Update on the “Music of the Cubes”.

My first post was a book review of “The Music of the Cubes” by Thomas Mitchell, which tries to back up recent claims about supposedly hidden carvings in Rosslyn Chapel. Shortly after I posted, an observant reader (possibly my only reader at this point!) noticed that the publishing company for the book and CD associated with this “research” was making bold claims about the academic support for it:

“Using the Chladni research as reference, Thomas Mitchell discovered that the cubes, when translated, produce a meaningful and authentic medieval musical composition. This has been verified by Acoustic Science experts at Edinburgh University.”
(from http://www.divine-art.com/rosslynmotet.htm)

An quick email to and response from a staff member at Edinburgh University confirmed my suspicion that this is definitely NOT the case. Academics – please be aware that if you associate yourself with “alternative” historians and their ilk, it pays to be sure just what is being said about the relationship.


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.