• The “Devil In Music” – Tritones vs Augmented 4ths & Diminished 5ths

    in Piano,Theory

    devil in music

    There’s an element in music that has generated a lot of controversies over the years.

    In the Middle Ages (400AD – 1400AD), it was called the “devil in music” (aka – “diabolus in musica”) and in the eighteenth century, playing it could put you at the risk of being excommunicated.

    Over time, people discovered that this element was not really of the devil. They saw it in a new light and gradually, it grew in importance. In the 1940s, this interval became an integral part of Jazz Piano Harmony.

    Today, the devil in music is pretty much an angel.

    Here’s the controversial element:

    Many generations have called it different names. First, it was called the devil in music. In contemporary times, you can hardly hang out around musicians who play Gospel and Jazz styles without hearing Tritones! Tritones!! Tritones!!!

    There’s a lot more to the this controversial element and the goal of this article is to help you relate with the devil in music either as a melodic progression or as an interval.

    This post is for you if:

    You don’t know what a tritone is and you haven’t heard of it before.

    You don’t know what a tritone is but you’ve heard of it before.

    You know what a tritone is (you spice up your playing with it), however, you aren’t sure of what it is.

    I’m sure this article will prove helpful to you if any of those applied to you.

    Two Perspectives to The Devil in Music

    There are two ways to relate to the devil in music. Either as a melodic progression or as an interval. That gives us two perspectives.

    Here’s the first perspective.

    Perspective #1 – As a melodic progression.

    The devil in music can be seen as a melodic progression. In between F-B are three wholetone progressions:

    F-G

    G-A

    A-B

    Therefore, considering that there are three adjacent wholetone progressions, this melodic progression is known as the tritone. Tritone literally means three tones or three adjacent wholetone progressions.

    The tritone is a melodic progression and NOT an interval.

    However, because melodic progressions and intervals are cousins, people often use the melodic progressions to describe distances. (The tritone is not alone in this; people also use semitone and tone to describe distances.)

    This may not be totally wrong, however, there are differences between melodic progressions and intervals that we can’t sweep under the carpet. Read this article (melodic progressions vs intervals) to learn more about the similarities and differences.

    Just like other melodic progressions, the tritone is a melodic progression derived from the division of an octave into two parts.

    Recall that an octave is naturally divisible into twelve parts. This is the smallest division and what we call “semitones.”

    Mathematically, a tritone is the division of an octave (12 parts) into two equal “buckets” (if you will).

    Therefore, each tritone progression will contain six semitones and will contain two of such in one octave.

    E.g. using F as a reference:

    The first melodic progression from F is B:

    The second melodic progression from B is F:

    F to B and B to F are all tritone progressions of F (each containing six semitone progressions).

    F-B contains six semitone progressions

    • F-F♯
    • F♯-G
    • G-G♯
    • G♯-A
    • A-A♯
    • A♯-B

    B-F contains six semitone progressions

    • B-C
    • C-C♯
    • C♯-D
    • D-D♯
    • D♯-E
    • E-F

    The tritone progression, just like other melodic progressions, can be used to create scales and melodic patterns (e.g. – “whole tone” scale).

    The relationship between F and B is based on the tritone progression (which is the division of the octave into two equal parts). If the first three tones of the F Major Scale

    and the first three tones of the B Major scale,

    …are summed up together within an octave, we’ll have:

    The scale above is a whole tone scale. It’s also amazing to know that the whole tone scale of F and that of B contain exactly the same notes.

    F Whole tone Scale

    B Whole tone Scale

    In subsequent posts, we’ll break down scales using melodic progressions.

    Now that we’ve seen the devil in music as a melodic progression, let’s switch perspectives.

    Perspective #2 – As an Interval

    These are the two intervals that fit into the size of the devil in music. They are:

    • F-B – Augmented Fourth
    • B-F – Diminished Fifth

    If you’ve listen to the siren, you’ll hear the melodic interval between the pitches of the devil in music. The interval between those pitches can be an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth and this puts a lot into consideration, unlike the tritone perspective.

    F-B is an Augmented Fourth.

    In the Key of B Major, the fourth tone is B♭. Raising (augmenting) the B♭ to B will yield an augmented fourth.

    F G A B♭ C D E F

    B-F is a Diminished Fifth.

    In the Key of B Major, the fifth tone is F♯. Lowering (diminishing) the F♯ to F will form a diminished fifth.

    B C♯ D♯ E F♯ G♯ A♯ B

     

    Melodic Progressions vs Intervals

    What’s the better perspective to the devil in music? Is it better to consider it as a melodic progression (tritone) or an interval (augmented 4th/diminished 5th)? Let’s compare and contrast.

    The use of intervals (augmented 4th/diminished 5th) expose the harmonic properties of the devil in music unlike the the use of melodic progressions (tritone) which is just the division of an octave.

    The chief harmonic property of ALL augmented and diminished intervals is dissonance. Augmented and diminished intervals sound unpleasant and disagreeable. Until you perceive the devil in music as an interval, you can’t access its harmonic DNA.

     

    F-B as a tritone progression won’t reveal the harmonic properties of the devil in music. When the harmonic properties of the devil in music is unknown, abuse is inevitable.

    F-B as an Augmented Fourth will tell us its harmonic properties. With knowledge of these harmonic properties, we can effectively use the devil in music.

    There are two schools here:

    School of Melodic Progressions School of Intervals
    Tritone Augmented Fourth/Diminished Fifth
    Application – Implication = Abuse Implication + Application = Use

     

    You can choose where you belong to. However, I’ll advise you to leave the league of musicians who go ahead to apply the devil in music without knowledge of its harmonic implication and join the league of musicians who understand the implication and application of the devil in music – they are the musicians who will never abuse an Augmented fourth or Diminished by playing it when consonance is needed.

    One of the reasons why people call the devil in music either tritone or an Augmented Fourth/Diminished Fifth interval is because of the relationship between melodic progressions and intervals. However, the devil in music is:

    • more of an interval than a melodic progression.
    • more of an augmented fourth/diminished fifth than a tritone

    There are chords that contain the devil in music. From what we covered earlier, the devil in music has two perspectives and there’s a thin line between them.

    However, there is a common misconception that I wish to address. A vast majority of musicians think that the tritone is an intervallic component of the Dominant Seventh chord. Let’s address this misconception…

     

    Misconception of Tritones

    The earliest augmented and diminished intervals in music are B-F and F-B and they were known as diabolus in musica (“devil in music”). These intervals are harmonically unstable, have a degree of tension, and are also associated with unpleasantness.

    Chords that contain these intervals inherit their dissonance and are known as discords. One of the most notable discords in music is the Dominant Seventh Chord. Below is the G Dominant Seventh Chord:

    G-B-D-F

    However, this chord can be broken down into intervals. The intervals a chord can be broken down into are called intervallic components.

    The G Dom7th can be broken down into intervallic components of thirds and fifths:

    Thirds:

    G-B (Major third)

    B-D (Minor third)

    D-F (Minor third)

     

    Fifths

    G-D (Perfect Fifth)

    B-F (Diminished Fifth)

    There are three consonant intervals – Major third, Minor third and Perfect fifth – and one dissonant interval. The diminished fifth – B-F – is a dissonant interval. Therefore, the G Dom7th chord inherits its discord from this dissonant interval.

    If B-F is the intervallic component of the G Dom7th chord where it inherits its dissonance from, then it’s not appropriate to call B-F (which is an interval) a melodic progression. Therefore, it’s clear misconception to refer to the use of B-F in this context as a tritone.

    Having cleared the misconception of the tritone, let’s learn to call this dissonant intervallic component an Augmented Fourth/Diminished Interval and not a tritone. The line between them may be thin; but it exists.

    Until next time.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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