best experts can even predict when it's likely to happen again, and explain to the casual observer why the theory makes more sense than the observer's private interpretations do.

How is a non-practitioner in any field placed well for objective judgment of work that is done in that field? Or to judge the "intentions" of the people doing that work, past or present? Let alone, to expound any supposedly exclusive knowledge of such intentions, knowledge that practitioners in the field allegedly do not have! The absurdity mounts.

So, what's a consumer to do?

I don't milk cows myself. My next-door neighbors do, and the milk trucks go past my house every day. I'm not involved, other than observing this. All I know is that I enjoy the resulting milk, or that I don't; and that if anything looks obviously wrong with it, I have some questions. I'm not judge and jury of everybody who handled that milk, nor do I have proof of anyone's intentions in that handling. My wishes as the consumer are that the resulting milk be fresh and clean and nutritious, to my expectations. I can hope that the "intentions" of people in the dairy industry would include the delivery of such a product...but they might also have additional "intentions" completely unknown to me, or having nothing directly to do with the product (such as providing employment to underprivileged workers who otherwise would have no livelihood).

As a consumer it's not my place to know those other intentions of the dairymen, or even care much about it, let alone any judgment of their morality or their sincerity. I get my milk and it pleases me, or displeases me.

  • Do I claim that my wishes with regard to that milk are equivalent to the entirety of the dairyman's "intentions" in producing it? No, that's absurd.
  • Do I go around telling other consumers that I alone understand the dairyman's "intentions"? No, that too is absurd.
  • Do I go lecture dairymen in public as to the proper execution of their duties, step by step? Do I go look up things in books to try to "prove" to them that they're wrong about their own business? Nope; absurd.

Sure, I can offer suggestions as to the type of product I would wish to receive as their customer, and they may take it under advisement, deciding for themselves what (if anything) to do about it. It's their job to balance the information available to them, and to do their business as they see fit.

Brad Lehman