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A Brief History of the Devil's Tritone

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Music is a powerful thing: It can raise our spirits, carry us through athletic challenges, and make us weep. Its very fabric is a source of power and intrigue, too, since just a measly few tones might do anything from shatter glass to manifest the Devil’s Tritone.

Also called the Devil's Triad, the Devil's Interval, and diabolus in musica, this combination of tones has led to some of the most chilling chords and melodies in music history, from classical compositions to heavy metal riffs, and even has a reputation for being banned by religious authority in centuries past. As much as it’s inspired composers to explore the dark side in music, however, the Devil’s Tritone—a.k.a. the diminished fifth—also has a stirring effect on audiences for some very technical reasons (no black magic required).

THE RESTLESS, DISSONANT, DEPENDENT TRIAD (SAY WHAT?)

For those of us without conservatory backgrounds, a break-down of the musical terms used to define the Devil’s Tritone can go a long way in helping unravel its eerie mystery.

According to Carl E. Gardner’s 1912 text Essentials of Music Theory, a “triad” or tritone in music is composed of three whole tones—specifically, one fundamental or starting note plus the third and fifth tones found along its scale (e.g. C, E, G)—that can get together to form either a “dependent” or an “independent” chord. In music theory, an independent chord is one that can happily conclude a composition, but a dependent triad chord, which contains “dissonant” or tense jumps between tones (known as intervals), shouldn’t be given the last word in a composition lest the audience—and any traditional music theorists among them—are left feeling uncomfortable.

Whether played as a chord or in a series, three tones with dissonant intervals combine to make a “restless” triad, according to Gardner, and traditionally “demand another chord to follow.” That is, listeners naturally pick up on a restless triad’s seemingly erratic jumps between tones, he says, and yearn for the “restful effect [and] resolution” that balancing tones or chords would afford. And when it comes to diminished triads, which are built using minor-key tones (as with tacking on an E♭ and a G♭ to a C rather than E and G natural), dissonance is the name of the game.

WHAT GIVES THE DEVIL’S TRITONE ITS POWER?

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Music listeners’ almost instinctive desire to hear a song through to its rhythmic and harmonic conclusion can be an effective (if torturous) tool throughout the fields of music composition and scoring. The last moments of The Sopranos’ series finale are likely extra-irksome to many, for example, not just because of unresolved plot points, but also the unresolved chorus in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is left hanging when the screen has gone black.

John Sloboda, a professor of music psychology at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, explained to NPR in 2012 that the dissonant intervals of the Devil’s Tritone are particularly affecting because of this listener’s instinct to find resolution in music, and the fact that we’re used to getting it:

"Our brains are wired to pick up the music that we expect, [and] generally music is consonant rather than dissonant, so we expect a nice chord. So when that chord is not quite what we expect, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it's strange and unexpected.

The emotional result of dissonant sounds, then, might not be too different from the one experienced at the bottom of a staircase that failed to mention it’s missing its last step. "[Music] taps into this very primitive system that we have which identifies emotion on the basis of a violation of expectancy," Deathridge said. "It's like a little upset which then gets resolved or made better in the chord that follows."

WHERE CAN I FIND THIS DIABOLUS IN MUSICA?

Some say that the devil’s in the details, and if you listen closely, you’ll indeed spot the Devil’s Tritone giving a certain edge to many popular tunes from different genres. It heats up Busta Rhymes’s “Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check,” the theme songs to The Simpsons and South Park, and West Side Story’s “Maria.” It also gives Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” its signature sting. It’s a favorite among metal bands, too, and can be found in any number of Black Sabbath songs (though guitarist Tony Iommi told BBC News that he simply used “something that sounded right … really evil and very doomy,” and that he “didn’t think [he] was going to make it Devil music”). Prog-rocking Rush even manages to shred its way through both ascending and descending tritones multiple times in its four-and-a-half minute, decidedly epic song "YYZ."

But the Devil's Tritone's deepest roots are in classical music, where it has often served as a leitmotif to signal the presence of something sinister. Professor John Deathridge of King's College London told BBC News that medieval arrangements employed the tritone to represent the devil, Roman Catholic composers sometimes used it for referencing the crucifixtion, and by the 19th century "you have got lots of presentations of evil built around the tritone" in classical pieces, as in Beethoven’s 1805 opera Fidelio. When it comes to metal’s cred with tritones, there’s “a big connection between heavy rock music and Wagner,” Deathridge said, and generally such tunes “have cribbed quite a lot from 19th Century music."

Overall, the Devil’s Tritone “can sound very spooky [depending] on how you orchestrate [and] also quite exciting," Deathridge said. "[Wagner's] Gotterdammerung has one of the most exciting scenes—a 'pagan,' evil scene, the drums and the timpani. It is absolutely terrifying … like a black mass.” Musicologist Anthony Pryer pointed out that the leitmotif lives on as an arrow toward evil on-screen, too: "[a] lot of films have what musicians call Captain Tritone in them,” he told BBC News, or moments wherein an enemy officer or such shows up and “out comes the Tritone [as] a sort of badge—here's Mr. Nasty. What's going to happen?"

WAS THE DEVIL’S TRITONE REALLY BANNED BY THE CHURCH?

Over the years, there have been rumors that the diminished fifth tritone was banned by religious authorities, or even that composers were punished for sneaking it into their work. Given that various Christian faiths and organizations have either produced or influenced much of the classical Western canon, though, experts seem to think it’s more likely that musical monks and other religious composers discouraged its use in keeping with “strict musical rules,” Deathridge said. “This particular dissonance … simply won't work technically, [so] you are taught not to write that interval. But you [could] read into that a theological ban in the guise of a technical ban." Pryer notes, too, that the tritone “was recognized to be a problem in music right back to the 9th Century [and] a natural consequence, and so they banned it [and] had rules for getting around it ... I don't think they ever thought of it as the Devil dwelling in music.”

According to Pryer, there are a number of non-accursed ways this tritone could’ve gotten its name. “It was called Diabolus in Musica by two or three writers in the medieval or renaissance [because it] was 'false music,'” he explained, since “the intervals weren't natural.” On the other hand, composers and conductors may have found it “devilishly hard to teach the singers not to sing it,” he said.

In the case of Giuseppe Tartini’s “The Devil's Trill Sonata”—one of the absolute toughest pieces a violin virtuoso can take on—the mark of the beast might be twofold. According to Pryer, "He did this incredibly difficult [piece] and claimed in a dream he had heard the devil giving him instructions how to do it … Two centuries later, he would probably have been in a heavy metal band."

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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