14 Sep 2023

The Devils (tri)tone

Meet the tritone – an interval so dissonant that it’s earned the nickname ‘The Devil’s Interval’

2 minute read


Meet the tritone – that rebel of an interval, so darn dissonant that it’s got the nickname ‘The Devil’s Interval.’ Composers and their students used to avoid it like a swarm of musical bees!

So, what’s the deal with this troublemaker of a tone? How have our crafty composers harnessed its wicked power to create music that’s both soul-stirring and jaw-dropping?

Let’s Unravel the Tritone Mystery:

What’s a Tritone Anyway? A tritone’s like a musical superhero cape made of three whole tones (that’s six semitones). In each diatonic scale, there’s just one of these bad boys, chilling between the fourth and seventh degrees. So, in a C major scale, you got it between F and B. In G major, it’s right there, slap-bang between C and F sharp.

But hold on, before keyboards had the whole ‘universal tuning’ thing going on, it was a musical free-for-all. The tritone was a key player in shaping modern harmony!

Musical Accidental Matchmaker: Not all accidentals swiped right at the same time, you know? F sharp and B flat were like the OG musical Tinder match, brought together to tackle the tritone trouble.

Dancing with the Devil’s Notes: In ancient times, music had modes instead of keys. Modes were picky about their notes, only allowing the white keys on a keyboard. But when they got to B, things went south fast. This Locrian mode’s fifth degree was an unholy augmented fourth, a forbidden tritone! Music tradition was in turmoil, and they dubbed it diabolus in musica – the Devil in music. Composers had to get creative to use this mode.

Tritone’s Discordant Charm: John Sloboda, a musical brainiac, says our brains are wired for harmony and symmetry in music. So, when we hear something dissonant, it’s like discovering a surprise missing step at the bottom of the staircase – a bit unsettling!

See, harmonious notes are all about simple frequency ratios. Octaves (2:1) sound sweet, perfect fifths (3:2) are groovy, and so on. But the tritone? It’s a whopping 45:32 or 64:45, which makes it the ugly duckling of musical ratios. But hey, it’s not all bad news! The tritone’s the rockstar of alarms and emergency sirens!

The Church Ban Myth: Did they really ban tritone-filled music in churches? Nah, that’s just juicy gossip. The church’s harmony rules were more about musical taste than exorcising the devil from the score.

Where to Catch a Tritone Tune: These spicy tritones have snuck into hit songs and catchy themes. You’ve probably heard them rocking out in tunes that make your ears do double-takes. They’re like the wild party animals of the musical world! 🎵🤘