21. Sudre and his Universal Musical Language

A very familiar expression is, “Music is the International Language.” As this is used today it expresses the fact that the emotions communicated by Music are universal. Virtually all scholars of early man believe that vocal sounds were a means of communication and they observe that the same five vowel sounds remain as part of every language on earth today. By about 150 thousand years ago changes in the development of the throat made possible the formation of actual early language, but characteristics of early man’s experience remain with us, such as the pitch rising when we are alarmed.

With this background of pre-speech vocal sounds, in the 19th century a number of philosophers began to wonder if perhaps a new language based on Music might become an universal language.


If someone had well explained the simple ideas that are in the imagination of the human being, which are composed of all that he thinks, I would hope that next the universal language would be very easy to learn, to pronounce and to write, and what is the most important, will help the judgment by explaining so distinctly all things, that it will be almost impossible to make a mistake, and I believe the science is possible.


Languages, idioms and dialects differ so much that often one can not understand the peasant of one’s own village, while music is one for all earth.

De Vismes:

As music is the most simple way to express one’s ideas, it is for this reason that human beings at the beginning of creation, and everywhere on the globe must have, before the creation of letters, used sounds as the unique way that they had to manifest to express their emotions, and that is why music became the primitive language and consequently the universal language of the people of the globe. After the Great Flood, all earth had only one way of talking (Genesis 11, v, 1-2).

from “La Pasilogie”

J. J. Rousseau:

The first languages were singing and passionate: all the notes of music were as so many accents. In the first times, we spoke as well with the sounds and rhythm than with the articulations and the voice. Speaking and singing were once the same thing, says Strabo.

On the Origin of Languages

It fell to an obscure French music educator, Jean-François Sudre (1787–1862), to invent a true language consisting of musical pitches. His first effort was simply to associate a musical pitch with a letter, but this was not successful. Next he invented his “La Téléphonie” (the first coining of this word!), a system by which the use of four pitches could represent words of the French language. His original idea was to make an improvement over the ancient use of the trumpet to broadcast signals to an army. While a trumpet could only signal simple commands, such as “attack” or “rest,” with Sudre’s system a commander could now broadcast complete ideas, such as, “turn left at the bridge,” etc. The military in Paris was immediately interested in this new invention and a number of trials took place, with official reports following which recommended that the government purchase this system. My book, La Téléphonie and the Universal Musical Language, quotes a number of these reports and associated commentary, which included those of the leading composers of Paris.

Sudre soon became frustrated with the slow progress of the government and so he began to give public demonstrations, 1830–1842, of his system. Typically, he would place a student in another room and then ask the audience to propose a word or phrase, which Sudre would then play the musical equivalent on his violin. The student be called back to the stage and, on the basis of hearing the musical fragment, recite the correct translation. In countless demonstrations in both private and widely covered by the press in Paris, no one ever documented the failure of the system to work.

Hector Berlioz helped to support himself by writing more than 400 newspaper articles during his career. One of these, in the Journal des Dèbats, 17 November, 1849, provides a very interesting summary of Sudre and his frustration.


“M. Sudre is offering to us at this moment a new and sad example of the fate of all the inventors in our inattentive, forgetful, and jealous society. For twenty years he has been fighting, swimming against the current, speaking, writing, demonstrating, proving that a discovery of the highest importance for armed forces of the earth and sea, and even also for the rapid propagation of pacific ideas, is in his possession. He is demonstrating that this discovery is his, that he alone made it, that he then perfected and simplified it to the point of making its use extremely easy, and for twenty years they have sent him about his business, they scorn him in a thousand ways, they make him promises not kept, in his regard they commit unspeakable abuses of confidence, and meanwhile, the poor man is using, in order to exist, his last resources and those of his friends. La téléphonie, or acoustical wireless, is the art of transmitting afar orders and news by means of a very small number of sounds combined in diverse manners. M. Sudre had at first employed for his sound signals the five principal notes of the clarion (do–sol–do–mi–sol); now his is limiting himself to three sounds (sol–do–sol). With these three notes he can communicate 3,159 orders. Naval tactics can only give 1,815 (in clear weather), with the aid of 34 colors, flags, or pennants. Two minutes suffice [with this new clarion system] to send three orders nearly 2,000 fathoms, approximately. These sound signals consequently can be transmitted at night as well as during the day, in a calm atmosphere, or in the middle of mist and rain. The use of the téléphonie costs nothing, since in the smallest army corps there are men whose duty consists of playing the clarion.

In very little time the téléphonie method can be taught in a sure manner to the monitors charged with the transmission of orders and of the interpreting of those which are transmitted to them; the inventor proved it many times. To the objection that they raised of the inability of the clarion to carry sound signals to great distances, M. Sudre answered with the following proposition: “Give me eight cannons, and by their tones, I shall say what you would like to dictate to me, to a monitor possessing the secret of my method, and placed at the extreme limit of the distance where the noise of a size 12 ordinance gun can reach.” [The early 19th century Russian wooden trumpet band once used a canon for the lowest pitch] The experiment attempted in the presence of M. the Duke of Montpensier and several superior officers, and M. Sudre being assured that the eight artillerymen that were placed at this dispositions could fire at precise moments when he so commanded, he transmitted with a very great rapidity and a scrupulous fidelity, at an enormous distance the five following orders, improvised by M. the Duke of Montpensier:

Rally the sharp-shooters!
The enemy is abandoning his position!
How much time can you stay in the position where you are?
Send us a company of light infantrymen!
Come to headquarters!

The prince and all those in attendance were struck by such a conclusive proof, and warmly congratulated M. Sudre on the excellence and the obvious utility of his ingenious invention.

All the commissions and under-commissions, named thirty different times to assure that the proof was exact and the exactitude proved, having always obtained the same result, the Minister of War, the Minister of the Navy, the Academy of Beaux-Arts, a considerable number of officers and artists were obliged to agree that the solution to the problem was complete, the utility of that method evident, and its use as sure as it was easy.

After having used on his works both the small fortune that he possessed and twenty years of his life, M. Sudre, who moreover has always refused to communicate his secret to foreign powers, who would have paid him very well for it. M. Sudre, I say, has an evident right to an honorable recompense. One commission, named by a Minister of War finally concluded, several years ago, in an eighth report on the Téléphonie method, that in exchange for the ceding of the inventor’s secret to the government, a sum of 50,000 francs be allotted to him as a national recompense. This offer being accepted without observations by M. Sudre, he, believing the affair ended, communicated without reservation the key of his method to the members of the commission. And yet the Téléphonie method has not yet been adopted officially, and the fifty thousand francs have not been given over, and the poor inventor, in order to live, is driven to the last expediencies. If he is not indeed driven mad, he will die of hunger, and it is a true scandal whose causes the Assembly of the Representatives will shortly be called upon to examine.

But this is the fatal law to which the unfortunate, bent under the weight of a new idea, have, in all times and in all places, been subjected. Two years have not passed when they wrote before, here, very seriously to prove the impossibility of the use of the electric telegraph and the absurdity of the attempts made for its application. Yet, today human thought circulates lightening fast from one end of Europe to the other, and in the northern half of America, by means of this simple wire, so ridiculed, whose conduction power [they said] would be paralyzed by the simple contact with a magpie. Napoleon did not recognize the future of steam, and Fulton, in his eyes, “was only a fool, whose claims and experiments obsessed him.”

Shortly, we will have the repetition of the same spectacle for a discovery even more important, that of the directing of lighter-than-air craft by means of a combination of propellers and inclined planes. Obviously, the latter, once demonstrated and put into usage, the relations of the diverse peoples who make up the large human family will be entirely changed; an immense revolution will be accomplished whose fortunate consequences are incalculable. This is precisely why the audacious mechanic who wishes to give man wings capable of defying the winds and swooping over the storm, will experience a stronger and more obstinate resistance. He will be ruined, he will die in harness; he expects to, he is prepared for it. But navigation of the aerial ocean will nonetheless be opened to us sooner or later, and our descendants will be astonished then, because a corner of the veil had already been lifted, that their fathers, doubting for centuries the solution to the problem, should have been so seemingly determined to prowl the terrestrial crust like the most infirm animals.

Time is a great teacher, true, but man is a very stupid scholar.”

Journal des Debats, 17 November 1849

Sudre’s final version of his historic system, his “Universal Musical Language,” was created out of his observation that the number of indigenous languages had so multiplied [he claims he found 1,264 separate languages in America alone] that there was an universal need for a common musical language. Now in his “Universal Musical Language,” subjects were first organized in keys, so the fine arts and music, for instance, are notated in the key of G. Here, for example, one finds,

“sol, re, do, me for Flute
sol, re, do, fa for Oboe
sol, re, do, sol for Saxophone, etc.”

I once obtained in Paris a copy of a dictionary which he made at this time, consisting of more than 13,000 words in French, including the above. One can immediately see the impossibility for anyone to learn these thousands of slight variations, much less have perfect pitch in order to communicate!

He came to realize that the do, re, me, do, re which he gives for “Lion, would mean nothing to a German unless he knew the same pitches meant “Löwe.” So now he began his final project to create separate dictionaries in German, English, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Russian, Arabic, Persian, and Chinese! He did not live to finish these dictionaries.

Sudre always thought that at some point he would be richly rewarded by the French government for his invention, and for this reason he kept as a secret all details of how the system worked. While the French government never rewarded Sudre, as a patriot he had turned down impressive offers from other countries for his secret.

Most people, therefore, might look at his life story to be a tragic failure. I, on the other hand, see in all his years of work and sacrifice one great accomplishment. During his years of public demonstrations in Paris he became well-known. Indeed one newspaper, La Pianiste, in 1835 commented that “everyone in Paris knew about Sudre and his work.”

One person in residence was the young Richard Wagner, whom we can believe would not have missed seeing one of these many demonstrations. Wagner’s famous “Leitmotif” system, which he began to develop a few years later, shares basic characteristics with Sudre’s system, such as reversable combinations – if God is do, me, sol, then the Devil is sol, me, do, etc. Whenever asked, Wagner always refused to answer the question of how he got the idea for his “Leitmotif” system, but in my opinion the answer is from his witness in Paris of Sudre’s musical language. It seems to me a disappointment greater than Sudre’s financial failure, was that he did not live long enough to see his great idea blossom into some of the world’s greatest music.

For more information, please see my book, La Téléphonie and the Universal Musical Language.