Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 3, 2010


There’s a common practice among cartographers, the people who make maps, to include on any map they make a recondite, almost undistinguishable trademark that indicates that any particular map is THEIR creation. The simplest way to do this is if, say, one is creating a map of central Iowa, to place in some rural part of the state a tiny, insignificant village. Call it Frogtown. There is no real Frogtown. On the map, it’s an almost indistinguishable dot on some secondary county road. Local people don’t need maps to navigate through that country, so they don’t look at the map and recognize that there’s a “Frogtown” they’ve never heard of, and travelers from out of the area are looking at the major stops along highways. They won’t notice it either.

The purpose of inserting this fictional “Frogtown” is this: if the mapmaker comes across another map of Central Iowa and that map ALSO includes the invented “Frogtown,” then the cartographer can be almost certain that the map was copied from her work. There is no documentation of a Frogtown, as the mapmaker knows. Its presence on another map by another publisher indicates that the work has been copied from her own original.

From cartography, let’s jump now to music. My brother, the Bandmaster, tells me that every piece of music in the world has at least one typographical error, and it’s the job of the serious musician to find it. This guy is no slouch, folks. He has played music in some of the world’s most impressive venues, including war zones in Iraq and Bosnia, on the Ellipse in front of the White House, at the Pentagon and, more impressively, on the field in the Rose Bowl. When I started my guitar lessons a few years ago, I was surprised at how often first my instructor and, as I got better at reading and interpreting music, I, found typographical errors. They just shouldn’t be there. After all, I was playing from a series of books that the great guitarist and educator, Mel Bay created before I was born, and I was not born yesterday. One might think that in the intervening decades the Mel Bay company would’ve taken the opportunity to correct those errors as the books went through new editions.

But, think of this. What if those are not typos? What if they are intentional errors? What if they are the musical equivalent of “Frogtown?” Take this week’s example. We’re playing a duet in Ab by the French violinist and composer, Mazas that Mel Bay arranged for two guitars. The first part has a figure that repeats several times in the piece: a quarter-note figure: Db-C-Db-Bb. It shows up about four times. But late in the piece, it shows up again, but just when you expect it to be like all the others, it’s scored Db-C-Db-C. The C IS playable in the key of Ab, and it sounds OK, but it just seems out of place. At first, my instructor and I just assumed that it’s a typo, and I played it Db-C-Db-Bb, like all the others. Is it possible that Mel inserted that odd note INTENTIONALLY, so that if some other publisher copied his arrangement, he would KNOW, he would literally be able to prove that, although the stray note is still acceptable in that key, it’s not the way Mazas wrote the piece, and that Mel himself placed it there as a kind of copyright protection?

And, of course, the direct analogue today is software. And anything you download in digital form. What almost undetectable “errors” are lurking in the movies or music files or games or other material that you acquire and pass along that contain secret markers, stealthily placed there by the originators to prove that you have pirated their work?

Be careful!

Thanks to T.J., my instructor, for suggesting this subversive line of reasoning.

© 2013 Brad Nixon


  1. Thanks for the heads up. Here I figured it was always just poor guitar playing on my part, but now it all makes sense. But, of course, we can leave the poor guitar work to explain all those other goofs.

    Does the same hold true in any way for prose, or are errors there still falling into the realm of typos?


    • That’s a good question. I think in text, a typo is a typo, unless you want to count the slightly crazy proofreader we had in my first job, who took to putting intentional errors into copy just to prove that no one else could catch mistakes except he. Those were his final days, though.


  2. This explains a lot. How we all scratch our heads when there is an obvious error in a score of an anthem in our church choir, like a missing dot on a half note on one line of a four part piece which is written in 3/4 time……and our esteemed retired University level music professor states that typos are “quite common in published music”. I’ll bet he knows the score, too.


    • According to a certain Army bandmaster of our acquaintance, EVERY piece of music has a typo, and it’s the musician’s job to find it!


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