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."

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The Definitive Guide to All the Cats in Cats

James Corden, Laurie Davidson, and Francesca Hayward star in Tom Hooper's Cats (2019).
James Corden, Laurie Davidson, and Francesca Hayward star in Tom Hooper's Cats (2019).
Universal Pictures

Regardless of whether you were impressed, confused, or downright frightened by the trailer for Tom Hooper’s upcoming film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical Cats, it’s safe to say that the star-studded cast and “digital fur technology” generated strong reactions all around. And, if you didn’t grow up listening to the soundtrack or watching performers in the 1998 film version purr and prance in furry, feline bodysuits, your shock is completely understandable.

Cats is light on plot, heavy on characters, and sprinkled with words that T.S. Eliot made up for his 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the basis for the musical. To familiarize yourself with all the eccentrically named cats—and find out who’s portraying them in the film—here’s a comprehensive list of every "romantical, pedantical, critical, parasitical, allegorical, metaphorical, statistical, and mystical" cat you’ll meet.

Admetus

admetus cats film 1998
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Played by: Eric Underwood

Admetus is a ginger and white chorus cat with no spoken lines, but plenty of strong dancing sequences—perfect for former Royal Ballet soloist Eric Underwood. Though some musical productions have renamed Admetus as Plato (both names are mentioned in “The Naming of Cats”), the film will feature them as two separate characters.

Alonzo

Played by: Bluey Robinson

Alonzo is another chorus cat, identifiable by the black patches of fur on his face and the black-and-white stripes on his head. Apart from his ensemble appearances, he has intermittent solo lines and also assists Munkustrap during the fight against Macavity. Since singer/songwriter Bluey Robinson will portray him in the film, it’s possible that Alonzo will dance less than he has in stage productions.

Asparagus, the Theatre Cat

Played by: Sir Ian McKellen

Nicknamed “Gus,” this elderly, trembling tabby has an impressive acting history, which he recounts at length during his song (along with a few disparaging comments about how the theater isn’t what it once was, and kittens these days aren’t properly trained). Who better to play one of the Jellicles’ most well-respected thespians than one of the humans' most well-respected thespians, Sir Ian McKellen?

Bombalurina

Played by: Taylor Swift

Though Bombalurina is only mentioned by name once (in “The Naming of Cats”), she’s pretty hard to miss: the slinky, red-coated cat helps introduce Jennyanydots, the Rum Tum Tugger, Grizabella, Bustopher Jones, and Macavity. She most often sings with Demeter, her duet partner for “Macavity the Mystery Cat.”

Bustopher Jones

Played by: James Corden

Known as “the Brummell of cats,” this black-and-white, epicurean dandy frequents gentlemen’s clubs, wears white spats, and weighs a whopping 25 pounds. Jones’s genial manner endears him to just about everyone—not unlike James Corden.

Cassandra

cassandra in 1998's cats film
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Played by: Mette Towley

With her sleek brown coat and her regal, mysterious manner, Cassandra seems like she might’ve been worshipped by ancient Egyptians in a past life. You might recognize Mette Towley, a member of Pharrell’s dance group, The Baes, from her appearances in 2019’s Hustlers and Rihanna’s “Lemon” music video—and you can be sure that she’ll uphold Cassandra’s legacy as one of the most eye-catching chorus cats.

Coricopat and Tantomile

Played by: Jaih Betote and Zizi Strallen

These striped twin tabby cats always move in unison and boast psychic abilities. Though the roles are sometimes cut from theatrical productions, we’ll get to see them in the film, played by hip hop dancer Jaih Betote and Zizi Strallen, best known for her work as Mary Poppins in the recent West End revival.

Demeter

demeter in 1998's cats film
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Played by: Daniela Norman

This multicolored, slightly skittish cat usually duets with Bombalurina, and together they perform “Macavity the Mystery Cat” in full. It’s often implied that Demeter has a complicated romantic past with Macavity, who tries to abduct her during his attack. British ballet dancer Daniela Norman will star opposite Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina in the film, and you can also see her in Netflix’s upcoming ballet drama series Tiny Pretty Things.

Grizabella, the Glamour Cat

Played by: Jennifer Hudson

This aging starlet is now decrepit, depressed, and shamefully rejected by the rest of the Jellicles—think Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond with more self-awareness and very raggedy fur. Even if the Cats original cast recording wasn’t the soundtrack for your childhood road trips, you might have heard Grizabella’s song “Memory;” it’s been covered by Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Barry Manilow, Glee’s Chris Colfer, and more. American Idol alum (and general ballad-belting powerhouse) Jennifer Hudson will bring her Academy Award-winning talents to the role of Grizabella in the film.

Growltiger and Griddlebone

Played by: Ray Winstone and Melissa Madden Gray

Growltiger, a rough-riding sea captain cat, and Griddlebone, his fluffy white lover, appear during “Growltiger’s Last Stand,” during which Gus reminisces about having played the part of Growltiger in a stage production long ago. The characters have been left out of some productions, including the 1998 film, but Hooper’s version will feature them, where they'll be played by British actor Ray Winstone and Australian performer Melissa Madden Gray (whose stage name, fittingly, is Meow Meow).

Jellylorum

Played by: Freya Rowley

Named after T.S. Eliot’s own cat, Jellylorum is a maternal calico who cares for Gus and also helps introduce Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones. Though sometimes portrayed as older and more mature than some of the other cats, Freya Rowley (who performed as Tantomile on the UK tour of Cats) will likely bring a younger energy to the character.

Jennyanydots, the Old Gumbie Cat

Played by: Rebel Wilson

Jennyanydots is a goofy old tabby cat who lazes around all day and spends her nights teaching the basement vermin various household skills, etiquette, and performing arts. Under her tutelage, the mice learn to crochet, the cockroaches become helpful boy scouts, and the beetles form a tap-dancing troupe. Rebel Wilson is a perfect match for such a multifaceted, eccentric, and amusing gumbie cat (whatever gumbie is).

Macavity, the Mystery Cat

Played by: Idris Elba

The show’s main antagonist is a tall, thin criminal cat with sunken eyes and dusty ginger fur. While the Jellicles are plainly terrified of this “monster of depravity,” they also seem eerily impressed by his ability to elude capture and conviction. Historically, Macavity hasn’t done any speaking, singing, or dancing—he only shows up briefly to kidnap Old Deuteronomy during a rousing cat fight—but here’s hoping that Hooper has broadened the role for the film so we get to hear at least a good growl or two from Idris Elba.

Mr. Mistoffelees

Played by: Laurie Davidson

Laurie Davidson, who played Shakespeare in TNT’s Will, will take on the role of Mr. Mistoffelees, an affable tuxedo cat who peppers his magic tricks with plenty of high leaps and pizzazz. He’s generally beloved by the rest of the cats, and he also saves the day by conjuring Old Deuteronomy from wherever Macavity had hidden him.

Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer

Played by: Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan

These two roguish calicos describe themselves as “knockabout clowns, quick-change comedians, tightrope walkers, and acrobats.” They’re also partners in petty crime, notorious for smashing vases, stealing pearls, and generally wreaking havoc upon their posh family in Victoria Grove. British dancer Danny Collins will join Naoimh Morgan—who actually played Rumpleteazer in the Cats international tour—to bring the spirited rascals to life in the film.

Munkustrap

Played by: Robert Fairchild

Without Munkustrap, viewers would have little hope of understanding what’s actually happening in this vaguely plotted musical. Though there’s no song to introduce him, the striking, silver cat is still arguably the most important character: He describes the function of the Jellicle Ball, narrates the action as it unfolds, and leads the charge against Macavity’s attack. It takes a certified musical theater machine to play such an integral part, and Hooper has surely found that in Robert Fairchild, former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Tony Award nominee for An American in Paris.

Old Deuteronomy

Played by: Dame Judi Dench

In the gender-swapped role of our dreams, Dame Judi Dench will play Old Deuteronomy, the revered (usually male) town elder who chooses one lucky kitty at the annual Jellicle Ball to ascend to cat heaven, the Heaviside Layer, and be born again. It isn’t Dench’s first time in the junkyard: She was preparing to appear as both Jennyanydots and Grizabella in the original 1981 West End production of Cats when she snapped her Achilles tendon and had to pull out.

Plato and Socrates

Played by: Larry and Laurent Bourgeois (Les Twins)

Though Plato is a chorus cat mentioned in “The Naming of Cats” and included in some stage productions, Socrates was created specifically for Hooper’s film to make room for both halves of Les Twins, also known as Larry and Laurent Bourgeois. The French hip hop duo gained mainstream recognition after Beyoncé featured them in her 2018 Coachella set and subsequent Netflix concert film Homecoming.

Rum Tum Tugger

Played by: Jason Derulo

The Rum Tum Tugger is a perpetually fickle feline with a lot of rock-n’-roll flair and a pair of hips that he seems to have stolen from Mick Jagger himself. In addition to his own song, Tugger also sings “Mr. Mistoffelees” and features in a few other numbers. With Jason Derulo taking on the role for the film, there’s a good chance we’ll see a modernized, moonwalking version of this swoon-worthy cat.

Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat

Played by: Steven McRae

Skimbleshanks is a charming Scottish cat who looks like a friendly tiger and ensures that all is in order on the night trains, which includes everything from patrolling for mice to reminding the guard to ask passengers how they like their tea. With his flaming red hair and graceful precision, Royal Ballet principal dancer Steven McRae definitely has a couple things in common with his character.

Syllabub/Sillabub/Jemima

Played by: Jonadette Carpio

This kitten’s name varies from production to production, but she’s usually characterized by her playful, innocent manner and her willingness to accept Grizabella when the other Jellicles try to shun her. Jonadette Carpio, Philippines native and member of the all-female Krump crew Buckness Personified, will bring her street dance background to the role in the film.

Victoria

Played by: Francesca Hayward

Though lithe, light-footed Victoria doesn’t sing any lines of her own in the original musical, her gleaming white coat and balletic dance solos still make her a standout—so it’s only fitting that Royal Ballet principal dancer Francesca Hayward will bring her to life in the film, where the role has been expanded into a main character. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift even collaborated on a new song called “Beautiful Ghosts” that Hayward will sing in the movie.

Miscellaneous Chorus Cats

Because theater companies vary in size and scope, certain chorus cats are sometimes omitted from productions—or members of the ensemble just aren’t assigned specific characters. At this point, Bill Bailey, Carbucketty, Electra, Etcetera, Peter, Pouncival, Quaxo, Rumpus Cat, Tumblebrutus, and Victor are all chorus cat names that haven’t been given to anybody in the film, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see extra cats in the shadows. According to Dance Spirit, Corey John Snide and Kolton Krause, who played Coricopat and Tumblebrutus on Broadway, respectively, have both been cast as ensemble members in Hooper’s film.

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