SkooveLearn PianoDownload on the App Store
Install Now

What is the tritone? The fear of church music


The tritone, a term that sparks both intrigue and bewilderment among music enthusiasts and learners alike, stands as a pivotal element in the realm of music theory. This musical interval, enigmatic yet fundamental, has shaped the landscape of music across various genres and eras. But what exactly is a tritone in music, and why does it hold such a distinctive place in musical composition and theory?

Start your musical journey
  • Fall in love with the music - Learn your favorite songs; whether they're classical, pop, jazz or film music, all at a level that suits you.
  • Enjoy interactive piano lessons - Learn with courses that help you master everything from music theory, chords, technique and more.
  • Get real-time feedback - Improve your practice with rich feedback as Skoove listens to your playing and highlights what went well and areas for improvement.
7 day free trial
No credit card details required
Start your piano journey now!

Tritone definition and characteristics

At its core, a tritone is a musical interval that spans three whole tones. To visualize this on a piano, consider the distance between C and F♯. This interval is precisely half an octave, making it uniquely symmetrical. In terms of semitones, a tritone comprises six of them, positioning it squarely in the middle of the chromatic scale.

The sonic qualities of a tritone

The sound of a tritone is often described as dissonant, tense, and unresolved. This is due to its placement in the scale, which deviates from the more harmonious and resolved intervals like fifths or octaves. The tritone’s distinctive sound has given it a unique role in music composition, often used to convey a sense of drama, tension, or mystery.

Start free trial

Tritone in famous musical compositions

Classical examples of the tritone

The tritone has been a cornerstone in the repertoire of many classical composers. For instance, Franz Liszt’s “Dante Sonata” masterfully employs the tritone to evoke the dramatic and tumultuous essence of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Similarly, the works of composers like Ludwig van Beethoven often feature the tritone to create tension, as heard in the famous G7 to C transition in his Symphony No. 5.

The YouTube video “Liszt: Dante Sonata / Fantasia Quasi Sonata (Pletnev)” is a vibrant and transcendent performance by Pletnev. It features Liszt’s Dante Sonata from “Annees de Pelerinage,” notable for its complex harmonies, thematic transformations, and influence on later music styles like Wagner’s and French impressionism. The piece is characterized by its use of tritones, modal effects, bitonality, and whole-tone harmony, with multiple transformations of its main themes.

Tritone in jazz and modern music genres

In jazz, the tritone takes center stage as a critical component of the genre’s complex harmonies. The tritone in music like Duke Ellington’s compositions adds a layer of sophistication and unpredictability. Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” provides a quintessential tritone example, where its use adds a haunting and unresolved quality to the melody.

What is tritone substitution?

The tritone substitution is a pivotal technique in jazz harmony, adding a unique twist to chord progressions. A classic tritone substitution chart would show how a G7 chord (tritone chord) can be substituted with a D♭7, a move frequently used in jazz composition and improvisation. This technique can be heard in John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” where tritone substitution adds complexity to the harmonic structure.

Creative and delicate uses of tritone

The tritone, though historically regarded as dissonant and harsh, offers a wealth of creative possibilities in music composition. When used delicately, it can enhance a piece’s emotional depth and complexity.

Techniques for Incorporating tritone in composition

  1. Balancing dissonance and consonance: The key to using a tritone effectively lies in balancing its inherent tension with more consonant sounds. For example, following a tritone chord with a consonant interval can resolve the tension and create a satisfying musical journey.
  2. Tritone as a pivot point: In modulation, the tritone can act as a pivot, transitioning the piece smoothly between keys. This technique can be found in many classical and jazz pieces, where the tritone sets the stage for a key change.
  3. Tritone in melodic lines: Using a tritone in a melody can add an unexpected twist. It’s particularly effective when used sparingly to highlight a specific moment or emotion in the piece.

Balancing dissonance and consonance

The art of using tritones is not just about embracing dissonance but also about understanding how to resolve it. A tritone can create a sense of unease, but when followed by a harmonious interval, it brings a sense of relief and completion. This balance between tension and resolution is fundamental in music composition and is what makes the tritone such a powerful tool.

Start free trial

The history of tritone music

The tritone’s journey through musical history is as fascinating as its sound. From medieval times to contemporary music, this interval has evolved in its usage and perception.

Tritone in medieval and renaissance music

In medieval and Renaissance music, the tritone was often avoided due to its dissonant nature. It was known as the “mi contra fa,” a problematic interval in the system of hexachords. However, even then, composers occasionally used it to create a dramatic effect, especially in sacred music, where it symbolized pain or sorrow.

The evolution of the tritone in musical genres

As music transitioned into the Baroque and Classical periods, the tritone started to find its place. Composers began to explore its potential, using it to create tension before resolving to more consonant intervals. In the Romantic era, composers like Richard Wagner used the tritone to express deep emotions and complex narratives. Moving into the 20th century, the tritone became a staple in genres like jazz and rock, symbolizing the shift towards more adventurous musical expressions.

The tritone as “Devil’s Interval” moniker

The tritone’s notoriety in music history is further amplified by its infamous nickname: the “Devil’s Interval.” This moniker stems from the interval’s unique sound and the reactions it elicited throughout various cultural and historical contexts.

Origin of the term “Devil’s Interval”

The term “Devil’s Interval” likely originated in the Middle Ages. The tritone’s dissonant sound was perceived as unsettling and was often associated with the devil and evil in the context of the predominantly religious society of the time. This belief led to the cautious use of the interval in musical compositions, especially in religious contexts.

Cultural and religious beliefs surrounding the tritone

Throughout history, the tritone has been wrapped in a tapestry of cultural and religious beliefs. In some periods, it was believed that the tritone could summon the devil or cause moral corruption. These superstitions, while largely unfounded, contributed to the mystique and caution surrounding the use of this interval in music.

Was the tritone banned?

There’s a popular myth that the tritone was banned in the past due to its association with the devil. However, there is no concrete historical evidence to support the claim of an official ban. While it’s true that the tritone was used sparingly and treated with caution, particularly in church music, the notion of a formal ban is more legend than fact.

The legacy of the tritone

The tritone’s role in music history is both complex and significant, reflecting the evolution of musical theory and practice over centuries. This interval, once met with skepticism, now commands respect and interest for its technical and expressive capabilities.

Historically, the tritone’s journey is a mirror to the broader narrative of Western music. Initially, its use was limited, reflecting the era’s conservative approach to harmony. Over time, as musical styles evolved, the tritone gained prominence, particularly in the Romantic period and subsequent movements. It became a tool for composers to express deeper emotional nuances and to challenge traditional harmonic boundaries.

The tritone’s evolution from a cautiously used interval to a staple of modern music composition exemplifies the dynamic nature of musical art. It remains a subject of study and admiration in music theory, symbolizing the ongoing exploration and innovation in the field.

Start free trial

Author of this blog post:
Susana Pérez Posada

Susana Pérez Posada

With over seven years in piano education and a deep passion for music therapy, Susana brings a unique blend of expertise to Skoove. A graduate in Music Therapy from SRH Hochschule Heidelberg and an experienced classical pianist from Universidad EAFIT, she infuses her teaching with a holistic approach that transcends traditional piano lessons. In her writings for Skoove, Susana combines her rich musical knowledge with engaging storytelling, enriching the learning experience for pianists of all levels. Away from the piano, she loves exploring new places and immersing herself in a good book, believing these diverse experiences enhance her creative teaching style.

Edited and fact-checked by Eddie Bond, multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor
Published by Lidya Hovan from the Skoove team

Share this article

Share this article

Unlock all piano lessons

7 day free learning

Don’t leave empty-handed

Get a 7 day trial of Skoove Premium piano lessons