Hieronymous Bosch’s 500-year-old butt song from Hell

This is a testimony to the tenacity of human endeavor born of curiosity.

Below is Hieronymous Bosch’s great, great painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which I had the pleasure of seeing (with no other gawkers around) when I visited the Prado about a year and a half ago. It was painted between 1490 and 1510. While the work clearly deals with themes of divine paradise and damnation, the interpretation of its many bizarre symbols has defied experts for centuries. But it remains a favorite of stoners and connoisseurs of the bizarre.

1280px-The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_by_Bosch_High_Resolution

If you look at the right-hand panel that depicts Hell, you’ll see what looks like a lute about a third of the way up on the left side. Enlarged, it looks like this:

butt_song_1

As the Global Post reports, you can clearly see a song on the guy’s rump, and it can actually be played:

This original contribution to human knowledge comes from Amelia, a music and information systems double major at Oklahoma Christian University. She also likes to blog about nerd things, for which we’re eternally grateful.

Late one night, Amelia and her friend Luke were examining The Garden of Earthly Delights, the surreal triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, when they discovered something amazing:

“…music written upon the posterior of one of the many tortured denizens of the rightmost panel of the painting which is intended to represent Hell.”

After she stopped laughing, Amelia decided to transcribe the notes and record the song based on what she knew of Gregorian-era chants. Here’s the result:

But wait—there’s more. The writer of the website The Well Manicured Man, named Will, has turned the Butt Song into a full choral work. Click on the screenshot below to go to the page and hear it:

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 7.52.54 AM

Here are the lyrics:

butt song from hell

this is the butt song from hell

we sing from our asses while burning in purgatory

the butt song from hell

the butt song from hell

butts

Those sound like lyrics that Bosch could have written.

Music lovers and aficionados: what do you think of the composition?

h/t: Hempenstein, Stash Krod

66 Comments

  1. Quiscalus
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Absolutely adore Bosch! The wonderful deProef brewery in Belgium released a series of fantastic wild ales with bits of the paintings as labels, I highly recommend them!

  2. BobTerrace
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Is this a butt joke? Pull my finger.

  3. ronanon
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    From the youtube notes:

    Posting on her Tumblr, a self-described “huge nerd” called Amelia explained that she and a friend had been examining a copy of Bosch’s famous triptych, which was painted around the year 1500. “[We] discovered, much to our amusement,” she wrote. “[a] 600-years-old butt song from Hell.”

    A math nerd she isn’t – or maybe the youtube author mistyped. 2000-1500=600?

  4. FloM
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I would love to hear the death metal version of this song.

  5. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    and it can actually be played

    Well, except for those few notes hidden around the curve of guy’s right butt cheek.

  6. Pliny the in Between
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Now this is why Al Gore invented the Internet.

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 21, 2015 at 2:20 am | Permalink

      😀

  7. Posted June 20, 2015 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    At least traditionally, all Gregorian chants are attributed to Pope Gregory the Great, 590-604 — almost a millennium before Bosch.

    Bosch and Josquin des Prez were contemporaries…here’s a representative sample of what would have been at the top of the charts when this was painted:

    It’s highly unlikely anything notated without rhythmic variation would actually have been performed without rhythmic variation…it took a while for people to figure out how to notate rhythm; pitch notation came first. I know a musicologist who could offer some further insights, but it’s been ages since I saw him….

    b&

    • noncarborundum
      Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Rhythmic notation was well developed by Bosch’s time, but it wasn’t employed for all styles of music. In fact, even today the chant books published by the RC church do not notate rhythm. If the “butt song” was a chant of some sort, then its rhythm would probably have been relatively free (i.e., with no regular pulse). Sadly I’m no expert in 15th-century music notation so I can’t offer an opinion on the rhythm of this particular song.

      • Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        Chant notation doesn’t notate rhythm as precisely as modern notation, but there were some vague temporal/durational indications. Unadorned neumes were the baseline. Adding a stem or a dot changed the relative duration, much like our current system, but without the exact proportional relationships.

    • Minus
      Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that wonderful Josquin. Can you ID if for us?

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Do I understand then that GrCh is not just a !*style of composition*! (like impressionism) but a !*specific body of compositions*! attributed to Pope Gregory? Thus another composer cannot compose “Gregorian chant”?

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

        Trivia note:

        There are three separate and distinct Pope Gregorys after which the following four items are named.

        Gregorian chant
        The Gregorian mission
        The Gregorian Reform
        The Gregorian Calendar

      • Posted June 21, 2015 at 10:22 am | Permalink

        Yes and no. Technically, Gregorian Chant is the body of work preserved in the Liber Usualis. But, if you write something in that same style, the only meaningful stylistic label to apply to it would also be, “Gregorian Chant.”

        b&

  8. Posted June 20, 2015 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Did they also transcribe and play the music in the book under the lute?

  9. bric
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Surely it should be played on a sackbut? Or at least a trumpet?

    • Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      lol

      • Taskin
        Posted June 20, 2015 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        +1

    • kevin7alexander
      Posted June 21, 2015 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      I think that it’s from The Life of Brian butt there’s a Terry Gilliam animation of a fanfare played ex ano.
      Nancy thinks it’s from the Holy Grail.

      • Posted June 21, 2015 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        I may be wrong ( it has happened) but I think those ex ano fanfares of Gillian’s might have appeared in several places, including the regular Python Tv shows.

        • Posted June 21, 2015 at 9:39 am | Permalink

          Kind of like the huge foot coming down and stomping people/stuff.

  10. Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I would guess that Bosch was simply and randomly putting dots on lines/spaces, and not actually “composing” a tune.

    The first interval in the third “measure” of Amelia’s interpretation is a tritone, which any composer of the time trying to write a tune probably would’ve avoided.

    • Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      (There are more reasons it comes across as random rather than “composed”, but I’ll refrain from getting too nitty gritty unless someone’s really interested.)

      • mecwordpress
        Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        Please do. I am.

        • Posted June 20, 2015 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

          Well, first, there is a lot of redundancy, which typically would’ve been avoided. This takes two forms: 1) pitches repeated in immediate succession (although you sometimes see this in chant, you never see it to this degree); 2) “E” comes across as an upper limit in more measures than is necessary or typical for establishing such a “goal note”. It begins to sound monotonous (in the most literal sense 🙂 ).

          Additionally, although our modern conception of tonality would’ve been foreign to writers of chant, it’s still obvious that they perceived the relationship between the two pitches in a perfect fifth as very important (we call this relationship “tonic” and “dominant”). Chants typically begin and end on either the “tonic” or “dominant”. Since “E” is so prominent in this chant, and since it begins with “A”, one would be on firm ground asserting the fifth “A-E” as the definitive interval. So why does it conclude on “F”?

          • Taskin
            Posted June 20, 2015 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

            Agreed, the tritone and ending on F were things that stuck out to me as well. Thanks for your analysis. 🙂

    • bric
      Posted June 20, 2015 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure when the association of the tritone with the Devil began, but it just could be a deliberate reference by Bosch

      • Posted June 20, 2015 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        Diabolus in musica.

        Maybe. Although the real reason composers avoided it is because it is a comparatively difficult interval to sing in tune.

      • Filippo
        Posted June 20, 2015 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        I have a fuzzy memory of reading that it was sometime in the Middle Ages, that adding another tone or two “corrupted” the purity of the single tone. Hence the “harm” in “harmony”? Just speculating.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 20, 2015 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

          Putting the “harm” back in harmony. I figure that would be my motto if I attempted a singing career.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted June 20, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      It’s aleatoric! Bosch was obviously anticipating John Cage.

  11. Filippo
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    ” . . . what looks like a lute about a third of the way up on the left side.”

    An apparent precursor to the harp guitar. (Muriel Anderson among others can be found playing on Youtube.)

  12. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to hear this played on a clavichord.

    I loved the chant. Would have been cooler in Latin.

  13. Mark R.
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Hell isn’t just burning eternally…there’s music! Not the best music, but still, that’s good news. I was worried it was just pain and suffering.

    • Posted June 20, 2015 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      A lot of music is pain and suffering.

      • Mark R.
        Posted June 20, 2015 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        Boy Bands!!! Are they still a thing?

        • Diane G.
          Posted June 21, 2015 at 2:22 am | Permalink

          ROFL!

      • Filippo
        Posted June 20, 2015 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        A lot of pop singers look like they’re in pain when they’re in the full swell of their ululations, perhaps constipated.

  14. Taskin
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I quite like the final ‘butt’ of the choral version, they held it nice and long.

  15. Posted June 20, 2015 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on peakmemory and commented:
    Too charming not to reblog.

  16. keith cook or less
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    notate rhythm, that’s easy: bum bum!

  17. EvolvedDutchie
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    A beautiful painting indeed. First time I heard the music too. That makes it even more special. Karen Armstrong once said that the english speaking world has a great literary tradition and that the Dutch have a more visual tradition.

    My personal favorite is “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” by Johannes Vermeer.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 20, 2015 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Vermeer painted wonderful things. I especially liked his use of mirror reflections. I can’t believe I only got a C+ in Art History.

      • EvolvedDutchie
        Posted June 20, 2015 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        Why did you get a C+? Was it an exam or an essay?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 20, 2015 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

          That was my final mark for the whole course after all essays and exams. I didn’t like the class. I found it frustrating that the historical context was left out.

          • EvolvedDutchie
            Posted June 20, 2015 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

            Art History by definition can’t be looked at properly if the historical context is left out. A shame the teacher left it out. I’m glad you passed the course though.

      • Filippo
        Posted June 20, 2015 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

        But no doubt you got an A+++ for your enjoyment of it, eh?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 20, 2015 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

          Haha. I’m glad I took the course but I didn’t like it. I found the professor snooty and the course excluded historical context which I think deprived the students of the chance to really understand the art.

  18. M Janello
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    The music doesn’t have a clef, so the actual notes to be sung (and the resulting tritones) are not defined.

    (A clef is the symbol at the beginning of a line of music and it tells you what actual pitch is meant by each line and space on the staff–back then they used C and F clefs (you’ll see G clefs (the modern treble clef) now and then, but it was not that common), and they could go on any line. The transcriber has decided on C clef on the next-to-top line, which isn’t unreasonable, but it’s a transcriber choice. So while the size of the intervals and direction are given, the starting pitch (and therefore the major/minor sound) are not.

    By this time, the 5-line staff was normal for polyphonic music with rhythm, and the 4 line for chant, so that this is ‘chant’ is a good interpretation.

    I think it’s random on Bosch’s part, but I do like the choral arrangement of it, it’s a nice piece of music and quite evocative.

    Singers at that time would have just added B-flats as necessary to avoid singing the melodic tritone–the composer wouldn’t have had to notate it (and often didn’t).

    • Posted June 20, 2015 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      Yeah. I should’ve noted that my comments assume Amelia’s interpretation to be correct, which, as you point out in the case of the missing clef (rim shot), can’t actually be determined. Also because there is doubtless more “music” on the far side of the butt that Amelia couldn’t include.

      • M Janello
        Posted June 20, 2015 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        “Music on the far side of the butt” is my next album, for sure 🙂

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 20, 2015 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

          “Turn the other cheek” would also be acceptable. 🙂

        • Posted June 20, 2015 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

          lol
          As long as I get some royalties.

        • Posted June 21, 2015 at 3:16 am | Permalink

          Didn’t The Who do an album (see that? 🙂 ) called ‘The far side of the moon’?

  19. M Janello
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    is a Bosch-era polyphonic music MS (of a lovely piece by Josquin “Missa De Beata Virgine”

    It’s for four voices, and each part is written separately — the Soprano and Alto on the left-hand page, and the Tenor and Bass on the right (all would have been men (or boys) in this era).

    This Soprano part actually uses treble clef (looking a lot more like a “G” than now!), and various C clefs for the other parts.

    Note the long and fancy last note in each part! The copyist had some fun here (often these last notes are artistic like this).

    • M Janello
      Posted June 20, 2015 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      Sorry to be pedantic but I got it wrong, it’s the Tenor on the left bottom.

      By the way, if anyone would like to know why the Alto part (the lower of the two women’s voice parts today) is called “Alto”, from Altus meaning ‘High’, it’s because in the early 15th Century it was normal to have polyphonic music in 3 parts–the Superius, on the top, and the Tenor on the bottom–(Tenor from the word for “Hold” since the Tenor part held the chant melody if the piece incorporated one), and the third part, called “contratenor” meaning ‘going against the Tenor’.

      Later, when 4 voice writing became normal (mid century with composers like Dufay), the Contratenor function split into two parts, the contratenor altus (high) and the contratenor bassus (low).

      That’s why they’re called Alto and Bass.

      Later when 5 and 6 part writing became more common they just used prosaic words like “Quinta Vox” and stuff like that.

  20. M Janello
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Forgive me for being self-indulgent, and if you’re not a bonafide music nerd skip this.

    There actually are enough different clefs that any line or space on the staff can be ANY note, given the right clef. It used to be normal musical training to learn them all, but that’s not done much these days, even in music schools.

    As a joke, and to show that any note can be indicated anywhere, I wrote the following exercise:

    🙂 enjoy!

    (My music friends responded like this “my head hurts” and “I hate you”. LOL)

    • Posted June 20, 2015 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      Well now I’m in the mood for cake.

    • Posted June 21, 2015 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Happy birthday to you, too! Though it’s not my birthday….

      b&

  21. M Janello
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and here

    is a 15th-century chant MS, with a 4 line staff and the C clef on the next-to-top line.

    (LOL, I picked this completely at random and it actually kind of looks and sounds like that Bosch piece)

  22. merilee
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    hilarious!

  23. Posted June 21, 2015 at 2:04 am | Permalink

    I’ve always found it amusing that the devils and demons depicted in this work are – bilaterally symmetrical animals with forward-facing eyes…! No imagination whatsoever….!

  24. Robert Seidel
    Posted June 21, 2015 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    It’s funny that this kind of bizarre symbolism, though mainly associated with him now, wasn’t specific to Bosch, but appears to have been a whole sub-genre: I’ve seen a painting in similar style, but by Luke Cranach the Elder, in Berlin.

  25. Posted June 21, 2015 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Did you know there is another Bosch tryptic painting in a museum in Vienna … I saw it in 2006 and wrote about it in my travel journal … if I had a blog back then, I would have blogged about it

  26. Posted June 22, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    [sigh]

    This is a good example of when I wish I was more musical. I cannot “picture” what the sounds would be like, other than the “this is higher than this” and so on.


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