The Forbidden Tritone (The Devil’s Melody on the ukulele)
Updated: May 7, 2021
We are here! On the heels of scariest holiday of them all——Halloween! Or if your from a ‘across the pond’, All Hollow’s Eve. This holiday is derived from a sacred festival of the ancient Celts and Druids, coming as days grow short and night stretch long in the Northern Hemisphere. The day itself marking a cross-quarter day, or the midway between an equinox (when the suns sets due west) and a solstice (when the sun sets at it’s most northern or southern point on the horizon. They also called this holiday Samhain marking the end of the harvest shear and the beginning of winter. Now this is where the ‘heebie-jeebies’ come in.
They would celebrate Samhain with the lighting of special bonfires. They lit these fires as a cleansing and protective mechanism as they believed that the boundary between our world and the spirit world could be traversed! Meaning their pagan gods and fairies could be appeased (in person) in order to ensure that their livestock would survive the winter. Here is where all our rituals that we incorporate into our Halloween traditions come from. I know, dark right?!
Over the years Samhain was seen as being apart of the occult by the early Christian church and seen as demonic. This brings us to the devil’s music! A musical melody thought to conjure of the devil himself, the perfect melody for a Halloween night!
Like the “Beast” in the Christian tradition, it goes by 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.
The interval was given a sinister name since listeners originally found it unpleasant and surprising. Before the tritone became a common tool in later music, listeners expected artists to play chords and patterns that were pleasing to the ear. When a tone that wasn’t melodious as the triad was inserted into a musical passage, it was unsettling since it didn’t conform to listener expectations. I first heard about this in my college history class, and the teacher played it for us. Definitely a dark set of notes. Rumor has it that it was banned to play the devil’s tritone by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages for fear that it conjured up Satan! Or that something evil would befall the musician that dared to. Some stories called for the musician to be beheaded if they were heard playing it.
You can easily play the devil’s tritone with any of the notes on the scale. For example, playing a perfect fifth will take you from a A to E note. This is pleasing and harmonious. But remember, the triad is a “flatted fifth”. So instead of going from A to E. You go from A to D#, a half step down. But why is it called a triad? Well, when playing the devil’s interval, you play the perfect fifth and then slide down and play the half step. So here is the devil’s interval in all it’s ingloriousness!
Now be careful where you play this triad. You may have either a priest or a ghost chasing you around... haha!
Now it even gets darker. This system of playing the devil’s interval works for every note of the scale... until you get to B. Playing the devil’s interval on the B scale was called the Locrian mode, and it was the only one where the fifth degree of the scale is not a perfect fifth - it’s an augmented fourth – a forbidden tritone! Goose bumps right on cue.
This went against everything music appeared to stand for, and was christened diabolus in musica – the Devil in music. The Locrian mode was very rarely used in compositions! So why is the devil’s triad so horrific to listen to?
John Sloboda, a professor of music psychology at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, explained that the tritone is particularly unnerving because the human brain is hardwired to find harmony and symmetry in music:
“When we hear something dissonant, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it's strange and unexpected. The emotional result of hearing a tritone, 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.”
So it’s this melodic dissonance that creates the chill down our spine when we listen to it. Here’s how to play it on the ukulele! Using a low G, you can play the A note (G string, 2nd fret), E note (C String, fourth fret, and then ending on the flatted fifth, D# note (C string, 3rd fret). Play these notes in order at different tempos. Then play the A note and D# by themselves in rhythm.
Now all superstitions aside, Heavy Metal rocks bands have embraced this tritone. Most famous being Black Sabbath! Check them out playing the devil’s tritone below!
So there you have it! This concludes our October fright fest of posts! And this Halloween you can kick up the scares by playing the Devil’s tritone on your ukulele! But beware, you don’t want to invite things back from trick or treating that go bump in the night.
Keep jamming and.................