From classical to jazz to rock and even Broadway musicals, the tritone conveys feelings ranging from forbidden love and longing to fear and defiance.
Like the Beast, it has many names: Diabolus in musica (devil in music), the devil’s interval, the tritone, the triad and the flatted fifth. As its Latin moniker suggests, it’s an evil sounding combination of notes that’s designed to create a chilling or foreboding atmosphere. Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath and many more musicians in rock and metal use this technique. It has a sinister and menacing sound that is meant to disturb its listeners.
This simple technique has been used most effectively in heavy metal, and is often credited to Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi who played it in the song “Black Sabbath” from the band’s 1970 self-titled first album.
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.
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.
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.”
So how exactly Did the Tritone Get Such a Devilish Reputation?
In those pious days of the Middle Ages, the tritone was so unpleasing that it was considered the work of the devil, leading church authorities to ban its use in ecclesiastical music. The problem with stories like that, though, is that they’re just stories — fanciful exaggerations of the past that explain the notions of the present. To the chagrin of many a musician wanting to tap into a badass rebel streak in music’s DNA, there aren’t any records to suggest any rogue medieval composers took a hike to Perdition after using this spooky, devilish interval.
However, that doesn’t mean the whole “devil” association is without a strong foundation. As early as the 1700s, the tritone is described as “diabolus in musica” — literally, “the devil in music.” But as with most things, context is the greatest friend we have. The phrase is part of a mnemonic:
Mi contra fa est diabolus in musica
Mi against fa is the devil in music
A paradox of musical pitch.
For years rock and roll has been dubbed the devils music and in the last 30 years it has evolved into heavy metal.
“The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders…” Thessalonians 2:9, New Testament of the Christian Bible
“Blessed are the destroyers of false hope, for they are the true Messiahs – Cursed are the god-adorers, for they shall be shorn sheep!” Anton Szandor LaVey, The Satanic Bible
When the Angel of Light, Lucifer The Light Bearer, was denounced by his Father and subjugated to an existence of sin and horror, man was nothing more than a creative forethought. At least, this is the construction presented to us through years of religious storytelling. Since the dawn of democracy, societies’ self-appointed rulers have intentionally enforced a scapegoat, or invincible boogeyman figure, in order to keep their communities afraid of total extermination but safe under their masters’ laws.
Demonic and fantastical beasts are conjured by raconteurs to maintain a sense of control over ‘God fearing’ nations. Almost every culture, both historical and present, has one of these ‘Satans’ – a carnal image of infinite death and destruction. But as we ease further in to a “post-secular” era, as author and philosopher Eugene Thacker suggests, our ideas and interpretations of Hell and The Devil have changed. Throughout the course of time, the concept of Satan has become less of an effigy of religious torment and more of a trendy reference point in pop culture. Since the 20th Century, Lucifer’s nefarious aesthetic of blood, sacrifice and blaspheme has wormed its way into subversive art, literature and most significantly music.
he practice of Satanism itself wasn’t formally present until the establishment of The Church of Satan in 1966 by Anton LaVey, devout occultist and author of The Satanic Bible. Yet sonic allusions of The Devil can be dated back as far as the Middle Ages. The musical interval of a tritone or diminished fifth was referred to as The Devil’s Chord (or the Devil In Music) and subsequently banned by the Roman Catholic Church. Gonoud’s Faust composition in the 19th Century boasts one of the most direct and compelling of satanic narratives, while Tartini, Paganini, Stravinsky, Liszt and Hellmsberger II have composed multiple pieces with figurative associations with Lucifer. However, none of these early examples are inherently ‘Satanist’, they merely reference Satan as a fearful nemesis in a religious tale. It wouldn’t be until the emergence of blues and jazz music in the early 1900s before the so-called ‘Devil’s Music’ would find its true cultural footing.
In the early 20th century, traditional societal values and Christian morals were particularly potent in the western world. Anything deemed subversive to the God-feared norm was often considered a direct display of Devil worship. Rebel music – that which is performed by the oppressed or disaffected – was seen as dangerous and unholy. The blues, especially, was regarded as a diablo of satanic profanity and no artist embodied this mythology more than guitarist Robert Johnson. Son House, one of Johnson’s many peers, tells the story of how the guitarist was an average guitar player before disappearing for weeks. On Johnson’s return, his masterful technique was revolutionary. Faustian legend says that Johnson took his guitar to Highways of 49 and 61 in Mississippi where the Devil exchanged his instrument for the bluesman’s soul. Again, this tale tells us more about the conservative superstitions of a predominantly white Christian populace in the 1920s than an artist’s allegiance to Satan.
By the mid-60s, rock & roll, a commercial mutation of blues with greater emphasis on sexual liberation and depravity, was already in its prime. The idea of Satanism as an ideology, rather than a means of purely scaring people, was beginning to take shape. Through LaVeyan teachings and the increasing cult status of occultist poet Aleister Crowley, satanic symbolism started to bleed into mainstream rock and prog. An image of Crowley himself appeared on The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heartsclub Band LP sleeve, leading to great scrutiny over the band’s religious leanings. The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil sees Mick Jagger literally assume the role of the Devil, calling out for crowds to “Just call me Lucifer”. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, while not specifically a Satanist, was a follower of Crowley’s ‘philosophy of personal liberation’. The guitarist went on to purchase Crowley’s reportedly haunted former home in Loch Ness. Led Zeppelin were also involved in one of the more estranged allegations of satanic worship in the 80s, when Televangelist Paul Crouch claimed that by playing the group’s track Stairway to Heaven backwards a voice would be heard saying “Here’s to my sweet Satan… He will give those with him 666”. The claim was purely a coincidence, albeit an unsettling one.
Another act that was hellishly misrepresented in the media due to their unashamedly morbid aesthetic was Black Sabbath. Two of the most common symbols utilised by the band were the Christian cross and the peace sign. Despite this, the gradual rise of counterculture and the inevitable backlash from right wing media corporations painted Black Sabbath as ambassadors of the occult. In actual fact, Ozzy referred to his satanic fans as “freaks in white paint and robes” in his biography. So, considering their Black Mass ritual referencing name and their forging of a genre which would later be synonymous with Satanism, Black Sabbath are possibly the most accidental Satan supporters in existence. In fact, regardless of a public outcry during the 70s and 80s blaming agenda-pushing metalheads such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Alice Cooper and Mötley Crew of contributing to what the American media called ‘The Satanic Panic,’ hardly any of these groups actually believed what they were singing about. Luciferian imagery was very much on trend – from bloodied goblets of hollowed skulls to severed goats heads. Controversy sold and The Devil was paying for it.
By the late 80s, simply pretending to worship Beelzebub was rather tame. Despite it’s commercial appeal, underground metal was getting darker, heavier and more insular than it ever had before. While groups such as Morbid Angel, Venom, Celtic Frost and Deicide were focusing their songwriting on Sumerian deities, mythical sorcery and ancient incarnations, it was Norway’s first wave of black metal artists that were genuinely serious about Satanism. Formed in 1984 by Dead, Hellhammer, Euronymous and Necrobutcher, Mayhem personified fear. Their take on speed and death metal was as abrasive as their reputation as a dangerous band. Mayhem would regularly cut themselves onstage and have either a pig or sheep’s head impaled on stakes as they performed. “There is nothing which is too sick, evil or perverted,” Euronymous claimed in a 1993 interview. A self-described Theist Satanist, he despised followers of LaVey and Crowley, claiming the sects to be “just a bunch of freedom and life-loving atheists.” The undying pessimism that drove Euronymous and Mayhem was a new extreme. Their corpse painted faces grimaced at the thought of satanic illegitimacy and publicly cackled as the glowing embers of Norwegian churches slowly burnt to the ground.
When Mayhem’s Per “Dead” Ohlin committed suicide in 1991, Euronymous was reportedly ecstatic. Having found him motionless with a shotgun hole to his head, the Mayhem guitarist took the opportunity to capture the scene on a disposable camera. The image went on to feature on the cover of Mayhem’s bootleg live album Dawn of the Black Hearts. The immeasurable violence surrounding Mayhem shook the world. Similar acts such as Varg Vikernes’s Burzum famously incorporated aspects of ‘traditional paganism’ and ‘Odalism’ into his sound, merging these elements with a stalwart advocation towards nationalism, survivalism and militant individualism.
Of all these ‘isms,’ Satanism was still regarded as the highest threat to society. Emperor, Gogoroth, Bathory, Darkthrone and Sweden’s Dark Funeral were all accused of conducting pagan rituals at shows or recording subliminal backmessages on their records. These were predominantly stage theatrics or acts of non-conformist marketing, which were naively identified as Satanic. Today, many bands adopt this aesthetic, from Eyehategod to Goatwhore to Behemoth to Ghost to Satanic Warmaster to Waitain to Rotting Christ. Whether theistic or atheistic or simple just sadistic, Satanism is omnipresent in our contemporary cultures. Our most recent variation would be the surging popularity of the Illuminati symbolism in hip-hop. Again, this is nothing more than a baseless PR stunt or form of right-wing propaganda. No, Three-6 Mafia are not devil worshippers. No, Beyoncé and Jay Z didn’t name their child Blue Ivy because if pronounced backwards it reads Eulb Yvi, meaning Satan’s daughter in Latin.
Similarly, as we enjoy shocks and horrors in cinema or literature, the aesthetic of Satanism can be a display of darkly expressive Bohemianism to frighten and inspire you in equal measure. It’s the antithesis of big business marketing, one that still sees bands banned from entering countries because of their assumed allegiances to The Beast. Embrace the hyperbole of it all and The Devil will reward you quite handsomely in the afterlife.