The devil in the notes: Tritone in metal



Employed by metal bands since Black Sabbath‘s eponymous song in 1969, and by classical musicians for much longer, the tritone or the diminished fifth or the augmented fourth is nothing but a chord formed by spanning three whole tones within the context of the Western major scale.

Considering the C-major scale as C-D-E-F-G-A-B, the augmented fourth, in rock’s “power chord form” would be a combination of the notes B-F. The diminished fifth, on the other hand, would consist of F-B.

To quote from a useful contribution to the Guardian:

“HARMONIES are created by notes sounding together at frequencies which are in proportion to each other. The proportions can be expressed by numbers. Low numbers produce consonant harmonies, and higher numbers give rise to dissonance.

For example, if two notes an octave apart are sounded together, the frequency of the upper note is exactly double that of the lower. In numerical terms, upper doh over lower doh = 2:1. The sound is clear, pure and open. —> Two notes an octave apart (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C)

Sound sol above doh (the perfect fifth) and the proportion is 3:2. This sound is brilliant, confident. —> Power Chord (C-D-E-F-G-A-B)

The augmented fourth, sometimes called “the devil’s interval“, is created by sounding ti (or si) over fa (B over F), which notes are in the proportion 45:32. Looked at in conventional terms, the inversion of this harmony, fa over ti (the diminished fifth) (F over B), ought to be identical to the augmented fourth – but its numerical proportions turn out to be 64:45. Either way, it sounds pretty ugly, though it can work musically in the right context – and it is very successfully employed in emergency sirens. This interval is fiendishly difficult to sing. The further we depart from 1, the more we move away from harmony and into dissonance.”

On the guitar an abbreviated version of this chord can be formed simply by taking the conventional two-finger power chord, formed with the root and the fifth, and bringing the fifth note back half a step. The difference, appearing visibly slim at first, reveals an entirely new, and darker, texture from the well-roundedness of a power chord. The unstable nature and skewed mathematical ratios of the respective vibrating frequencies of these two notes when struck in unison creates an unsettling sound distinct from the emphatic resolution of the simple power chord. Considered aesthetically deviant in olden times, the tritone was regarded for a long time as a dissonance straying from pure ideals driven by spirituality and belief in the irrefutable goodness of God.

As the above quote from the Guardian indicates, the difficulty of singing over this interval means that popular, vocal-based music has by and large kept safe distance from using the tritone too extensively, the odd adventurous artist instead choosing it as an embellishing effect to pass over on the way to something a little more palatable. Death metal by way of using growled vocals overcomes this difficulty to an extent, mimicking the dissonant qualities of the chord itself.

But where bands from the old guard happened across the diminished fifth frequently enough, it was by way of their general exploration of chromatic notes. Death metal took the advent of bands like Immolation and Gorguts, both inspired by the playing of the guys in Slayer and Voivod guitarist Dennis D’amour, to really bite into the possibilities afforded by strange chord shapes. Immolation‘s second album Here In After is a masterclass in fiercely individual and unpredictable song construction. As the following tab suggests (with uncertain accuracy but that disclaimer isn’t needed for an Immolation song), the song by the same name spans across multiple keys and consists almost entirely of dissonant chords played with tremendous sense of phrasing and groove. Immolation‘s true achievement however lies in realising with great potency, and through liberal use of unorthodoxy in technique, the world of despair and abandonment and ultimate renunciation that the lyrics below describe with undeniable feeling. Of what worth a good deed extorted in fear of eternal torment?

Without warmth
Without light
But how do I see in this darkness
Death feeds upon me
The condemned under my feet
Eternity has passed us by

Everyone is here
The ones I’ve loved and hated
All of us in pain…together

In a timeless void of anguish
Where sorrow is like breathing
and with every breath I hurt more and more

The fallen and trampled
Damned to spend eternity here

Constant burning souls
In a sea of writhing flesh
Endless plains
Of sin and deprivation

Those of wealth and might, of humble and weak
Those who gave way to uphold God’s will
He who has conquered and he who has failed
The wicked and the holy in utter desolation
In this absence of being, misery consumes
Existing not living, I am dead yet I feel in total seclusion
I am left to ponder the empty promises of your shallow God

The sounds of anguish…so loud
Their sobbing…like thunder
Pierces through me…and crushes me
Again… and again… and again… and again… and again

So vast this pain
More unbearable it becomes
With every passing moment
I pray for an end

In a timeless void of anguish
Where sorrow is like breathing
And with every breath I hurt more and more

Here In After tab

[Corrections more than welcome]




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1 Response to The devil in the notes: Tritone in metal

  1. Pingback: Death Metal Battle Royale Round 1: Immolation’s Here In After vs Demilich’s Nespithe | Old Disgruntled Bastard

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