Music in Hell

Yes, there’s music in Hell, but don’t expect angels with harps. Below you can see how it was depicted in the 14th century.

What horn is that demon playing? My best guess is the vuvuzela. I’m told that extremely loud instrument didn’t exist before the 1960s, but to my ears this is the obvious soundtrack to afterlife in the never-ending Inferno.

But the most famous visual depiction of hellish music comes from Hieronymus Bosch, who provides a memorable image in the right panel of his triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, now located in the Prado.

Some intrepid musician has tried to perform the score tattooed on the posterior of one damned soul. But the resulting recording is far too gentle and peaceful to my ears—certainly not the “butt music” intended by Bosch, who may have been expressing his scorn for the traveling minstrels of his day.

Can music in hell actually sound this relaxing? Franz Kafka seemed to suggest as much in his letter to his likely lover Milena Jesenská: “None sing as purely as those in deepest hell; it is their singing we take for the singing of angels.” Perhaps he was speaking metaphorically of his own dark, devilish writings, but the tradition of beautiful music in the Underworld is an old one, dating at least as far back as the Orpheus myth.

Of course, not everyone agrees that Hell has a soundtrack. A friend assures me that the only sounds the damned hear in the next life will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”—a phrase that occurs seven different times in the New Testament. Similar expressions appear in the Old Testament, although with less obvious reference to an afterlife—for example in Lamentations (where it refers to the Babylonian oppressors) and the Book of Job (where it’s God whose teeth are gnashing!).