Imagine this: you time travel to medieval Europe and meet a monk. He’s never been beyond the monastery. He’s fearful of the black plague and those who might hang him for his beliefs due to schisms between Christian sects. To him, evil isn’t a concept, it’s an entity waiting to be summoned. You put headphones over his ears and play Björk’s “Army of Me.” You watch his face transform. It’s something he’s never heard before—a combination of chords that makes his gut twist, creates an uneasiness in his heart, and he knows these sounds are the diabolus in musica—the devil in music.
The Devil’s Scale as a Foundation of Western Music
For the monk, the musical world revolves around seven musical modes. Different from our modern conception of musical keys, these families of notes translate into scales named for regions of the ancient Grecian Empire: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Then, music had no written language, no notations, and harmony was crafted by ear.
These modes still exist for the modern day musician. If you’re jamming to the main verse of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” you’re rocking out to the Dorian mode. If the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” is more your thing, you’ve cranked up the Mixolydian. Today, modern tunes utilize multiple modes, but some modes, such as the Lydian and Locrian, produce eerie, off-putting tones that can be difficult to listen to. Think of the classic opening to the longest-running animated program, the “Simpson’s Theme.” This Lydian composition creates a distinct dissonance, making you feel that something creepy is going on in the good ol’ town of Springfield.
Yet it’s the Locrian mode that’s meant to spook you. The Locrian’s triad—the fundamental first tone that pairs with the third and fifth notes in the scale—starts as a diminished chord, producing such a sound of despair that church musicians refused to incorporate the mode into psalms or Gregorian chants meant to praise and impress God. During the medieval era where terror marked the days—fear of plague, fear of Satan—and melody had no written language yet, memorizing harmonies to plain text by ear was hard enough; memorizing it to the Locrian mode was not only difficult, it also meant the whole song would have to be sung in that same mode (Goodall, 21-23). In a world where the devil was literally everywhere, the Locrian’s demonic-sounding tones earned it the nickname, the Devil’s Mode (Delbanco, 23).
Still, the question remains—is it the mode that promises to awaken the Adversary, or is it the beginning triad that makes the Locrian so devilish?
The Devil’s Interval: The Tritone
The tritone interval is created by three adjacent whole tones played together. It produces such an unpleasant dissonance that the Italian monk, musical theorist, and father of written music, Guido d’Arezzo, deemed it ‘dangerous’ (Latham, 1170).
Embodying the chilling melancholy of a wolf’s cry, the tritone lacks a sought-after cadence, a musical progression leaving the listener feeling like the musical journey has concluded. Church leaders didn’t want their congregation feeling despair when they came to worship, especially when the church was meant to exude holiness. Thus, whether meaning to or not, the church cultivated a rich mythology about the diabolus in musica, where tales of church bans on the demonic interval abounded, and excommunication or musical persecution faced anyone daring to incorporate the devil’s interval in gospel songs. Such dissonance in a Gregorian chant simply went against the basic laws of church music legislation, as Reverend Andrew F. Klarmann explains (Klarmann, 133-135):
“Sacred music must eminently possess the qualities that belong to liturgical rites, especially holiness and beauty…There is danger lest a profane spirit should invade the House of God through new-fangled musical styles, which, should they get a real foothold, the Church would be bound to condemn.”
Jazz, Bebop, and Metal
As music and theory evolved, musicians sought new ways of expression. Seventeenth-century classical musicians began incorporating multiple modes into one song, thus modes faded in lieu of the musical keys we play today. The devil’s interval was incorporated in passages conveying a leitmotif of evil, the devil, or tragedy. While composers didn’t use the Locrian as a base for musical composition, the triad frequently appeared. For example, the chorus’ ascending notes of West Side Story’s “Maria” are tritonic intervals depicting the star-crossed lovers. It’s as if the listeners are being prepared for the tragic ending.
Even so, the inception of the tritone didn’t become mainstream until the rise of jazz, which brought odd intervals and dissonant scales to the forefront. Not only did jazz musicians give the musical world the middle finger by cutting off phrase endings and swinging eighth notes, they incorporated a brand new scale: the blues.
The blues distills to this: the flattened notes embody the soul of sadness (Tirro, 53). Already full of tritonic intervals, the blues flourished in popularity until it became all the rage to swing. Take Count Basie’s “April in Paris.” Listening critically, you can hear the musicians lay back on their rhythms, arriving almost late, an inconceivable concept in classical music. While our trained ears find the harmonies hip, the monk would have been shocked, perhaps appalled.
Soon enough, jazz musicians looked elsewhere for the new and unique. The foundation of bebop—a type of music letting an instrument scat—emerged. Bebop crafted complex, dissonant harmonies to prove jazz wasn’t about the feeling of the music, but the structure. Many musicians could fake the blues by learning a classic blues scale, but bebop demanded the player understand both the soul and the strict mathematics behind it (Giddens & DeVeaux, 299). So how do you get a full ensemble to follow the wild, edgy harmonies improvised on the spot?
It all boils down to the tritone.
By honing in on tritonic intervals and chromatic scales, beboppers revolutionized a new form of jazz, described by trumpeter Howard McGhee: “With bop, you had to know. Not feel; you have to know what you were doing” (Giddens & DeVeaux, 299). Playing in the song, “Buzzy,” the scat-singing elements come to the forefront, specifically with improvisation. With bass and drums keeping solid time for the rest of the players, bebop’s smaller ensembles had the chance to really dive into chord changes and test the musical limits of the time.
When Charlie “Yardbird” Parker first heard bebop harmonies he said, “That’s what I’ve been hearing all my life, but nobody knew how to play those changes” (Giddens & DeVeaux, 299). In his bebop classic, “Bebop,” the fast tempo, complex improvisations, and chromatic runs depict why the music industry had such a hard time making bop mainstream (Giddens & DeVeaux, 296). It was hard to replicate, difficult to dance to, and wasn’t a tune you’d sing days after. Yet, it captured the hearts of many listeners.
Finally, the metal and hard rock era clung to the devil’s interval by producing eerie chords designed to make the listener uneasy. From Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” (cover by Roniit), to “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath, the tritone chords in the guitar riffs served to develop a completely new style of music that expanded methods of musical expression and diversified music as a whole.
The Devil might’ve been in the blues, but it truly raised its head in the flattened fifth of bop and metal, where music was a wild ride and feeling wasn’t enough. Perhaps that’s the true devil—the journey to explore the unknown, the complex, and exceed the limits of expression.
Abraham, Gerald. The Concise Oxford History of Music. London: Oxford University Press, 1979. Print.
Delblanco, Andrew. The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995. Print.
Giddins, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. Jazz. New York, New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2009. Print.
Goodall, Howard. The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles How Music Has Shaped Civilization. New York, New York: Pegasus Books, 2013. Print.
Hein, Ethan. “Musical Samples: Army of Me.” The Ethan Hein Blog, 15 November 2015. http://www.ethanhein.com/wp/2015/musical-simples-army-of-me/. 11 December 2016.
Klarmann, Andrew F, Reverend. Gregorian Chant. Toledo, OH: Gregorian Institute of America, 1945. Print.
Latham, Alison. The Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.
Schoen-Philbert, Jonas. “25 Songs with the Tritone.” Uberchord. 13 February 2015. https://www.uberchord.com/blog/tritone-songs/. 10 December 2016.
Schoen-Philbert, Jonas. “The Tritone: Everything You Need To Know.” Uberchord. 13 February 2015. https://www.uberchord.com/blog/the-tritone/. 10 December 2016.
Tirro, Frank. Jazz: A History. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977. Print.