Saturday, February 4, 2012

Cutting the Devil's Chord

Oh yeah, life goes on.
Long after the thrill of living is gone
--Jack and Diane, John Mellencamp
My sons have recently discovered the joy that is playing the air guitar.  In honor of their burgeoning skills, I thought I’d delve into a musical myth this week. 
I’m a fan of heavy metal.  Some of you may shake your heads, associating that kind of music with a bunch of screaming longhairs and whining guitars.  But there’s a connection from my Black Sabbath to Wagner and classic jazz--and even to West Side Story for those of you into show tunes.
That link is the tritone--aka, the Devil’s chord.

Tritones are musical intervals that span three whole tones.  For those of you who are not musically inclined, think back to Julie Andrews and her chirpy Sound of Music number.  Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do is the major scale that most music is based upon.  Playing from C to C on the piano, it includes all the white keys.  However, there are these half step keys arranged within the major scale, i.e. the black keys.  For example, between F and G, there is F sharp (#).

The classic Devil’s chord is C and F# played either in succession or simultaneously.  It is also known as the augmented fourth or the diminished/flatted fifth.  The perfect fifth (C and G) was the first accepted harmony of the Gregorian chant after the octave.  Thus, the use of this “bastardized” fifth was so disagreeable to medieval musicians that it was often referred to as the Diabolus in Musica (“the Devil in music”).
As with so many things associated with old red and horny, there’s mythology that follows the Devil’s chord.  According to some scholars, the use of the chord was first publicly shunned in the 11th century thanks to the Catholic Church.  The Church suggested that the sound invoked the Devil and caused those who heard it to become sexually aroused.  Composers who did not heed the warning to not use the evil chord were beaten, excommunicated and sometimes killed.  However, no solid evidence of musical murder has ever been found, and many feel the Church disdain for the dissonant chord may have been over exaggerated.
The unpleasant sound was not the only reason this chord may have been associated with the Devil.  Some make the assertion that since a tritone represents three whole tones, and thus six semitones, it could be a nod to the number of the naughty--666.
Eventually, musicians broke from superstition and experimented with the tritone during the Romantic period.  Composers were looking for a sound to represent evil, and the tritone fit the bill.  Wagner was a huge fan of the tritone, using it liberally in his work Gotterdammerung during a pagan ritual scene.  Camille Saint-Saens used it in his Danse Macabre as skeletons came to life on All Hallow’s Eve.  Giuseppe Tartini, one of Europe’s greatest violinists, claimed that the Devil came to him in a dream, teaching him the intricate and nearly impossible “The Devil’s Trill,” a work filled with tritones.
The Devil meets Tartini in his dreams.

Here's a scene from the Gotterdammerung using tritones:

In more modern times, heavy metal adopted the sound, although perhaps not consciously.  Tommy Iommi, metal guitar god of the group Black Sabbath, found the chord just “sounded right”.  

Heavy blues and jazz artists also used the chord--here it is in the opening riffs of Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze, perhaps as a wicked musical warning about the use of hallucinogens. 

Other bands used the chord to enhance their devilish mystique.  Slayer’s album Diabolus in Musica is an example.  British comedian Bill Bailey gives his insight into metal's embrace of this interval in the following clip:

Although the chord’s origins are debated, there’s no denying that it evokes a certain feeling in the listener. I have to admit that some music I’ve listened to just sounds evil, especially when I was going through that Norwegian Death Metal phase I had a few years back. 

Dissonance can become a motif--it announces a type of character, or gives a certain mood.  Tritones are often seen in movie music, announcing that Mr. Bad has walked on to the screen or that the promiscuous prom queen is about to meet the business end of a chainsaw.
But as for the idea that a musical chord can bring forth the devil, it’s plausible only if you are one of those people who never could say “Bloody Mary” three times in front of a mirror as a kid.  For me, the chord is far more fantastic than phantasmal. 

It represents a perfect imperfection.  

If we were never meant to hear things that are not quite right--the things that evoke emotions that are twisted or confusing--those half step keys would never have been included in the scales.  
It’s the imperfections that create depth and substance.
I think that’s true in writing characters, too.

Have a fantastic day!  I leave you with a devilish ditty from West Side Story.


  1. THis is definitely one of your coolest posts and I think all of your posts are cool. I never knew about this so-called Devil's chord. I've got to get out my story notebook and my CD's.

  2. Ahhh, the good old Catholic church strikes again with the evil music ploy! Where would we get any fun if we did what they told us?

  3. Neat post, Julie. I'm not a huge fan of dissonance. In fact, there's a ditty by Respighi that makes me want to take a baseball bat to the stereo. But it does have it's place, and I can see how Wagner used it to achieve the emotion he was looking for. =o)

  4. Bill Bailey was too funny.

    "Here's the flattened fifth... evil, immediately."

    The thing that had me rolling on the floor though was the bike horns.

  5. I'm with Melissa, this is probably my favorite post of yours so far. It could be that I'm a huge music fan, but I think its more to do with learning the historical subtext associated with the chord. I also like the association that some of the best characters are noting more than a collection of odd notes. Dynamite post!! :)

  6. So much to-do about the 'devil's chord!'
    And I'm a big metal fan as well. Rock on!

  7. I've heard of the Devil's Chord, but I didn't know exactly what it was. Now I do. :)

    Great post!

  8. I didn't know it was called this. I must say, hearing "Sandman" in honky horns makes it adorably devilish!

  9. Ahhhhh, I love it!! You wrote about guitars, and metal, and the cute lil Catholic Church: "The Church suggested that the sound invoked the Devil and caused those who heard it to become sexually aroused." Hilarious ;) Yep, I used to study Medieval History and I loved it.

  10. This post is just brilliant. Gives a whole depth of meaning to the 'Devil's Music' :-)

  11. Great post! Demons always freak me out. =)

  12. Wowza! Or should I say, Yowza! Never heard of the Devil's chord, but alas, I am not musically-inclined. It is, however, fascinating. And I love what you say at the end:

    "It represents a perfect imperfection.

    If we were never meant to hear things that are not quite right--the things that evoke emotions that are twisted or confusing--those half step keys would never have been included in the scales.

    It’s the imperfections that create depth and substance."


  13. Wow, I LOVE this, Julie, and I plan on using it for my own writing, too. Sometimes I have a tough time tapping into the dark side (though not so much, lately, sigh). But this is perfect. I'll just hit the devil's chord on my piano and be there. Thanks!

  14. Now I can't get "Maria" out of my head! Who would ever associate that song with the Devil's Chord? On a recent episode of Hot In Cleveland, Betty White had a Devil's Chord ringtone on her cell phone, and thanks to you I know what it is. Julie

  15. I've never heard of this before! Can't say I'm a metal fan, but someone please write a novel titled The Devil's Chord!! (if they haven't already). It's too good a title to go to waste.

    1. Jule, This is interesting and new to me. Probably signifies a lot to someone who has musical ability. Shades of Illuminati.

  16. Jack & Diane - one of my all-time favorite songs!! :)

  17. I love learning from you. I never knew this was called the Devil's chord. So much has been missing from my life :)

  18. I have been pretty curious about who you were gonna listen for your '80s boys but there's already a lot of '80s in this post!

  19. Death metal is fab when in the mood for it. Air guitar is fun.

  20. So much to love about this post!
    I'm rocking along with you, Julie!


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