What is the Tritone in Music Theory: the Devil’s Interval

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The tritone, often referred to as the “devil’s interval,” is a musical interval with a rich and controversial history. In this exploration, we’ll delve into the origins of the tritone, its historical significance, and its role in shaping the music we know today.


  • The tritone, historically labeled the “devil’s interval,” is a dissonant and versatile musical interval.
  • Its complex history ranges from diabolical associations to becoming an essential tool in Western classical music, jazz, and popular genres.
  • Renowned composers like Wagner and Debussy have skillfully harnessed the tritone’s emotional power in their compositions.
  • Contemporary artists employ innovative approaches, blending dissonance with consonance for striking contrasts.
  • The tritone’s psychological impact, creating tension and resolution, guides emotional journeys in music.
  • It plays a crucial role in film and video game scores, heightening drama and immersion.
  • Cognitive music perception research reveals how the tritone triggers heightened attention and emotional engagement.
  • The tritone’s enduring importance lies in its capacity to inspire creativity, evoke emotions, and captivate listeners across genres and eras.

Historical Perspective

Origins of the Tritone

To understand the tritone, we must journey back in time to its origins. This enigmatic interval has been a part of musical history for centuries, dating back to ancient civilizations. Its unique sound, characterized by its dissonance, captured the attention of early musicians.

The tritone’s distinctive quality arises from its intervallic structure, spanning three whole tones or six half steps. This interval, equivalent to an augmented fourth or diminished fifth, created an unmistakable sonic tension that intrigued and challenged composers throughout history.

The “Diabolus in Musica”

In the annals of musical history, the tritone earned a rather ominous reputation. It was often labeled as the “diabolus in musica” or the devil in music. This perception stemmed from the interval’s dissonant nature, which clashed with the harmonious sounds favored by the church and society during the Middle Ages.

The Church viewed the tritone as a symbol of discord, associating it with the devil’s work and considering it unsuitable for sacred music. As a result, composers faced restrictions on its use in religious compositions. However, this prohibition did not stifle the tritone’s allure; instead, it added an air of mystery and rebellion to its reputation.

Role in Gregorian Chant and Medieval Music

Despite its diabolical reputation, the tritone found its place in the music of the time, particularly in Gregorian chant and medieval compositions. Its use was not always overt but was subtly woven into the fabric of these pieces, adding a touch of complexity and tension to the otherwise serene soundscape of religious music.

Gregorian chant, with its modal structure, occasionally featured tritones, albeit carefully concealed within the melodies. Composers of the time, seeking to infuse their music with emotional depth, recognized the tritone’s ability to create moments of suspense and resolution, even within the constraints of church-approved harmony.

Theoretical Foundations

To truly appreciate the tritone’s significance in music, we must dive into its theoretical foundations. This dissonant interval, spanning three whole tones or six half steps, has intrigued composers, theorists, and musicians for centuries.

Understanding Intervallic Properties

At its core, the tritone represents an interval that covers half of the chromatic scale. To comprehend this, imagine playing a piano keyboard starting from C and counting six half steps: C to Db, Db to D, D to Eb, Eb to E, E to F, and finally, F to Gb. This last step, from F to Gb, constitutes the tritone. Its unique characteristic lies in its sonic instability, creating a sensation of tension, longing, and anticipation.

Placement in the Diatonic Scale

In the context of the diatonic scale, the tritone occupies an intriguing position. In a typical major or minor scale, it occurs between the fourth and seventh degrees. For instance, in the C major scale, a tritone is formed between F and B. This placement adds complexity to the scale, as it’s the only interval that does not naturally align with the consonant intervals like the perfect fifth or the major third.

Augmented and Diminished Intervals

The tritone is a chameleon of sorts, capable of assuming different identities in various musical contexts. It can be either an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth, depending on the direction of its movement. When the interval expands from the lower note to the higher one, it becomes an augmented fourth. Conversely, if the higher note descends to the lower, it transforms into a diminished fifth.

This dual nature adds to the tritone’s intrigue, making it a versatile tool for composers and arrangers. Its ability to shift seamlessly between these two forms contributes to the harmonic tension it can create.

Tritone in Western Classical Music

The tritone’s influence extends far beyond its theoretical framework; it plays a pivotal role in Western classical music, captivating the imagination of renowned composers such as Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky.

Notable Compositions

Numerous classical compositions prominently feature the tritone, often as a source of dramatic tension. Richard Wagner, in his epic “Tristan und Isolde,” exploits the tritone to convey the intensity of the ill-fated love between the titular characters. Here, the unresolved tritones create a sense of longing and desire that underpin the opera’s emotional depth.

Analyzing the Composers’ Craft

Claude Debussy, known for his innovative harmonic language, incorporated the tritone to evoke vivid sonic landscapes. In “La Mer,” he used tritones to represent the vastness and unpredictability of the sea. The interval’s dissonance mirrors the tumultuous nature of the ocean, adding texture to the composition.

Igor Stravinsky, in his groundbreaking work “The Rite of Spring,” employed the tritone to generate rhythmic and harmonic tension. The dissonant clashes of tritones contribute to the primal, ritualistic atmosphere of the piece, making it a landmark in the history of classical music.

Harmonic Tension and Resolution

The tritone’s role in Western classical music extends beyond individual compositions; it’s a linchpin in creating harmonic tension and resolution. When composers strategically introduce tritones into their works, they disrupt the listener’s expectations, generating suspense that is ultimately resolved in a satisfying manner. This tension and release dynamic is at the heart of much classical music, and the tritone is a potent tool in achieving this effect.

Tritone in Jazz and Popular Music

The tritone, with its captivating dissonance, finds a vibrant home in the world of jazz and popular music. In these genres, it becomes a dynamic tool for harmonization, improvisation, and sonic exploration.

Jazz Harmony and Improvisation

Jazz musicians are known for their fearless embrace of dissonance, and the tritone plays a pivotal role in this. Tritone substitution, a technique wherein the tritone replaces a dominant seventh chord’s root, is a cornerstone of jazz harmony. This substitution introduces a sense of ambiguity and tension, pushing the boundaries of traditional tonality.

In jazz improvisation, the tritone provides a playground for musicians. It offers a unique pivot point for melodic exploration, allowing players to inject unpredictability and excitement into their solos. Jazz legends like John Coltrane and Miles Davis employed tritones liberally, showcasing their mastery of this interval’s expressive potential.

Presence in Rock, Blues, and Beyond

The tritone’s allure extends beyond jazz into rock, blues, and various popular music genres. In rock, the power chord, a staple of the genre, is essentially a fifth chord with the tritone at its core. This dissonance gives rock its signature edge and raw energy. Iconic bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath harnessed the tritone’s power to create some of the most enduring riffs in rock history.

Blues, with its rich emotional landscape, also welcomes the tritone. Known as the “blue note,” the tritone is a hallmark of blues music, adding soulful depth to melodies and improvisations. Blues legends like Robert Johnson and B.B. King used the tritone’s melancholic sound to convey the heartache and struggle central to the genre’s themes.

Iconic Songs and Dramatic Effect

Several iconic songs across genres leverage the tritone for dramatic effect. Consider Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” where the opening riff features a distorted tritone, creating an otherworldly, psychedelic atmosphere. The tritone’s dissonant mystique sets the stage for the song’s mind-bending journey.

In the realm of jazz, Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” stands out. Its exotic melodies are laced with tritones, transporting listeners to a vivid, Middle Eastern-inspired sonic landscape. This use of the tritone showcases its versatility in evoking a range of emotions and cultural influences.

Tritone as a Compositional Tool

In the ever-evolving landscape of music composition, contemporary artists and composers have embraced the tritone as a potent tool for crafting unique and expressive soundscapes. This dissonant interval, once labeled the “devil’s interval,” now serves as a vehicle for innovation and creativity in modern compositions.

Expressive Potential

Contemporary composers harness the expressive potential of the tritone to evoke a wide range of emotions and moods. By strategically integrating tritones into their compositions, they can introduce tension, uncertainty, and even a sense of unease. This dissonance becomes a palette from which they paint sonic landscapes, pushing the boundaries of traditional tonality.

Innovative Integration

One innovative way the tritone is integrated into modern compositions is through juxtaposition with consonant elements. Composers blend the tritone’s dissonance with consonant harmonies, creating a striking contrast that captures listeners’ attention. This juxtaposition can be used to convey complex emotional narratives, as the tension and resolution between dissonance and consonance mirror the human experience.

Additionally, composers experiment with extended techniques and unconventional instruments to explore the tritone’s sonic possibilities further. The tritone, when played on non-traditional instruments or with unique timbral effects, can produce hauntingly beautiful or otherworldly sounds that add depth and intrigue to contemporary compositions.

Role in Film and Video Game Scores

The tritone’s versatility has also found a home in the world of film and video game scores. Composers in these mediums leverage the tritone’s evocative power to enhance storytelling and immerse audiences in the narrative.

In film, the tritone is often used to underscore moments of tension, suspense, or the supernatural. Its dissonance can heighten the drama of a scene, signaling to viewers that something extraordinary or unsettling is happening. Classic films like Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” score feature the tritone prominently, intensifying the psychological thriller’s impact.

Video game composers, too, employ the tritone to enhance the gaming experience. Whether it’s accompanying an epic boss battle or creating an eerie atmosphere in a horror game, the tritone’s ability to create tension and anticipation makes it a valuable tool for shaping the player’s emotional journey.

The Psychological Impact of Tritone Resolution

Beyond its compositional applications, the tritone wields a profound psychological influence on listeners, impacting emotions, and cognitive perception.

Tritone Tension and Resolution

The tritone’s inherent dissonance generates a sense of tension, a feeling of something unresolved. When resolved to a consonant interval, such as a perfect fifth or a major third, it creates a profound sense of release and resolution. Composers skillfully manipulate this tension and resolution to guide the emotional journey of their audience.

Composers as Emotional Architects

Composers have long recognized the tritone’s power as emotional architects. By strategically placing tritones within a composition, they can manipulate listener emotions, taking them on a carefully crafted journey. The ebb and flow of tension and resolution through tritones can convey feelings of anticipation, longing, and catharsis.

Cognitive Aspects of Music Perception

Research into music perception sheds light on the cognitive aspects related to tritones. Studies have shown that our brains respond differently to consonant and dissonant intervals, with dissonance like the tritone often triggering heightened attention and emotional engagement. This cognitive response is a testament to the profound impact music, and specifically the tritone, has on our psyche.

Conclusion: The Tritone’s Legacy

In the journey through the musical notion of the tritone, we’ve uncovered a rich tapestry of history, theory, controversy, and innovation. This enigmatic interval, once vilified as the “devil’s interval,” has emerged as a symbol of creative exploration and emotional depth in music.

From its historical origins, where it challenged the norms of the church, to its theoretical foundations, where it perplexed and intrigued musicians, the tritone has left an indelible mark on music history. It has found its place in the diatonic scale, nestled between consonance and dissonance, and has assumed roles as both augmented and diminished intervals.


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