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."

The Violent Shootout That Led to Daryl Hall and John Oates Joining Forces

Hall and Oates.
Hall and Oates.
Michael Putland, Getty Images

As songwriting partners, Daryl Hall (the blonde one) and John Oates (the mustachioed one) were tentpoles of the 1970s and 1980s music scene. Beginning with “She’s Gone” and continuing on through “Rich Girl,” “Kiss on My List,” “Private Eyes,” and “I Can’t Go For That,” they’re arguably one of the biggest pop act duos in history.

Unfortunately, it took a riot and some gunfire to bring them together.

Both Hall and Oates were raised in the Philadelphia suburbs in the late 1950s and 1960s. After high school, both went on to Temple University—Hall to study music and Oates to major in journalism. While in their late teens, the two each had a doo-wop group they belonged to. Hall was a member of The Temptones, a successful act that had recently earned a recording contract with a label called Arctic Records; Oates was part of the Masters, which had just released their first single, “I Need Your Love.”

In 1967, both bands were invited to perform at a dance event promoted by area disc jockey Jerry Bishop at the Adelphi Ballroom on North 52nd Street in Philadelphia. According to Oates, the concert was a professional obligation: Bishop had the ability to give songs airtime.

“When Jerry Bishop contacted you, you had to go,” Oates told Pennsylvania Heritage magazine in 2016. “If you didn’t, your record wouldn’t get played on the radio.”

That’s how Hall and Oates found themselves backstage at the Adelphi, each preparing to perform with their respective group. (Oates said Hall looked good in a sharkskin suit with the rest of his partners, whereas he felt more self-conscious in a “crappy houndstooth” suit.) While Oates had previously seen The Temptones perform, the two had never met nor spoken. It’s possible they never would have if it weren’t for what happened next.

Before either one of them had even made it onto the stage, they heard gunshots. A riot had broken out between two rival factions of high school fraternities. They “really were just gangs with Greek letters,” Hall later told the Independent. Peering out from behind the curtain, Hall saw a fight involving chains and knives. Someone had fired a weapon.

“We were all getting ready for the show to start when we heard screams—and then gunshots,” Oates said in 2016. “It seemed a full-scale riot had erupted out in the theater, not a shocker given the times. Like a lot of other cities around the country, Philly was a city where racial tensions had begun to boil over.”

Worse, the performances were being held on an upper floor of the Adelphi. No one backstage could just rush out an exit. They all had to cram into a service elevator—which is where Hall and Oates came nose-to-nose for the first time.

“Oh, well, you didn’t get to go on, either,” Hall said. “How ya doin’?”

After acknowledging they both went to Temple, the two went their separate ways. But fate was not done with them.

The two ran into each other at Temple University a few weeks later, where they began joking about their mutual brush with death. By that time, Oates’s group, the Masters, had broken up after two of its members were drafted for the Vietnam War. So Oates joined The Temptones as a guitarist.

When The Temptones later disbanded, Hall and Oates continued to collaborate, and even became roommates. Hall eventually dropped out of Temple just a few months before he was set to graduate; Oates went traveling in Europe for four months and sublet his apartment to Hall’s sister. When he returned, he discovered she hadn’t been paying the rent. The door was padlocked. Desperate, Oates showed up on Hall’s doorstep, where Hall offered him a place to sleep. There, they continued to collaborate.

“That was our true birth as a duo,” Oates said.

Hall and Oates released their first album, Whole Oats, in 1972. Using a folk sound, it wasn’t a hit, but the rest of their careers more than made up for it. More than 50 years after that chaotic first encounter, the two have a summer 2020 tour planned.

Why Air Supply Changed the Lyrics to “All Out of Love” for American Fans

Air Supply.
Air Supply.
Peter Carrette Archive/Getty Images

Sometimes one minor detail can make all the difference. A case study for this principle comes in the form of the pop music act Air Supply, which enjoyed success in the 1980s thanks to mellow hits like “Lost in Love,” “Every Woman in the World,” and "Making Love Out of Nothing at All." Their 1980 single “All Out of Love” is among that laundry list, though it needed one major tweak before becoming palatable for American audiences.

The Air Supply duo of Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock hailed from Australia, and it was one particular bit of phrasing in “All Out of Love” that may have proven difficult for Americans to grasp. According to an interview with Russell on Songfacts, the lyrics to the song when it became a hit in their home country in 1978 were:

I’m all out of love

I want to arrest you

By “arrest,” Russell explained, he meant capturing someone’s attention. Naturally, most listeners would have found this puzzling. Before the song was released in the United States, Air Supply’s producer, Clive Davis, suggested it be changed to:

I’m all out of love

I’m so lost without you

I know you were right

Davis’s argument was that the “arrest” line was “too weird” and would sink the song’s chances. He also recommended adding “I know you were right.”

Davis proved to be correct when “All Out of Love” reached the number two spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1980.

While it would be reasonable to assume “I want to arrest you” is a common phrase of affection in Australia, it isn’t. “I think that was just me using a weird word,” Russell said. “But, you know, now [that] I think of it, it’s definitely very weird.”

Russell added that arrest joins a list of words that are probably best left out of a love song, and that cabbage and cauliflower would be two others.

[h/t Songfacts]

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