A Brief History of the Devil's Tritone

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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.

The Devil's Interval, and diabolus in musica, this combination of tones has led to some of the most chilling 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” in music is composed of three tones—specifically, one 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. According to Gardner, an independent chord is one that can happily conclude a composition. Meanwhile, a dependent chord contains “dissonant” or tense intervals—such as the tritone.

One example of a dependent chord containing a tritone would be the diminished chord (e.g. C, Eb, Gb). According to Gardner, a chord containing this kind of dissonance is "restless" and shouldn’t be given the last word in a composition lest the audience—and any traditional music theorists among them—are left feeling uncomfortable.

WHAT GIVES THE 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 crucifixion, 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."

13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 86th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. Nina Simone was her stage name.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. She had humble beginnings.


Getty Images

There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. She was book smart ...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... with the degrees to prove it.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. Her career was rooted in activism.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. One of her most famous songs was banned.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. She never had a number one hit.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. She used her style to make a statement.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. She had many homes.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. She had a famous inner circle.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. You can still visit Simone in her hometown.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. You've probably heard her music in recent hits.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. Her music is still being performed.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

This article originally ran in 2018.

Bob Dylan's Lyrics, Poetry, and Prose Showcased at Chicago's American Writers Museum

A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, Blowin’ in the Wind, and The Times They Are a-Changin’ are among Bob Dylan’s best songs, but the 77-year-old singer’s writing isn’t limited to lyrics. Dylan has also penned poems, prose, an autobiography, and a nearly four-hour movie (that got terrible reviews).

An ongoing showcase at Chicago’s American Writers Museum is paying homage to Dylan the writer. The "Bob Dylan: Electric" exhibit, which will remain on view though April 30, 2019, highlights dozens of items from Dylan’s expansive career.

“The world knows Bob Dylan as a prolific songwriter,” museum president Carey Cranston said in a statement. “'Bob Dylan: Electric’ gives the public a chance to see how his writing shaped more than just American music, but American literature as a whole.”

The period covers Dylan’s “electric” career, beginning with the time he made his electric guitar debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The exact instrument he played at the festival—a 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster—is naturally one of the items on display.

Visitors can also check out Dylan’s personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he read in the summer of 1961. He jotted down notes and drew doodles in the back of the book, including a bottle of rye and the words “good book.” (Interestingly enough, a talent agent approached Dylan the following year and asked if he’d play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaptation of the book. For better or worse, that never came to fruition.)

Dylan’s writing was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. At the time, the committee's decision to award a songwriter rather than a novelist was a controversial one. The New York Times dubbed it a “disappointing choice,” while Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) was a little more blunt, calling it “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Nonetheless, Dylan accepted the award, eventually releasing a video detailing his literary influences. Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey are just a few of the singer-songwriter’s many inspirations.

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