The Devil’s Tritone
Written by Heroes and Mortals on May 18, 2021
The devil’s tritone, the devil’s interval, in Latin, diabolus in musica (translated as “the Devil in Music”), or modern tritones such as “the augmented fourth” or “diminished fifth”, is a musical tone said to have been the sound of the devil himself.
It consists of a specific set of three tones (a triad which consists of the starting note plus the third and fifth notes along it’s scale, e.g. C, E, G) that creates a dependent chord, one with dissonant or tense intervals that end on a restless note, leaving the listeners uncomfortable or anxious.
Dissonant sounds defy our normal expectations, they catch us off-guard, and at first hearing may sound sinister or spooky, foreboding, or just “wrong”. It’s rumored to have been banned by The Church as far back as the 9th century and discouraged from being written or played. But as some superstitions waned and musicians and composers began exploring new sounds it wasn’t long before the fear of playing the devil’s interval was forgotten, even if the emotions is still evokes were not.
Beethoven began to use it frequently, as did Wagner, and as the classical music of the 19th and 20th centuries began to popularize it, modern musicians have incorporated it into everything from Miles Davis’ Walkin’, the theme songs to The Simpsons and South Park, Rush’s YYZ, to any number of heavy metal and metal prog bands. even Leonard Bernstein’s Maria from West Side Story uses it. But one of the most obvious and well-known examples is in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre.
Here is a playlist of some of the “Devil’s Interval” for your enjoyment: