“Music of the Cubes” – a musician’s perspective

I have been acutely aware that my sceptical approach to the Mitchell’s work on Rosslyn Chapel’s supposedly musical carvings has been lacking a musical angle. I am entirely without grounding in musical theory (and indeed history), and so decided to ask for a fellow JREF forum sceptic’s musical take on things: many thanks to “calebprime” for his valuable insight. First things first though, the actual “Rosslyn Motet” CD (and the sizable accompanying booklet by Stuart Mitchell) has in fact now been reviewed by a music website; very fairly and accurately in my view. In particular it highlights the high degree of artistic licence necessary to render the final piece, and the incongruous nature of the final product. It complements well my own sceptical review of Thomas Mitchell’s book here, so I’d suggest checking it out before wading through the following.

I have asked Stuart Mitchell in a brief exchange of Youtube messages to clarify what carvings (beyond the four revealed in the book) have been matched to what vibration-patterns, so far to no avail. We also don’t have his final score to look at – Mr Mitchell, if you’re reading this; any element of speculation you can clear up here will be much appreciated. This said, the below is based upon my correspondent’s assessment of how one might derive such a piece as the “Rosslyn Motet”, without there necessarily being any medieval intent to pass on hidden musical notation. At the least it should illustrate that it is not possible to make the claims the Mitchells have made on the evidence they have provided.

We know from the book (page 32) that the opening notes (the first three carvings above the “stave angel”) are supposed to be B, C, A. There is also a variant carving that despite obvious difference, is also assigned the note of “B” (page 28). I have marked these known notes onto the diagram of the chapel ceiling available at musician Mark Naples’ website – see below:

Rossly Chapel ceiling diagram showing “musical” carving locations and their “notes”

There are significant gaps, but as the author says, these notes account for most of the cube carvings in the chapel, so in the absence of anything like full disclosure from those behind the theory, it’s at least a start.

Now we can take the clip of the Rosslyn Motet found on Stuart Mitchell’s website, and attempt to spot some of the sequences seen in the diagram. The fragment of tune at the point at which the vocal enters, goes something like:

| B C A |C E A | A . . | G#. . | G# G# E | G# . F# |#. . | . . . |

( | = bar line of 3 beats )
( . = continuation of note or rest)

Now, the composer is supposed to have used the stave angel as the starting point for the piece, and the strings of cubes in that area do look to be the closest match to the recording. There are four instances of “B C A” overall, two of which go as far as “B C A C”. The only possible match to “B C A C ? A” (? meaning an unknown note) is in the pattern third from the right on the diagram (at the bottom, on the “Apprentice” pillar):

(Pillar top upwards) B C A C B A ? ? (pendant/arch)

Where this analysis parts company with the explanations given in the book (assuming that those two missing notes have been accounted for), is that the latter specifies that the sequence is a string of nine carvings/notes, followed by one of eight. That would move the starting point around the same (stave angel) pillar, giving us:

B C A ? B B B B B (first arch), and then B C A C B A ? ?.

But this doesn’t seem to match what we’re hearing in the clip. Perhaps the clip does not represent the beginning of the piece, but it does sound as though it is intended to. I hope to get hold of a copy of the full piece before too long and will update this post accordingly when I do.

So, discrepancies notwithstanding, the motet is clearly based somewhat upon sequences of values assigned to the strings of carvings. Let’s assume that individual carvings do represent certain notes (see previous articles for the validity of this crucial claim). We still have problems. Looking at the diagram of the ceiling, you can see that the design of the arches does not lend itself to any logical progression. You can’t follow one long sequence all the way around, because there’s no clear path and no markers that might tell what turns to make as you navigate the ceiling. Do you zig-zag from west to east wall, from right to left and back again? Or do you “read” each group of three strings as they radiate from the tops of the pillars and other points along the walls? Whichever way you approach it, you are left with “stranded” strings of notes, and an obligation to incorporate these somehow in the final piece. Otherwise, the likelihood is that you are not actually making sense of the strings; you are constructing your own meaning from essentially random patterns.

Some of the sequences are tough to reconcile with any musical intent, the most obvious being the string of nine C “notes” that appears on the arch first from the right along the bottom of the ceiling plan. My correspondent’s interpretation, which I agree with, is that the composer is looking at these 8-10 note sequences, and loosely deriving a musical phrase from it. If this is so, the bulk of the final piece consists of artistic licence and “fleshing out” that is not based on any historical evidence.

My contact’s assessment of the steps needed, which tallies with the review of the CD, is;
Step 1. Assign a design to a pitch
Step 2. Treat each design as a beat, except when it isn’t…
Step 3. Change the scale (G becomes G#, F becomes F#, etc.) as needed
Step 4. Proceed in whichever direction sounds “right” when played.
Step 5. Ignore unmusical/boring sequences, such as C C C C C C C
Step 6. Add harmony and other lines as desired
Step 7. Assign to instruments as desired
Step 8. Massage the whole thing for “listenability”.

In other words, you’d be (unconsciously) creating something from nothing, with the chapel carvings as nothing more than a prop, lending structure but not meaningful content. Rather like a ouija board session, or the facilitated communication scandal. And like those things, one is asked to accept what is happening on belief alone. Calebprime points out that with only three notes, A, B, C,–even if the designs were random– you’d see some repetition of the motif B, C, A. He also notes the sequences A C A C, A C A B, B B C B C A, and B A C C; patterns which could be interpreted as musical motifs. He stresses that we can’t rule out the possibility that these designs were put there with quasi-musical or semi-purposeful taste. They appear neither truly random, nor deliberately patterned. The obvious explanation for this is that a human being will arrange things in a visually interesting way, without devising a specific pattern, or going to the trouble of actually randomising the designs. As an everyday example, how many people pick their lottery numbers blind from a bag (OK, my Dad admittedly!), and how many choose a sequence that “looks right” to them on paper?

Calebprime is quite right of course; absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. There’s no way to conclusively disprove the whole hypothesis, because much history is inherently unfalsifiable. Especially so in this case, because the whole is based upon subjective opinion that one thing looks like another, with no supporting historical sources. However, it should not be necessary to disprove the theory, since the burden of proof is upon the claimant, to show that what they are proposing has sound basis. What I hope I have done in this series of articles is to demonstrate that in this case, the claimant has shown no such thing; the claims do not stand up to sceptical scrutiny or historical rigour. As presented in the book and other media, the hypothesis behind the “Rosslyn Motet” is a matter of faith, not evidence. For these reasons I think it is wrong to claim that a secret musical piece has been discovered in the Chapel.

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8 Responses to ““Music of the Cubes” – a musician’s perspective”

  1. Brian Kannard Says:

    I’ve seen some issues with Mitchell’s story and published a couple of articles on my blog found at http://www.grailseekers.com. Mitchell even responded to my articles. You might want to check that out too….

  2. bshistorian Says:

    Hi Brian,

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there with your reference to the music-from-DNA project. Of course you could see hidden intent behind that as well, if you wanted to see it badly enough.

    Thanks for your comment – I’m new to this blogging lark, so it was nice to see that you’d linked to the site.

  3. Lawks-a-lordy, it’s more Da Vinci cobblers! « The BS Historian Says:

    [...] arranged with purpose in mind, you can find whatever your wishful thinking allows you to find. As Rosslyn showed, there’s a lot more to music than a sequence of values, and you can build a listenable [...]

  4. Rosslyn and the Loch Ness Monster « The BS Historian Says:

    [...] that it reported on rather uncritically in 2005 and that I’ve debunked in series of posts (see also Jeff Nisbett’s definitive article). Pleasingly, the latest media mention as [...]

  5. Rosslyn Chapel’s musical cubes silenced? « The BS Historian Says:

    [...] my opinion was that there was never any reason to believe that the Rosslyn cubes ever held a secret piece of music, or indeed any other code (though I will approach any new evidence for such a thing with interest). [...]

  6. Andrew Says:

    Great review of the Rosslyn Motet issue… from the left-brained point of view. I agree with and appreciate the hard work you put into this. But it doesn’t change the fact this piece haunts me when I lay in bed at night. I hear it playing softly, sometimes for hours. What does your creative, intuitive sense tell you about the piece? Does it “vibe” you? What drove you to study it so exhaustively?

  7. bshistorian Says:

    Hi Andrew. Thanks for your comments.

    Leaving aside the left brain/right brain myth (sorry!), as you must know this isn’t a review of the artistic merit of the piece itself. I believe I did say at one point that the composer could have let his work stand on its own (i.e. his) merits, rather than taking the easy route of claiming it as sacred knowledge revealed.

    That you enjoy the music and find it emotionally profound doesn’t affect the reality of its origin. By the same token, that (mundane) origin shouldn’t diminish your enjoyment of a piece of art. Art is art!

    What drove me were (and are) dual passions for history, and the truth. I think it matters whether things are true or not, even if it’s easy to dismiss as just a bit of fun. And because I enjoy analysing things, and getting to the bottom of, as Shermer put it, “why (smart) people believe weird things”.

  8. Early in the hi… « The BS Historian Says:

    [...] did so with the Rosslyn ‘cubes’. You can generate ‘notes’ from any sequence – it’s what you do with them that makes them a piece of music. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

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