“Those who consider the Devil to be a partisan of Evil and angels to be warriors for Good accept the demagogy of the angels. Things are clearly more complicated” – Milan Kundera

Oh, they’re really going to hate this…

The greatest trick the Devil ever played was to hide himself in a musical chord. His satanic majesty’s fondness for musicians is well established as he eternally seems to be involving himself in musical competitions, crossroads deals with blues singers, inserting coded lyrics that only play backwards on heavy metal albums, whispering to Ozzy Osborne, and inspiring numerous composers like Tartini and Pagnini to bombastic feats.  Back during the Fall, when he lost his day job as director of the heavenly choir, the quality of music in Hell must have really irked him.  I suspect there’s a lot of Carpenter’s muzak just for the sake of irony (that was a Jesus joke for those of you who weren’t paying attention).  Well, assuming his recording contracts all got cancelled after he plummeted into the Pit, he no doubt decided to reinvent his musical oeuvre a la Madonna (Ciccone, not the Virgin).  Presumably, all but the B-sides in Heaven involved soothing and harmonious compositions, but having been robbed of his Grammy, Satan decided to take a different tack – the Diabolus in Musica (more commonly known as the Devil’s Tritone, or for the more technically adept musicians among you, the diminished or “flatted” fifth).

Now the consensus is that the Devil’s Tritone sounds a bit spooky.  It’s been used to this effect in everything from Beethoven’s 1805 opera Fidelio, to Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, to Busta Rhymes’s “Woo Hah! Got You All In Check,” not to mention the theme songs to The Simpsons and South Park, West Side Story’s “Maria”, Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”, and pretty much anything by Black Sabbath, as one would expect.  As to its general creepiness in musical compositions, don’t take my word for it, just listen to a basic demonstration (Diabolus in Musica).  You can see that there is a reason that the Devil’s tritone is great for stuff like Darth Vader’s Imperial March (Darth Vader Goes Metal).  Our ears find the Diabolus in Musica a tad disturbing, and there are sound technical reasons for this.

A tritone in and of itself is nothing diabolical.  It is merely three whole tones, a starting note plus the third and fifth tones found along its scale (e.g. C, E, G).  Very harmonious.  But when you make the tritone “restless” say by playing (C, E-flat, G-flat) you get a rather unnerving dissonance and our brains wonder when the harmonious chord will come along to provide a peaceful resolution.  When it never comes, we get all agitated, and this is why it has traditionally been used to represent something sinister.

Theologians of a musical inclination have long eschewed the Devil’s Tritone, all the way back to the 9th Century A.D. as it was considered unnatural.  “This Tritone worried musical theoreticians so much in the Middle Ages that they disputed about the substitution of B flat for B in lengthy treatises” (Untersteiner, 1902, p32).  Some musical historians have suggested that the aversion to the Devil’s Tritone is all about the Greeks, and avoided, “the tritone which was regarded throughout the middle ages as diabolus in musica, probably not so much for aesthetic reasons as because of its frequent occurrence in Greek music and its consequently inevitable evocation of pagan associations” (Gray, 1928, p13).

The Devil generally has a rough time of it, what with constantly being thwarted by the celestial powers that be.  It’s got to take a lot out of a demon, but he can take solace in the fact that instead of introducing cacophony and disorder throughout the musical world, his chord would ultimately be the centerpiece of several genres of music from blues to heavy metal, regardless of whether he was able to ink a deal with the musicians in question.  And maybe this is at the heart of the human creative spirit, a restlessness with eternal harmony and yearning for contrast.  As Joyce Cary said, “For good and evil, man is a free creative spirit. This produces the very queer world we live in, a world in continuous creation and therefore continuous change and insecurity”.  Just don’t bring a guitar to the exorcism.

Gray, Cecil, 1895-1951. The History of Music. New York: Knopf, 1928.
Untersteiner, Alfredo, 1859-1918. A Short History of Music. [2d ed.] New York: Dodd, Mead and company, 1902.