OKLAHOMA CITY — An honors college student at Oklahoma Christian University was goofing off with a friend late one night in the school’s dorms when she stumbled upon something unique: a musical piece hidden on a more than 500-year-old painting.
Amelia Hamrick, 20, said she and her friend decided to take another look at Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” when she discovered musical notation on the backside of one of the nude figures in the piece. The three-panel painting, created around the year 1500, depicts mankind’s descent into Hell.
Hamrick, a sophomore, immediately went to work transcribing it to modern notation based on the assumption that the second line of the staff is C, which is common for chants of that time period. She recorded it and posted the audio file to her personal blog, where it quickly gained popularity.
The school said she is believed to be the first person to transcribe and play the song.
“People have written about the music on the guy’s butt before, but nobody ever bothered to transcribe it, apparently,” said Hamrick, from Bedford, Texas. “I fixate on weird little things.”
There are many weird details in the painting, Hamrick said, including other instances of notes that she may transcribe in the future.
“It’s kind of like a 500-year-old Where’s Waldo poster, sort of. It’s fun just to look at all the weird things he hid in there,” said Hamrick, who has reverse slope-hearing loss, meaning she has trouble hearing low-sounding pitches.
But identifying and transcribing a piece more than 500 years after it was created doesn’t seem that out of the ordinary once someone learns about Hamrick’s background.
She grew up around music; both her parents were music majors at Oklahoma Christian University. She majors in music and information sciences at the small private Christian liberal arts college. And she plays the baritone, bass, trombone and tuba.
Oklahoma Christian University Professor John Fletcher, who teaches Hamrick in a music theory class, called the discovery exciting. Hamrick was able to identify and transcribe the notation using skills she has learned in her classes combined with her own initiative and curiosity, he said.
“It’s in keeping with her interest in doing research and digging and finding additional details beyond what may be assigned in any class she has,” he said.
So, does the song have any sort of meaning? Hamrick doesn’t think so: “I think Bosch may have just been slapping notes up there to make it look like music. I played through it several times and it’s not a very good Gregorian chant.”
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