You’ve heard plenty about the devilish underside of music on Backstage Podcast. We’ve covered the “Devil’s Trill Sonata,” and we’ve opined about the mysterious post-death experience of Nicolai Paganini. Our most recent episode deals with the creepy (and fun) “Dance of Death.” And now, we bring to you the most devilish thing of all…

“The Devil in Music” itself.

What is the “Devil in Music?”

Let’s go ahead and get the disappointment out of the way first–the “Devil in Music” has nothing to do with mean spirits, the underworld, or Lucifer. It’s not even the least bit evil. 

It’s just really, really hard to sing.

The diabolus in musica, as it is referred to in the more formal and ever-so-much-cooler Latin, is a tritone. What’s the definition of tritone? Here you go: the space travelled by three consecutive whole tones. In other words, go from C→D→E→F#. The distance between C and F# is a tritone.

When notated that way, the tritone would be an “augmented fourth.” If the interval was from C→G♭, it would be referred to as a diminished 5th. They are enharmonically equivalent, however: once a tritone, always a tritone.

What is the history of the “Devil in Music?”

Around the turn of the tenth century, Guido of Arezzo (990-1050) condemned the use of tritones in his writings about the hexachordal system. He argued that the hexachordal system should be based on C rather than B♭ because he wanted to avoid the dreaded F-B interval. F-B was a tritone, and it was both hard to sing and unpleasant to listen to.

Throughout the renaissance, tritones were avoided because of their difficulty and unsettling sound. You may have heard that church musicians were jailed and fired for using tritones because the interval was considered “unholy”–unfortunately, these fantastic tales aren’t true. It wasn’t a sign of spiritual warfare at all. Tritones just weren’t in the singers’ best interests. 

Is the Tritone Important in Music?

Since it’s early medieval days as the “Devil in Music,” the tritone has become an important compositional tool in music. Just ask Beethoven. He used the tritone heavily in his opera, Fidelio, to create fear. It works. The character Pizarro finishes this duet with a violent threat–and it’s underscored by a tritone.

Wagner also makes substantial use of the “devil in music,” most famously in Götterdämmerung and Tristan and Isolde. In the former, Wagner uses the tritone to underscore a pagan black mass.

In the latter, he uses a “stack” of two tritones to create the influential “Tristan Chord”–the Tristan Chord, surprisingly, adds a romantic element to the music rather than striking fear into the audience’s soul.

More recently, the tritone has found its way into movie scores and heavy metal albums. We’ll have a blog post about the tritone in movie scores up soon! 

Did you miss our Halloween Special, “Dancing Bones and Xylophones?” Hint: it isn’t very scary. Take some time to listen to that and the other fascinating episodes of our classical music podcast.