The Devil’s interval

by Jimmy Veith

Have you ever been freaked out by a piece of music that sounded evil? Have you heard combinations of notes that were so dissonant that it made you tense and restless, but yet was strangely alluring? Well, you may have been placed under the spell of the Devil’s interval, known in music theory as the augmented 4th or flatted 5th.

Let me explain. Remember when Maria, the good Nun from “The Sound of Music”, taught the children how to sing, with the Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do song? That was the major scale on which most Western music is based. In the key of C, it would be all the white keys on the piano; ie, C, D, E, F, G, A B and C. Each note of the scale is assigned a number. In the key of C, C is 1, D is 2, E is 3, F is 4, G is 5, A is 6 and B is 7.

For some mysterious reason, the major scale is not symmetrical in its intervals. There are whole steps between C, D, and E, but a half step from E to F. There are whole steps between F, G, A and B, but a half step from B to C. Now, let’s create a more sinister sounding scale by eliminating the half steps and playing only whole steps. If you start with middle C, you would play C, D, E, F# (G flat), G# (A flat), A# (B flat), then C again. You have just played a scale based on the tri-tones, which is a scale of six different notes in equal intervals as opposed to seven notes found in the major scale.

Now this is where it gets freaky. Play the C and F# (or G flat) together. This is the interval known as the augmented 4th or flatted 5th. Play this over and over again. How does it make you feel? Now play C and G flat in alternating order, over and over again, one second apart. Do you recognize the opening guitar riff in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”? Play it some more. Have you summoned the devil yet? Ok, that’s enough, Quit Now! Quit Now! Quit Now I say, before it’s too late!

OK. I may be exaggerating. However, this interval has been used by composers when they want to create an atmosphere of evil or dread. It is used extensively by heavy metal groups such as Black Sabbath, and classical compositions such as Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, Beethoven’s Fidelio. Also, it is found in modern compositions such as West Side Story, and the theme song of the Simpson’s.

It has been said that this interval was banned in the middle ages by the clergy. This may be more mythology than fact. Are there any musicologists out there who could shed some light on this issue?

I don’t mean to suggest that artists that use this interval are by any means evil. Great music involves interplay between tension and release, and the use of this interval is one of many tools that a skillful composer can and should use to create tension.

Now here is something for you Lutherans. Consider the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” by Martin Luther himself. The third line of the first verse reads: “For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe.” The third line of the third verse reads: “The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him. ” The two lines where Luther refers to the Devil in the text of the hymn, also happens to be when the “devil’s interval” is found in the melody line. Just a coincidence? Or genius?

Big Brother Butts In:  I would add one more thing that Jimmy pointed out to me when he was explaining all of this over the piano.  I had always wondered why it is that musical scales have to have those half-steps.  Wouldn’t it be easier and more consistent and more orderly for a scale to have all whole steps? It would, but now I know that a scale with all whole steps is actually discordant.  Not only that, it has the Devil’s Interval!   Which teaches us that perfect regularity is neither beautiful nor good.   True beauty–whether of music or art or literature or a person–needs its quirks, its inconsistencies, its surprises, even its flaws. Philosophies and ideologies that demand utterly consistent regularity–think of Marxism–become inhuman, tyrannical, and demonic.  As do people when they try to fit their neighbors into some regular pattern of whole notes.  And God, who Himself is unutterably complex and confounding to human reason, designed things this way.  (And if you think such connection between music and other kinds of cosmic order is just made up, the old music theorists, such as Bach–anyone know if he used the Devil’s Interval?–thought and made music in these terms.


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