Chess Music

For absolutely no good reason, I found myself wondering what a chess game would sound like if played on the piano. One can't help but notice that algebraic chess notation maps almost perfectly to scientific pitch notation...


The eight columns of a chess board correspond to the eight audible octaves.  E.g., C4 is a middle square on the chess board and C4 is "middle C" on the piano...


(Both images from Wikimedia Commons).


I know what you're thinking: the diatonic scale has seven notes "A" through "G," but the chess board goes up to "H."  So how can we overlay chess notation with pitch notation?

Fear not!  We'll simply use the Northern European system of musical notation, where an "H" indicates a B Natural, and a "B" indicates a B flat.  This is the notation that composers from Schumann to Lizst used to sign the name "B-A-C-H" into their music (see BACH motif).

The Bach Motif

So we now have a system for mapping the moves of a chess game onto a piano keyboard.  For example, Anderssen's "Immortal Game" begins with 1. e4 e5 2. f4… which maps to E natural in the 4th register, E natural in the 5th register, and F natural in the 4th register.


The remaining task is to assign note values.  What makes a quarter note, a half note, and a whole note?

The relative value of chess pieces is Pawn = 1, Knight = 3, Bishop = 3, Rook = 5, Queen = 9, and King = Infinity.

Assigning these exact ratios to note values will create some rather annoying polyrhythms.  So let's round off the ratios a tiny bit and assign the following note values to the chess pieces: Pawn = 1/16th note, Knight = 1/8th note, Bishop = 1/8th note, Rook = 1/4 note, Queen = 1/2 note, and King = rest.


To put the icing on the cake, let's condense the 8 registers into a single octave to make the chess melodies more tolerable. If a note is doubled (as in 1. e4 e5), let's jump the second note up an octave to provide some flavor.

So without further ado, here are three famous chess games mapped onto the piano:

"THE IMMORTAL GAME" June 21 1851

In "The Immortal Game," Adolf Anderssen gave up both rooks, a bishop, and ultimately his queen, in order to checkmate Lionel Kieseritzky using only his three remaining minor pieces - a bishop and two knights.

LISTEN TO THE MP3: The Immortal Game

I set blues chords in the left hand to justify the constant tonal shifts from B to b flat in this chess game. The chords modulate from C Major to F Major and finally end in B Flat Major.

The game/melody: Pe4 Pe5 Pf4 Pe x Pf4 Bc4 Qh4+ Kf1 b5?! Bxb5 Nf6 Nf3 Qh6 Pd3 Nh5 Nh4 Qg5 Nf5 Pc6 Pg4 Nf6 Rg1!! Pcxb5? Ph4 Qg6 Ph5 Qg5 Qf3 Ng8 Bxf4 Qf6 Nc3 Bc5 Nd5 Qxb2 Bd6 Bxg1? Pe5! Qxa1+ Ke2 Na6 Nxg7+ Kd8 Qf6+ Nxf6 Be7#

THE OPERA GAME 1858, Paris

In "The Opera Game," Paul Morphy bested the German Duke Karl of Brunswick and Count Isouard during the Opera "Norma" at the Italian Opera House in Paris.

Morphy won with a snazzy queen sacrifice in what is considered one of the most brilliant combinations in chess history.

LISTEN TO THE MP3: The Opera Game

This bouncy, modal melody seemed to lend itself to a Baroque invention. So I added in a left hand melody using Species Counterpoint.

The game/melody: Pe4 Pe5 Nf3 Pd6 Pd4 Bg4? Pd4xe5 Bxf3 Qxf3 Pdxe5 Bc4 Nf6 Qb3 Qe7 Nc3 Pc6 Bg5 Pb5? Nxb5! Pcxb5 Bxb5 Nbd7 0-0-0 Rd8 Rxd7 Rxd7 Rd1 Qe6 Bxd7+ Nxd7 Qb8+! Nxb8 Rd8#

World Chess Championship 1972, Game 6

Bobby Fischer bests Boris Spassky with an aggressive queenside attack. Spassky joined the audience in applauding Fischer's win and called it the best game of the match.

LISTEN TO THE MP3: Bobby Fischer 1972

This chess game produced a wild jumble of syncopated sevenths and minor seconds. I tried to find order in the atonal chaos by laying in major ninth and suspension chords. My hope was to somehow evoke the major seventh chord sound of the 1970s, when this game was played. It came out sounding like if Schoenberg wrote intro music for a morning talk show.

The game/melody: 1.c4 e6 2.Nf3 d5 3.d4 Nf6 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bg5 O-O 6.e3 h6 7.Bh4 b6 8.cxd5 Nxd5 9.Bxe7 Qxe7 10.Nxd5 exd5 11.Rc1 Be6 12.Qa4 c5 13.Qa3 Rc8 14.Bb5!? 14...a6?! 15.dxc5 bxc5 16.O-O Ra7 17.Be2 Nd7 18.Nd4 Qf8 19.Nxe6 fxe6 20.e4 d4 21.f4 Qe7 22.e5 Rb8 23.Bc4 Kh8 24.Qh3 Nf8 25.b3 a5 26.f5, exf5 27.Rxf5 Nh7 28.Rcf1 Qd8 29.Qg3 Re7 30.h4 Rbb7 31.e6 Rbc7 32.Qe5 Qe8 33.a4 Qd8 34.R1f2 Qe8 35.R2f3 Qd8 36.Bd3 Qe8 37.Qe4 Nf6 38.Rxf6 gxf6 39.Rxf6 Kg8 40.Bc4 Kh8 41.Qf4 1-0

UPDATE: By reader request, I've translated Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" into a chess game. Click the link to see the video.