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.