The Diabolical Tritone
Musical structures are formed by a succession of tones
with specified frequencies; these however affect our state
of mind and moods.
At the beginning of the first millennium AD, there was not any appropriate annotation to record music. Hucbaldo,
towards the end of the 10th century was one of the first authors who tried to formalise musical notation.
In the West we use 12 solfège notes: DO, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LA and SI including some of the semitones
between them. The names and the numbers are arbitrary. Guido D'Arezzo, in the Middle Ages, named them based
on the hymn of San Juan:
Ut queant laxis
Later the UT note was changed to the DO, which is what is currently used.
These details have been refined over time, including "music theory" and methods.
ISA, ISO, DIN standards and others have been used intensively to regulate our technological knowledge. In the
case of music, at a conference of the International Standards Association (ISA), in May 1939, the note of the
fourth level was set at a frequency of 440 hertz as an international standard, which prevailed over a previous
attempt to fix it in 439 hertz. At present, orchestras base this normalised fundamental tone to tune all
instruments, which is important because if there is a violin and a piano together for example, it would be
possible to adjust the violin, but if a piano and a xylophone were tuned to differently, one would not be able
to play them together in the same concert, given that one cannot retune them fast enough.
Translator's Note: The musical annotation system used
in Spain, French, Italy, Latin America and others
countries is that which is quoted by the author and are
equivalent to the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B,
respectively, used in Germany, England, USA and other
Before that date, the note LA (the musical note A in the English notation system) would have been played at
different frequencies however nobody seemed to be overly concerned!
A specific luthier could guarantee the tones of his own instruments, but these did not necessarily coincide
with those of other instrument makers. The Greeks used seven tones and the Chinese in 3000 BC had a
pentatonic system. Modern musicians have found that some of these original tones match their current
preferences, meaning we appreciate the same frequency ratio, and therefore, the way music differs within
different cultures depends on other factors.One of the first historical theorists of art, the ancient
Indian musicologist, Bharata, referred to a Modal Tonal system, i.e. a series of sounds permitted for a
piece of music that gave a special character to the composition. The Greeks also came to define several
Musicians often refer to some modes as unstable, for example a sensation is produced that forces the
melodic line to move to another more stable mode. Guido D'Arezzo, who enjoyed great prestige for having
been protected by Pope John XIX adopted various Greek modes and in those days, one of them sounded
particularly unstable. Composition theorists, mostly monks, who became powerful disseminators of music,
began to disapprove of what was called the tritone which occurs when playing a DO and FA # (C and F#).
This combination occurs in the locrian mode. There are historians who claim that there was an ecclesiastical
proscription to using the tritone in musical composition as some evil power was attributed to it that would
induce people to perverse, lewd or murky inclinations, such that they began to refer to the "Diabolus in
Musica" And nowadays thrash metal bands prefer the tritone, as it facilitates the composition of dark
or diabolical musical passages.
It hardly seems reasonable that a certain combination of notes can be a carrier of satanic messages, or
even less that the devil could take advantage of musicians who use the tritone in order to pervert people,
but if you listen quietly, in works of more famous modern composers, one can hear the use of the tritone,
which actually enables the composition of music to evoke tension and induce the emotions of pity and fear.
Igor Stravinsky should be top of the list with his Firebird suite, in which the Infernal Dance was masterfully
imprinted on the score, with the DO-FA # combination (C and F#).
There is also is the Götterdämmerung, "Twilight of the Gods" by Richard Wagner, which describes the
equally chilling death of Siegfried, who always seemed fearless, because his whole body was protected,
except for a part on the back, where his enemy was able to place his sword. This fateful scene would prevent
the recovery of the famous Ring of the Nibelung. His death was so terrible and painful that the diabolical
tritone seemed the best way to focus on the pain and horror that followed.
Finally, I should not fail to mention the "Dante Sonata" by Franz Liszt, in which the beauty and at the same
time the fear is exulted masterfully by the diabolical tritone. It is the most appropriate way to describe
that passage of the Divine Comedy.