Is Stonehenge A Musical Infographic?

Stonehenge (AP Photo/Magnum for National Geographic, Chris Steele Perkins)

When you’ve got a five-thousand-year-old edifice in the middle of your country, with no real clue as to its original purpose, it’s understandable that a few whackadoo theories might emerge now and again, and believe you me, the Brits have heard them all. Everything from a sacrificial altar to the landing pad of an alien race to, well, a pandorica.

But this one is rather good, and it comes from Steven Waller, a scientific researcher, working from California. He has a theory that the stones correspond to the rippling arrangement of absences and fortifications that come when two instruments continuously play the same note.

The sound is broken into regularly spaced blocks, where it alternates between cancelling itself out, and reinforcing itself, depending on where you stand in relation to it. This, Waller proposes, will have appeared to be quite magical to neolithic minds, as if there were regularly-spaced physical objects blocking the sound out. And maybe Stonehenge is a physical depiction of those non-existent objects.

So how do you test a theory like this? In Waller’s case you set up an air pump and have it blow across two flutes, both playing the same drone note. Then you walk around them and see what happens. He told the American Association for the Advancement of Science (as quoted in the Guardian):  “What I found unexpected was how I experienced those regions of quiet. It felt like I was being sheltered from the sound. As if something was protecting me. It gave me a feeling of peace and quiet. ”

The next step was to see if other people experienced the same things he did. So he brought in some volunteers, blindfolded them and led them around the same circle, before asking that they draw any obstacles they believed they had experienced. The results were, to Waller, strikingly similar to a view of Stonehenge. One volunteer even drew in the horizontal capstones.

This lead to some theorizing on Waller’s part: “If these people in the past were dancing in a circle around two pipers and were experiencing the loud and soft and loud and soft regions that happen when an interference pattern is set up, they would have felt there were these massive objects arranged in a ring. It would have been this completely baffling experience, and anything that was mysterious like that in the past was considered to be magic and supernatural.

“I think that was what motivated them to build the actual structure that matched this virtual impression. It was like a vision that they received from the other world. The design of Stonehenge matches this interference pattern auditory illusion.

“It’s not a complete structure now but there is a portion of the ring that still has the big megaliths arranged in the circle. If you have a sound source in the middle of Stonehenge, and you walk around the outside of the big stones, what you experience is alternating loud and soft, loud and soft, loud and soft as you alternately pass by the gaps and the stone, the gaps and the stone.

“So the stones of Stonehenge cast acoustic shadows that mimic an interference pattern.”

He also offers as evidence the fact that some of the legends around the stones references walls of air, and two magical pipers, who entice young girls to dance in a circle, before being turned to stone.

Although, to be honest, ‘evidence’ is almost exactly the wrong word for that last bit.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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