Rosslyn Chapel – “Music of the Cubes” (or should that be “Rubes”?)

Over the past couple of months, I have read, heard, and seen several press reports on the alleged discovery by father and son Thomas and Stuart Mitchell, of a secret piece of music encoded within the carvings inside the famous Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian, Scotland. Because of the many existing and roundly debunked dubious claims surrounding the chapel in the wake of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, and more recently the “Da Vinci Code”, I was quite sceptical of these claims and wanted more information. The best online source turned out to be a Youtube video by his son Stuart showing the supposed matches between certain carvings and an 18th Century system of visualising sound/vibrations (“Chladni” patterns). A piece of music (click here for a sample from Stuart Mitchell’s website) has been composed, and is currently being performed and sold as being a reconstruction of genuine, forbidden music of the 15th century. I was hopeful that the book produced to accompany this, “The Music of the Cubes” would expand upon their methods and reasoning. I was disappointed.

Right off the bat, the book is absolutely crammed with pseudoscientific jargon about “Earth energies”, “sacred geometry” and “vortices”, and pages are given over to the author’s personal hypothesis on the state of being and the meaning of life. He also seems to have it in somewhat for conventional science and academia. He urges us to “abandon the logic and the concept of linear time as such”, as well as the “‘reasons why’ and ‘logical explanation’ mindset”. Well, why not? As Homer Simpson once said; “facts are meaningless! You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!” But wait, it looks like science is coming round to this new way of thinking;

“…this has recently been proved to be the case by new research in quantum physics. If we wish to evolve as spiritual beings we have to do just that and adopt the “all possibilities” mindset of the Infinite Spiritual Being and step out of linear time. At source, we are in fact multidimensional beings with the ability to be omnipresent throughout time”.

“Great Scott!”, to paraphrase the aptly fictional scientist Doctor Emmett Brown. If you have read any pseudoscientific explanation for a paranormal phenomenon, you will without doubt have encountered the convenient catch-all of “quantum physics” name-checked. As an emerging and confusing area of scientific study, it is a most useful refuge for the “woo-woo” wishing to give their work some scientific-sounding basis. While we’re on the really whacked-out side of things, I also note that Stuart Mitchell’s other Youtube video applies the same ideas to… Saturn (with a handy link to Rosslyn halfway through!). Wow. Call me crazy, but I’ll stick to scientific method and evidence-based research. Let’s see if we can find any…

We are given little hint as to how the finished piece of music, the “Rosslyn Motet”, was actually constructed; only the carvings and corresponding sound-patterns for three notes are shown (plus one further variation shown on a preceding page, identical to Note 3 below but missing the central dot, and also apparently a “B” note). We are expected to take the remaining notes (there are 213 surviving “cubes”) and the rest of the composition on faith alone. Even these three carvings appear only somewhat like the sound-patterns Mitchell ascribes to them. See what you think below, but note that some lines and shapes are used, others ignored, apparently to make the pattern “fit” the carving:

Three of the carvings “matched” with vibration patterns
Of course, you could argue this sort of subjective interpretation back and forth forever; it’s impossible to prove it either correct or incorrect – it’s unfalsifiable. Nowhere is the possibility entertained that these carvings could simply be decorative stylised flowers – the chapel is filled with such foliage. So that we might tell this from just another Virgin Mary in a grilled-cheese sandwich, we need some supporting evidence. We might also reasonably expect it to jive somewhat with what we already know about medieval history. Otherwise, on balance, we cannot in good conscience accept Mitchell’s assertion that the carvings represent notes.

As verification, we are offered Mitchell’s “stave angel”; one of the many biblical angel carvings in the chapel. He claims that this shows a five-line stave, upon which appear the same first three notes that he derived from the carvings/patterns, and that (for some reason) indicates a “G” (treble) clef. Another subjective call, this seems to me yet another case of making the evidence fit the theory: He believes that the angel’s fingers are pointing at certain lines, but this is far from obvious as you can see from this Mitchell-annotated image from this webpage.

Both features appear to be unusual (warning – linked PDF) for 15th Century music, but where this really falls down is in the claimed pitch of “A”. Mitchell’s own “A” pattern carving above corresponds to 435hz. Unfortunately for the author, it seems there is no evidence for such a high pitch in use at that time, and furthermore, medieval pitch was not fixed, but variable. In other words, the pattern might resemble an “A” note, but it is a mid-19th century version of the note, and therefore the indicated pitch is invalid.

There is a more traditional interpretation of this carving also, which is that of an angel proclaiming the “good news” of the gospel from a lectern. Finally, and confusingly, whereas the stave angel notes appear as B, C, A, in order by carvings/sound-patterns they are in the order C, A, B. If you’re losing the plot at this point, you’re not the only one! Mitchell says that this angel was intended to tip off any passing musicians to the secrets of the carvings, and yet this was not the way he “stumbled” upon the alleged notes.

It is also important to note that even for only four carvings, Mitchell is forced to employ two different sound-visualisation systems – Chladni Patterns, using metal plates of a certain thickness vibrated by a violin bow, and the later Eidophone, a tube capped with an elastic membrane and activated by the human voice. These systems post-date the Rosslyn carvings by 300 and 450 years respectively. An attempt to address this is made by co-opting a third, more contemporary system, that of Chinese gong-tuning. We are not told how these three systems might be reconciled; it is apparently enough to rely upon vague “what ifs”.

As far as the method of composition goes, the book tells us that the carvings are in note order on their respective pillars, top to bottom, bars of 9 and then 8 notes, with each pillar a “stave”, and the timing set (arbitrarily) at 6/8. But without knowing what the remaining notes might be, there is no way of reproducing his work to verify its validity. It’s possible to derive a piece of listenable music from any random series of numbers (even from the stock market!).

In fact the idea that there might be hidden music in the Chapel is not original (other hidden items have included the Holy Grail, and Christ’s noggin). The same goes for many other spurious claims dusted down and inserted into this book. Was Rosslyn a site of pagan pilgrimage? No; it was a private Christian church. Masonic symbolism? There is none in the chapel. A link with the Knights Templar? Sorry, no. Would it have been necessary to hide music like this from a proscriptive Church? Not likely. Was the chapel built with the help of Sir Gilbert Haye, who might have learned about sound-patterns from the Chinese? You guessed it, no evidence at all. Is it part of a worldwide network of energy-gathering ley lines and home to a “vortex to the consciousness of the Spiritual Being and thus the Holy Grail of spiritual progress”? I’ll let you decide that one.

There is no deliberate deception in evidence here, despite the much increased takings guaranteed by any association with a “secret” take on Rosslyn Chapel. The author appears to fully believe in what he writes, but that’s exactly the problem – this is a work that relies upon belief, to the exclusion of evidence. But when reported as fact by credulous journalists, the public are left with the impression that a genuine historical discovery has been made. It is nothing of the sort, and “The Music of the Cubes” is just another addition to the mountain of pseudohistorical literature on this humble, half-finished church. The only properly-researched book on the building that I have yet read is “The Rosslyn Hoax” by Robert Cooper – I suggest anyone interested in genuine history seek out a copy of that instead.

Update – Feb 2008. I received a threat of legal action from Stuart Mitchell regarding “copyright infringements”. I have therefore reconstructed what I assume to be the offending image, which did previously contain elements of a figure contained within Thomas Mitchell’s book. Photographic portions are (and were) in fact Copyright Mark Naples. Mark – if you wish these removed, you have only to ask.


13 thoughts on “Rosslyn Chapel – “Music of the Cubes” (or should that be “Rubes”?)

  1. Excellent review. The reasoning of the Mitchells is riddled with false assumptions. Here are just a few more technical details:

    The different Chladni patterns are formed at the frequencies at which the plate resonates, and these frequencies depend both upon the size of the plate and the speed of sound in the material that it is made of. It is therefore impossible to say that a particular Chladni pattern corresponds to 435Hz. The Mitchells used the Chladni patterns for the note A, and the Eidophone for B and C. Change the size of the Chladni plate, and that A could become any note you choose.

    Note also that the three notes that the “Stave Angel” is said to be pointing to (if you accept the ridiculous claim that there should be a treble clef on that staff!) are A, B and C in the same octave. The three notes that apparently correspond to the three cubes above the angel are not in the same octave: the C is an octave lower down. If you listen to the piece as presented on the YouTube video, you’ll hear that the Mitchells have decided to use the notes in the same octave, probably because it makes a prettier tune.

    In short, by choosing different methods a composer could use these cubes to create any number of tunes. There’s nothing wrong with that. If the MItchells had simply said that the carvings in Rosslyn Chapel had inspired them to write a motet, that would have been fine. But of course it wouldn’t have brought them much publicity. So instead, they pretend to have unlocked the “secret code”. There is not one shred of evidence for this claim.

  2. I agree about the woo-woo, and about the book in general; however, the ‘cubes’ themselves remain (they are actually double-cubes); a great deal of work went into creating them. They once meant enough to fund and execute that work. It’s valid to ask what that meaning might be. The carvings of musicians are unique in Scotland (something similar once existed at Melrose Abbey, but they have long weahtered away). Your reference to ‘The only properly-researched book on the building that I have yet read is “The Rosslyn Hoax” by Robert Cooper ‘ is interesting here, since when describing these musicians he says they show “Angels, singing and playing upon instruments of music (amongst them the bagpipe – demonstrating that this is truly a Scottsih Chapel)”. Anyone interested in genuine history, especially of Scottsih music, will eventually learn that quite the opposite is true. A carving of an angel playing bagpipes is a commonplace in English churches, but the two bagpipers at Rosslyn are unique in Scotland; indeed, depictions of bagpipes anywhere in Scotland amoun to a total of six before the late 17th century.
    But to the cubes; whilst it is true that there are now 213 (two have been destroyed), recent commentaries on the ‘music’ have generally neglected the distribution of the patterns, of which there are only 13. Of these 13 patterns, 3 make up 166 of the 213 total, 78% and 4 of the 13 appear only once. This distribution does suggest some kind of code. In Mitchell’s reading, the three most common designs make up an A minor triad, with A appearing 78 times, E 60 times and C 29 times. I understand that it was this kind of distribution that formed the basis of his original interpretation, long before the Chladni idea was considered. Moreover, as late as April 2006, long after the compostioin was complete, the ‘Stave Angel’ was still being regarded as playing some kind of instrument, perhaps a psaltery like that of the only surviving angel at Melrose. The ‘woo-woo’ needs to play no part in the ‘deciphering’ of the code. This is a classic ‘baby and bathwater’ situation. Mitchell’s interpretation of the cubes, giving each arch as a musical line to the instrument from which it springs, produces melodic material of surprising effect. Whether the interpretation is correct or not, it provides a basis for further examination. It would be immensely valuable to have someone firmly grounded in early renaissance music prepared to consider this matter with an open mind. Do such people exist?
    You finish with the remarks “In short, by choosing different methods a composer could use these cubes to create any number of tunes.” I doubt very much that this is the case; the order of patterns on the arches defines a musical structure which would persist whatever values you attached to individual patterns; if you allow that each ‘arch’ represents a musical line which follows accepted musical forms such as cadences as understood in the late 15th/early 16th century (the carvings, incidentally, must date from very late in the 1400’s at the earliest) then your possible results are further restricted.
    All in all, these ‘cubes’ represent a major piece of early renaissance architecture; I know of nothing like them. Underneath the woo-woo, there actually is a serious attempt at understanding, which desreves a bit more attention from scholars than it’s getting. [As for your comparison with ‘Playing the Market’, I presume that you intended it as a joke.] Mitchell’s attempt at deciphering this enigma is the only one I have encountered that has reached anything like ‘testable’ stage, in terms of performability; Whilst he has made some compromises to acheive this, his work remains a valuable guideline to anyone wha fancies taking this puzzle further, and desrves to be taken seriously, even if that does mean ducking under the woo-woo fence.

  3. Hi Pete, and thanks for your comments. I was at points quite conscious that I might be as you say, throwing baby out with bathwater, and that the obvious esoteric nonsense in the book need not detract from any sound method and reasoning behind Mitchell’s deciphering. However, I am quite satisfied that this is not what I have done. I am not the person with the grounding in Renaissance music that you call for, but am as a sceptic and historian able to evaluate the evidence as it stands. And as it stands, it is sorely lacking. I remain entirely unconvinced that Mitchell has done anything more than *make* the cubes make an ultimate sense in much the same way as Drosnin “deciphered” the so-called Bible Code and then retro-fit the “predictions” contained therein.

    You say this has reached “testable” stage; fair enough then, let’s see it tested. I remain open not only to the results of such, but also to any further evidence, though none has been forthcoming from Stuart Mitchell in our brief communications. Most importantly I repeatedly requested to see the main variants of the cubes matched to the vibration patterns. As that remains the lynch-pin of this hypothesis, it surely must stand up to scrutiny. The cubes/patterns revealed thus far bear in my opinion only a superficial resemblance. I suspect that is one reason this has received no scholarly attention. And no, that doesn’t include the University of Edinburgh, claimed by Mitchell to have “verified” his work. They have done no such thing and in fact stated that they did not see how that was possible on the available evidence.

    I’ll take your other points one at a time if I may. My comment that Cooper’s book was the only properly researched book on the chapel that I had yet read remains quite true, your criticism of his apparent bagpipe error notwithstanding (though an interesting correction if accurate). Though no one book from a single author is going to be truly definitive, as far as the Freemasonry and Knights Templar angles, he’s going to be tough to beat. I’ve no idea what he might have to say about Mitchell’s work, but in choosing between the two as books on the same building there is no contest. That was my point.

    You say that recent commentaries have neglected the distribution of the cubes. This is not strictly accurate, since musican Mark Naples plotted the distribution of the differentiated designs some years ago; in fact it appears that Mitchell took this as his starting point (not to mention Naples’ photographs of the cubes for use in his video). But still, that the cubes appear to form patterns means very little. Such designs, even if placed arbitrarily by the designer, will never be truly random. It will usually be possible to “spot” patterns in any human-generated sequence of anything; see my analogy of choosing lottery numbers.

    That the cubes are in themselves probably unique features, I tend to agree – though I have seen many similar floral motifs, none are rendered in this way. But that is just one of many architectural features of note in the Chapel, for which it should rightly be treasured. I cannot see that this affects the plausibility of this hypothesis one iota. If anything, your implication that it might reinforces my own assessment of alternative histories being conceived around the Chapel because it is visually impressive and unusual. People seem to respond to this by seeking some higher reason or meaning. There may be, but we need evidence for any such claim, and there’s been precious little of that over the centuries that goes beyond the conventional interpretation of a particularly ambitious collegiate church, built to one-up the various others in the area and express the builder’s own personal Christian preferences.

    I’m also aware having read Robert Cooper’s book and the various referenced sources in it that the carvings can be no older than about 1480 due to the lack of a roof. I do not see how this restricts any “results” of a musical pattern in the cubes.

    The comparison to the stock market music was only partly in jest. It was intended as another way to show that one can construct a piece of music from any pattern that is not fully random. Obviously it would be possible to do this quite consciously and cynically, but as I’ve stated I don’t believe that to be the case here. I think this is more like facilitated communication, or the “psychics” who pick up what are essentially cold reading skills without ever realising it. Many of the “alt history” authors seem to fall into this trap of building great edifices on the shifting sands of a single crucial point, without ever providing the evidence for that point. Wishful thinking carries them onward and blinds them to their lack of sound basis. The same applies here, and as it stands, despite having more inherent plausibility than the idea of Christ’s head being buried under the chapel, with no more tangible evidence than that notion, it deserves taking no more seriously. If you or he expect this to be taken as such, he must “show his working”: Which sequences of cubes have been used? In what order have they been put together and on what basis? What about the “unmusical” sequences, particularly the one consisting of the same repeated note along the entire arch – has that been included? Strip away all the subjective musical choices and you are left with the patterns that may or not be consciously arranged (for which we have no evidence), and may or may not correspond to notes (which is actually inherently unlikely due to the lack of knowledge of sound patterns in Europe at that time and the lack of correlation between the various lines and dots).

    I find your statement that “Whether the interpretation is correct or not, it provides a basis for further examination” quite telling. If it is not correct, how can it form a basis for any meaningful kind of further work, unless we persist in taking leaps of faith to plug the gaps in the evidence? If it is either correct or potentially correct, then we need to establish how we are to have any confidence that the sequences = deliberate patterns and the cube designs = sound frequencies. I have tried with my limited means and with direct questions to Stuart Mitchell to address some of these, and have had responses, but no direct answers.

    I am not dead against speculative history per se, provided it does not masquerade as legitimate history supported by hard evidence. Unfortunately it seems that much of this kind of work does exactly that. You appear to support Mitchell’s book and t’other Mitchell’s piece of music as nothing more than hypotheses yet to be tested. Just an inquisitive suggestion of intent and possible musical meaning, and an encouragement for others to assist in this work. I would be comfortable joining you in this stance, except that *they do not put their work forward in this way*. Instead, he and his son state emphatically and definitively that they have discovered the true “music of the cubes”. That is what I object to.

  4. hi

    thought you might like to hear about another Rosslyn book?

    I’m the co-author of ‘Rosslyn and the Grail’. Ian Robertson and I have spent many years researching, writing and lecturing on the history and legends of Rosslyn. The book is a serious attempt to demolish the pseudohistory that plagues the chapel.

    I’d be interested to hear what you think


    mark oxbrow

  5. Thanks for your comment Mark. It’s funny you should say that – I’ve been meaning to seek out a copy of your book since about the halfway mark of Butler and Ritchie’s effort. With a bit of luck I should be able to do that this very weekend…

  6. I did get hold of a copy, and I actually found it quite refreshing – neither academic nor truly speculative, although the central “Arthurian” thread was perhaps a little tenuous. Probably for the very reason that the authors aren’t suggesting it as an actual firm historical connection as just about everyone else seems to want to do when they write about Rosslyn. Most enjoyably for me, although it claims not to be a “debunking” book, it does this rather effectively and in a very readable way.

    If all the popular works on Rosslyn were in this vein, my blood pressure would be a bit lower!

  7. Hi BS Historian, I have a question. (Sorry I can’t see your name anywhere or I would address you appropriately). If you’re the copyright owner of that little panel of 3 cubes with the proposed matching musical notes/vibrations underneath, may I request permission to use it in a presentation to a charity college class? They are a not-for-profit, and I’m a volunteer – don’t get paid). If you’re not the originator of the picture, whom should I contact please?
    best regards,
    Dianne (Australia)

    1. Hi Dianne,

      Thanks for your message. I’m afraid my answer is a complicated one. Originally I used the image from Mitchell’s book, on the basis that I was reviewing/criticising it. However, he later threatened to sue me, and rather than go through the legal motions, I drew my own lower set of images. I’d be happy to give permission to use those, but the trouble is the upper set of images. These were taken from Mark Naples’ website;

      The images don’t appear to be on his current site, but you could contact him via this and see if he will give permission. Bear in mind however that I didn’t ask him myself originally (I was under the impression that this was ‘fair dealing’ at the time).


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