I’m in the midst of reading a fascinating book called This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, written by Daniel J. Levitin. Levitin is particularly interesting because he became a neuroscientist after first working as professional musician, sound engineer, and producer.

Do we need any evidence that music affects all of us viscerally, and often passionately? The medieval Catholic Church

banned the musical interval of an augmented fourth, the distance between C and F-sharp and also known as a tritone (the interval in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story when Tony sings the name “Maria”). This interval was considered so dissonant that it must have been the work of Lucifer, and so the church named it Diabolus in musica.

Now I wonder if I can get Pope Benedikt to do something about heavy metal.


6 thoughts on “If they thought a tritone was devilish…

  1. Lee 18 years ago

    jta, thank you for such an excellent comment. I still haven’t got to the promised post, but you’ve said it better than I could. Instead, I’ll add a few remarks about music and the teenage brain later today.

    Silence: one of the most important aspects of music – the space between the notes as well as Cage’s extreme – all tied in with anticipation and pattern recognition and whatever else the mind hears in those ’empty’ moments. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about how this relates to writing.

  2. jta 18 years ago

    The tritone is a singularly active interval–maybe what we mean when we say it’s the most dissonant–which is why the medieval church probably banned it. It tends to wake up the brain, the last thing they wanted. Similarly, in the “Devil’s Trill Sonata,” Paganini wrote trills around all the dissonant intervals, likely for the same reason, and for the same reason the work was seen as quite suspect by religious authority, although, granted, legend has it that the name derived from the fiendish difficulty of the piece.

    At the other extreme, one thinks of John Cage’s work “Silence,” which is just that–when performed and recorded the ambient noise of the hall and the audience is a central theme of the piece.

    In short, it doesn’t do to put artificial barriers and labels on music. Just listen with as much consciousness as you can bring to bear, and realize that not all of it was written to soothe you to sleep. Indeed, some of it is written to stimulate the cerebral cortex into some kind of action.

  3. Lee 18 years ago

    Susan, this is grand – some real dissension for a change. I’ll do a proper post about it tomorrow however, which will give me an excuse to quote Levitin again.

  4. Susan 18 years ago

    I certainly agree with Michele! As far as I’m concerned if there is not a component that can be repeated and identified by the listener, it’s not music. It seems that current pop music is nothing but sound effects. I suppose one could replicate the sound of screeching tires and fingernails on blackboards, but could you hum them? Put lyrics to them? 🙂 o.k….I guess I’m an old fogey.

  5. Lee 18 years ago

    Michele, you’re teetering on the edge of a very high precipice. Here’s composer Edgard Varèse’s famous definition: ‘Music is organised sound.’

  6. Anonymous 18 years ago

    And not just heavy metal, please !! Modern “pop” music doesn’t deserve the name “music” because it really ISN’T music !!