Evil ways

devil4-202x240How controversial could a musical interval possibly be? Very, as it turns out.

Not many of us have perfect or absolute pitch, the ability the sing or name a particular pitch without hearing it in relation to another. People with perfect pitch need no reference tone to start with. They just know: a D is a D, with its own unique sound. Absolute pitch is something we’re born with. We either have it or we don’t. Most of us don’t.

Relative pitch, on the other hand, can be learned. Developing relative pitch is an ear-training basic the musicians. They learn to identify or create a certain pitch by comparing it to a reference note and figuring out the distance—or interval—between the two.

One way to train your ear to recognize intervals is to associate them with well-known melodies. For example, the interval at the beginning of the song “Over the Rainbow” is an octave: SOME-WHERE over the rainbow…

The DING-DONG of a doorbell is a descending minor third.

“My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” starts with an ascending major sixth, MY-BON-nie. Willie Nelson used the same interval, this time descending, in the first two notes of “Crazy.” CRA-ZY, I’m crazy for feelin’ so lonely…

Then there’s an interval called the augmented fourth, so dissonant that it was labeled diabolus in musica (the devil in music) during the Renaissance, and banned in church music. Another name for this interval is the tritone, because the notes are three whole tones apart. From F up to B, for instance.

What does this “devil’s interval” sound like? Listen to the first two notes in the theme song to The Simpsons. That’s a tritone:

Another well-known tritone is the interval you hear when Tony sings the first two syllables of the name “Maria” in West Side Story: MA-RI-a, I’ve just met a girl named Maria…

Given the subversive nature of The Simpsons (a favorite of mine), the tritone at the beginning of that theme song fits. It’s less clear to me why Leonard Bernstein chose it to start the lovely “Maria.”

The tritone is an “unstable” interval, meaning it leaves us on edge, craving a less dissonant, more stable sound, what in music is called resolution. Not surprisingly, there are tritones galore in heavy metal songs like “Black Sabbath” and “Purple Haze.”

But I prefer my music tamer, so I’ll leave you with something fitting for Halloween: The theme song from the 1960s sitcom The Munsters. It starts right off with a tritone (E up to B flat, resolving to B), giving the theme its lighthearted, spooky feel.


Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in Music and emotion, Music history, Music theory and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Evil ways

  1. Riff Noggin says:

    My guess is Bernstein used that tritone because, in the context of the times and the play, cross-racial romance was socially forbidden, subversive and dangerous. Perfect for what he wanted the audience to feel, and the music to foreshadow. And, he would have known the history of the tritone ban. Now I’m intrigued as to whether the Simpsons composer was deliberate in using all three notes of that phrase AND the same timing: Ma-ri-a … the-Simp-sons. It’s a direct quote.

  2. Thanks, as always, for your insightful comment. I had not noticed the exact parallel construction of Ma-ri-a and The-Simp-sons!

  3. Jessa says:

    I tried all of the examples, haha.

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