View Full Version : tritones
i have text book definition of both these terms but i haven't a clue what is meant by them. can any one explain? i'm particularly interested to know if the church proscribed this because of esthetic considerations or was it simply prejudice against anything based on the number 6.
i'm not some closet satinist; mumbo-jumbo of any sorts puts me right off. i'm just curious to know what this is, how it came about, when - what period are we talking about - and what lay behind the decision to call some aspects of music sacred and others diabolic.
many thanks - bill
Michael H Geimer
... and is it really just *coincidence* that tritones show up in soooo many B-grade horror film soundtracks. Evil at work? ... or just a 'horriffic sounding' interval?
Seriously ... a tritone = flatted-fifth
As far as the religious bias against it during Bach's time ... [shrug] ... I've heard the story, but I'd just screw it up. Maybe someone else will offer the historic account.
Actually it goes back farther than Bach--about a thousand years farther!
The Gregorian chants of the early Catholic Church went out of their way to completely avoid this "evil" interval. The smooth, hollow drone of the perfect fifth was THE "sound" for centuries. You'd see an occasional venture out out of it in the Middle ages (secular music only), but it wasn't until well-developed Renaissance era that the interval was used, and then ONLY if it was properly resolved & put to "rest."
The development of the use of the tritone is quite a study in the history of Western music (European, not Country & Western...).
Funny, for those of us into jazz, this interval is probably the most important one. That inherent tension provides the drama and conflict/resolution crucial to the genre. Guess it sort of figures--a music that was nurtured in brothels for so long...
This sounds like a topic for Victor ('tho he sounds a bit tied up at the moment!)
Perhaps later when he puts the new baby to bed.......
Tony is right; a bit too busy with new baby right now.
In short: Tritone: generic term for the interval comprising three whole tones; spelled either as an augmented fourth (e.g. C — F- sharp) OR a diminished fifth (e.g. F-sharp — C); "classical" OUTward resolution of the former into minor 6th (i.e. B — G), INward resolution of the latter into major 3rd (i.e. G — B).
As for the historical matters, look up the Council of Trent; yes, way, WAY before Bach and the Baroque.
For a more detailed —and brilliantly comprehensive—#discussion of the practical acoustics involved, look up Paul Hindemith's Craft of Musical Composition (Schott Editions).
My only advice: Don't buy into satanic/diabolical or, for that matter, ANY extramusical connotations. Music is music is music. I have had hilariously absurd reviews of my own works around the world, where overly ambitious (and usually musically ignorant) critics with a political axe to grind have either praised or condemned my music for being "right wing" or "left wing". A South American critic, in fact, just about suggested I was an accomplice of Mussolini in a review of a... Sonatina for Piano (?!?!?!?!?!?) On such grounds and on such spurious evidence, one could well convict ANYone of ANYthing.
So: Tritone: a natural phenomenon, just like cabbage, lettuce, or cauliflower— or poison-ivy, if you prefer. #http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wink.gif
now I dont know this... not even close, but I have to voice my curiosity..
I suspect, since eastern music uses this flat fifth, http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif #I think roman catholics(or late empire as I like to call it) especially, wanted to differentiate their sound, from the sound of the east, maybe even stirring up some propaganda? #jewish music uses this flat fifth eh? left is sinister? read jewish scripts from right to left... flat fifths evil? #I dont know, if that wasnt the intention, it was def. a result. flat fifth evil= music outside europe is evil= foreign non-christian (hethan pagan scum, right http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif )
I thru the left thing in there, that may have spun a few of you out .. I see that as another one of these old christian beliefs that seem to step on a lot of toes.
Of course, there is a difference between the melodic motion of a tritone and its simultaneous sounding as a harmonic interval.
Ted is correct. Recognition of the "problem" of the tritone does go back to the Middle Ages. Musicians of that era avoided its use by introducing accidentals to cover the troublesome interval. This itself is a tricky subject to discuss because there are elements of performance practice (i.e. ways of interpreting passages that are not indicated by notation.) that we can only speculate about.
The use of a tritone harmonically is a fascinating discussion (for a composer or a theorist, at least...). It is always handled carefully--under controlled conditions, you might say. During the so-called common practice era (circa 1650-1900), it is considered to be an unstable interval requiring resolution to more stable ones. The uniqueness of this interval--the fact that it occurs in only one location in the diatonic major scale--is a major contributing factor to the functionality of harmony and the history of tonal music in the European tradition. To fully discuss this would take a few semesters of Harmony and Counterpoint classes. It is enough to say that the tritone (how it is "handled") is a major contributing factor to music as we know it.
As to the "diabolus" question, I have never seen a convincing argument that it really was considered evil. I think the theorists and composers of the earlier eras recognized that it was different than perfect 5ths and 4ths and proscribed its use because it disturbed the flow of melody and harmony in the styles current at the time. That is almost a definition of style. isn't it? There are always some elements of music that one avoids in order to maintain a certain kind of sound.
That is just my take on it (the "diabolus" issue). I would be interested if someone could offer any real evidence that it truly was considered "evil". Any musicologists want to jump in?
"Mi contra fa diabolus est in musica".
I don't know whether it was meant figuratively more than literally, but "the devil" in music is how the flatted fifth interval was heard. To the ears of people of the time it just sounded weirdly dissonant, though not in the same manner as say, two notes a semitone apart. It wasn't acoustically pleasing, wasn't easily explained, and therefore evil in that sense. To choral singers it was, and still is, a difficult interval to sing, though in this day in age it is hard to imagine anyone who hasn't at least a passing sense of it through jazz and blues exposure. I'd bet no one in my church choir could sing it with ease without practice.
My old Penguin Dictionary of Music (1950, it cost 60 cents)says nothing of it beyond the "augmented 4th" definition. Hmmm...
Reading Bill's original post, I had another thought.
The question of the relationship of the tritone to the number six is very interesting. You HAVE thought about this, haven't you?
That theory would presuppose that earlier musicians would have concieved of intervals in the same way that we do now. True, a tritone is six half steps but that would not have been the way a medieval musician would have seen it. They were not dealing with a chromatic scale of half steps. The theoretical system of the time dealt with Pythagorean tuning, monochords and Guidonian hexachords. (Fear not--I won't go into that stuff here...) Conceptualizing intervals as combinations of added half steps is a much more recent phenomenon.
Sorry for these long-winded posts. This question just seemed to bring out the theory professor in me.
Likewise, Jim. #http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wink.gif #I agree that any allusion to the number 6 is anachronistic to the diavolus etc. term. Maybe it was the mere, practical fact that tritones are so *(@#^@^#$&!%$ hard to sing in tune, especially for a cappella choirs. Or, maybe it is fear of the unknown, the hard-to-measure. After all, jazz was initially feared and expected to "undo the very fiber of civilized society", etc., etc. Or, finally, it was one of those inane catch-prases (e.g. "Symphony of Heavenly Length") that stuck in textbooks. Who knows...?
maybe the wolf was unbearable in the older temperments, too...
that old tempering , you know....
Your Church Choir members could probably sing it if they just call to mind that lovely no. by Ex Diabolus on Podium Lenny Bernstein ...
MA - RI - a, I'VE JUST (etc.) Said Aug. 4th in capitals.
Tony...Yeah, if they knew it (I don't), but I bet they couldn't just build the interval from one note to the next. Interesting discussion, for a change. Thanks.
Don't buy into satanic/diabolical or, for that matter, ANY extramusical connotations. Music is music is music.
I suppose we need to thank folks like Saint-Saens for perpetuating the stereotype via such things as the Danse Macabre fiddle solo with its open e-flat scordatura!
(I played that piece with my High School orchestra, by the way. I was always a very "meticulous" player, and the director sensed that my approach was too refined to give the music its proper color. "Don't be such a computer", he would chide me (this was, umm, a long time before anyone had computers or most had even conceived of the possibility. For the Danse Macabre solo his advice was "you must think and feel evil!")
bratsche http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/mad.gif reminiscing about life on the "dark side"
I'm sorry, I thought everyone knew 'West Side Story' (they were using that one thirty or so years ago at my school.)
Of course, in order to build up the intervals one could introduce them to the final chorale of BWV 60.
That was interesting enough for Alban Berg.
West Side Story? Oh yeah, I've heard of it, wasn't it a film? I'm not familiar with the music at all. I've been sitting at the computer working out little flatted fifth exercises...guess I'm going to that other place now. Mooh.
(Please turn off the lights on the way out!)
Now, If we can resume sensible debate on this otherwise excellent topic........
Certainly, Tony. Yes, I, too, would have thought that everyone has heard West Side Story and would immediately recognize "Maria". Ah, our age shows... http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wink.gif
But, technically speaking, the upper note of the augmented fourth in "Maria" is simply an appoggiatura to the note a half-step above. To put it in "Hindemithian" terms, the interval you speak of (an excellent example, by the way!) is not a self-standing tritone but one that "ornaments", by means of an appoggiatura, the perfect fifth that engulfs it and to which it immediately resolves.
I suppose that, had I lived in the Soviet Union (*shudders*), I would have been convicted of "decadent, Western formalism". I gladly accept the charges. Music is music is music.
Yes Victor, I agree it's technically an appoggiatura (albeit a written out one) and I'm glad you agree it's a jolly useful short cut as a teaching aid to pitching an aug. 4th. (which was the simple point I was trying to make.) http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif
Okay, so West Side Story is outside my experience (my wife knows it well), but after a day of consideration I've noticed that cartoon themes and accompaniment are rife with tritones. I'm not sure because I'm relying on my memory here, but isn't there one in the Simpson's theme? I'd bet good money on Loony Tune music too. Barbershop quartet arrangements also, though more as a passing tone, or a chord held in suspension (as it were).
Trouble is, now that I'm thinking about it, I'm gonna hear tritones everywhere!
Historical evidence of its devilishness is apparently a little light, which is why I suggested earlier that it might be more of a figurative description, but music (at least "western" music) hasn't always been as complex as it is now...I suspect we still have a long road ahead.
Tony and Victor, surely you're not much older than me...my students think I'm ancient! LOL!
[QUOTE]"Victor, surely you're not much older than me..."
http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif OK, maybe not; I wouldn't know. I was just having a flashback of my vain attempts to explain the Circle of Fifths when I taught youngsters, saying things like "Oh, it's like a watch... an analog watch, that is... you DO know what that sort of thing looks like, don't you?..." http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/laugh.gif
And, sure: Tritones are everywhere; Tritones-R-Us, if you wish. To (grossly) paraphrase Walt Whitman, however, "I do NOT see the Devil in any interval".