The Devil is said to have the best tunes, but what do they sound like? A new film about the history of heavy metal highlights the so-called Devil’s Interval, a musical phenomenon suppressed by the Church in the Middle Ages.

On the surface there might appear to be no link between Black Sabbath, Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, West Side Story and the theme tune to the Simpsons.

But all of them rely heavily on tritones, a musical interval that spans three whole tones, like the diminished fifth or augmented fourth. This interval, the gap between two notes played in succession or simultaneously, was branded Diabolus in Musica or the Devil’s Interval by medieval musicians.

A rich mythology has grown up around it. Many believe that the Church wanted to eradicate the sounds from its music because it invoked sexual feelings, or that it was genuinely the work of the Devil.

It is a mythology much beloved of long-haired guitar wizards.

In the newly-released documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, bassist Alex Webster of death metal act Cannibal Corpse pays tribute to the effect of the forbidden “Devil’s note” on heavy metal.

CF# The two notes, sounded simultaneously, in musical notation

C
F#
The two notes, sounded simultaneously, in musical notation

And rock producer Bob Ezrin pronounces: “It apparently was the sound used to call up the beast. There is something very sexual about the tritone.

“In the Middle Ages when people were ignorant and scared, when they heard something like that and felt that reaction in their body they thought ‘uh oh, here come the Devil’.”

It all sounds a little like the plot of a far-fetched Da Vinci Code sequel.

But Professor John Deathridge, King Edward professor of music at King’s College London, says the tritone had been consistently linked to evil.

“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.”

Wagner a fan

The Devil’s Interval enjoyed great popularity among composers in the 19th Century, when “you have got lots of presentations of evil built around the tritone”.

“It can sound very spooky. It depends on how you orchestrate. It is also quite exciting,” says Professor Deathridge. “[Wagner’s] Gotterdammerung has one of the most exciting scenes – a ‘pagan’, evil scene, the drums and the timpani. It is absolutely terrifying, it is like a black mass.

“There is a big connection between heavy rock music and Wagner. They have cribbed quite a lot from 19th Century music.”

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