The Unsettling Sound Of Tritones, The Devil's Interval In music theory, the tritone is an interval of three whole steps that can sound unresolved and creepy. Over time, the sound has wound up in jazz, rock and even Broadway musicals.
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The Unsettling Sound Of Tritones, The Devil's Interval

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The Unsettling Sound Of Tritones, The Devil's Interval

The Unsettling Sound Of Tritones, The Devil's Interval

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Everyone knows the sounds of Halloween - creaky floorboards, howling winds and wolves. Now we're going to learn about the musical tones that were unsettling listeners long before there were sound effects. Judith Kogan has the story.

JUDITH KOGAN, BYLINE: For centuries, it was called the devil's interval or, in Latin, diabolus in musica.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

KOGAN: In music theory, it's called the tritone because it's made of three whole steps.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

GERALD MOSHELL: The reason it's unsettling is that it's ambiguous, unresolved.

KOGAN: That's Gerald Moshell, professor of music at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

MOSHELL: It wants to go somewhere. It wants to settle either here (playing piano) or here (playing piano). You don't know where it'll go, but it can't stop where it is.

KOGAN: There used to be rules against writing music that contained this interval.

MOSHELL: In the Renaissance, for example, all music had a singular official purpose - to be beautiful, to express the majesty of God. Anything unsettling or unstable was studiously avoided.

KOGAN: But once music was no longer shackled to the church, it was free to express all kinds of tension, and the devil's interval was ideal for that. Richard Wagner used it to convey forbidden love and longing in his opera "Tristan And Isolde."

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTER DER WIENER STAATSOPER PERFORMANCE OF WAGNER'S "WAGNER: TRISTAN AND ISOLDE - PRELUDE TO ACT I")

KOGAN: It's also been used to signal danger.

MOSHELL: If you superimpose one tritone on top of another (playing piano), you get a really eerie or ominous sound. Here we have the maiden tied to the railroad tracks. The train is coming. Will she live? Yes, because here comes a cowboy on a horse.

KOGAN: The tritone is a signature sound in jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "WALKIN'")

HANKUS NETSKY: In jazz, people embraced the tritone as a way to challenge the audience in a way that they didn't so much in swing.

KOGAN: That's Hankus Netsky, head of Contemporary Improvisation at New England Conservatory.

NETSKY: Duke Ellington said when asked why he used so many tritones in his music, it's my life. That's what my life is like. Just try to be an African-American, and you'll hear that - you need that sound. That's the sound of struggle, and it's the sound of freedom.

KOGAN: Netsky says that in rock, it's the sound of defiance.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEARL JAM SONG, "EVEN FLOW")

NETSKY: It's a gesture that is very confrontational.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVEN FLOW")

PEARL JAM: (Singing) Freezing, rests his head on a pillow made of concrete.

NETSKY: It's a gesture that really makes people pay attention and sounds a little violent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "WEST SIDE STORY")

KOGAN: Warring gangs thwart star-crossed lovers in "West Side Story." Trinity College's Gerald Moshell says Leonard Bernstein used the tritone to tie the whole musical together.

MOSHELL: At the very opening, the ominous (playing piano) tritone, defiance in the song "Cool" (playing piano), "The Longing Of Maria" - (playing piano, singing) Maria, I just yet - and at the very end of the whole musical where the gangs decide to put down their weapons and live in peace, you have (playing piano) followed by the ominous (playing piano) followed by followed peace again followed one more by ominous followed by the last peace with no tritone at the bottom, signifying to Mr. Bernstein that we will all live in peace and harmony when it comes to it.

KOGAN: Our musical world may be more disturbing than it was a millennium ago, but give the devil his due. Sometimes we want to feel his presence because sometimes tension is the order of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS' "DANSE MACABRE, OP. 40")

KOGAN: For NPR News, I'm Judith Kogan.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS' "DANSE MACABRE, OP. 40")

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