The Grail Code 
More about coded music

Well, I’ve had my fun with the story about the coded music in Rosslyn Chapel, and now I feel a little bit ashamed of myself. Not a whole lot, but a little bit.

While I was dripping sarcasm yesterday, I really did believe that the Mitchells, who are peddling this supposed discovery, were perfectly aware of what they were doing. I had assumed that they were willingly pulling the wool over our eyes—or at least over other peoples’ eyes, since you and I obviously have wool-proof eyeballs—in order to sell a few copies of an otherwise unsalable CD of pseudo-medieval music.

But now, having had a good night’s sleep, I’m feeling more charitable. I’m willing to believe now that the Mitchells are sincere, and that they really do believe they’ve found a coded musical composition in some carvings from the 1400s.

Given any suitably complex system and a willingness to fudge the data a bit, you can discover a code. The various “Bible codes” that pop up so regularly are a good example. Yes, you can find coded messages in the Bible. You can also find coded messages in Gray’s Manual of Botany. You can find coded messages in War and Peace. As long as you have lots of words to work with, and you don’t have any unreasonable expectations that the coded message will be crystal-clear when you decode it, you can find a coded message in any big book.

I don’t know how the results of the decoding were turned into music. But I have heard a snatch of the music on the Mitchells’ Web site, and I can make some guesses from what I hear. If, as I suspect, the soprano part is the supposedly decoded melody, with the other parts being counterpoint added by the Mitchells, then I can believe they actually took the music from the results of their decoding efforts. The melody has a peculiar randomness to it that doesn’t sound at all medieval to me. (I’m not a trained musicologist, but I am a big fan of Guillaume de Machaut—the early Guillaume, of course, before he sold out and went mainstream.) It may well be random; that is, it may be the result of taking non-musical data and attempting to turn them into music. Once that’s done, a skillful musician can add counterpoint, and pretty soon you have real music.

So I apologize if I portrayed the Mitchells as nothing but cynical opportunists.

On the other hand, I see they’re perfectly willing to cash in on some of the mythology of the moment. Why, after all, would someone go through all the bother of coding a musical composition in the decorations of a chapel?—“Unless it was very special piece that contained magical, harmonic and resonant properties that resonated in sympathy with spiritual beliefs. Was this music ‘outlawed’ by the Catholic church for some reason?”

I’m almost positive that the Mitchells are smart enough not to believe this new-age nonsense. That’s why I don’t really feel as much ashamed of myself as I might have otherwise. And another big fat raspberry to the Reuters news agency for making me do their work for them.

One Response to “More about coded music”

  1. Lynsey Says:

    Very true! Makes a change to see someneo spell it out like that. :)

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey