I’m thinking of picking up my Sounds of Sunday thing again. Last summer I was loaned several discs from someone I still miss greatly and I featured one a week on here for a while. I still wonder if there was anything I should have said or done differently that would have made it all last longer but what’s life without regrets, eh? Thanks for the memories, I guess. There just aren’t enough of them.
Anyway, I hadn’t heard of this “devil’s interval” until recently, but hearing notes played this way is supposed to conjure up feelings of outright creepiness and since churches have a long history of choirs and the like, this effect got noticed eventually and wasn’t welcome. From a 2007 Guardian article:
There shouldn’t, theoretically, be anything scary about a musical interval. Just as turning round three times with your eyes closed while reciting the Hail Mary probably won’t make the devil appear before you, despite generations of schoolchildren believing otherwise, so playing the note of C followed by F sharp shouldn’t encapsulate the essence of evil – but somehow it does. The movement from the first tone in a scale to the fifth, known as the perfect fifth, was the first accepted harmony of the Gregorian chant after the use of the octave. It was discovered in the 11th century that moving down a semitone to the diminished fifth created dissonance, and a nasty feeling of foreboding and dread. The church of medieval Europe quickly banned it, reputedly relying on torturous methods to ensure that the ban was upheld.
Musicians and aficionados will be well familiar with the flat (therefore not perfect) fifth and how it’s used everywhere, from Wagner to Jimi Hendrix (one of the Man’s loaners ) to the Simpsons. This video explains and demonstrates it pretty well.
I found a 2006 article from the BBC about this effect, too. They interviewed guitarist Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath:
“When I started writing Sabbath stuff it was just something that sounded right. I didn’t think I was going to make it Devil music,” Iommi tells the Magazine.
He says he was aiming for “something that sounded really evil and very doomy” but admits he may have been unconsciously influenced by other music and was certainly not aiming to summon the Devil.
I’m reminded of Robert Johnson now. He was a blues guitarist in the early ’30s and was heavily criticized for his lack of skill initially. He left home for a few years and returned with a gift for playing the blues. Legend dictates that this skill was bequeathed to him by the devil at a crossroads. Back to BBC News Magazine and quotes from John Deathridge, King Edward professor of music at King’s College London:
“In medieval theology you have to have some way of presenting the devil. Or if someone in the Roman Catholic Church wanted to portray the crucifixion, it is sometimes used there.”
But there were musical treatises and sets of rules produced that did come to forbid the use of the interval, which was seen as wrong when it came up in choruses of monks.
“There are strict musical rules. You aren’t allowed to use this particular dissonance. It simply won’t work technically, you are taught not to write that interval. But you can read into that a theological ban in the guise of a technical ban.”
Like the theory for why Hindus revere their cows; the animals are more useful alive than dead so early leaders made it a grave sin to kill them, no matter how poor or hungry a person was. You can only kill them once, after all, but how many times can you milk them? (Also reminds me of why some churches encourage tithing for life instead of draining bank accounts in one go but I’ve digressed enough.)
BBC also quotes Anthony Pryor, who was running a postgraduate course in historical musicology at the time (and may still). He explains why this particular tritone creates feelings of apprehension and doom and why it’s used so effectively in film and theatre.
Dissonance does provoke a strange feeling, Mr Pryer says, but it is nothing to do with Satan.
“[Dissonance] is something that yearns to be resolved. A very good example would be the opening of West Side Story, Maria. It wants to resolve into the next note. It is a special kind of tension. It gives that angular, edgy, spooky feel. Film music is often extremely sophisticated at signalling to a listener here is a particular kind of character.
Now that I know what to listen for, maybe I’ll be more aware of this emotion tugging trick when the music’s playing.