If you’ve ever studied any music theory or are just given to reading about music, you’ve probably heard of the tritone — it’s an interval that’s three whole tones apart, and its dissonance means that it sounds sinister as hell. Some time in the 18th century, possibly earlier, it was dubbed diabolus in musica (the devil in music), and its use has historically been frowned upon in liturgical music, which generally relies on unison and harmony. (This, perhaps, gives rise to the oft-repeated story that the tritone was banned by the Catholic Church.) All this, of course, means that using it in your songs carries a certain inherent badassness — something exploited by the musicians who populate this list.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — “The Carny”
Cave uses the tritone to evoke a suitably freaky circus atmosphere, which is pretty much perfect for a song that involves murderous dwarves, a bird girl (“flapping and squawking”), a horse called Sorrow, someone named “Dog Boy,” and a biblical flood thrown in for good measure. And then, of course, there’s the malevolent carny himself — we only hear of him through his absence, but there’s little doubt left that he’s not a particularly pleasant sort.
Black Sabbath — “Black Sabbath”
The song from which Black Sabbath take their name was apparently inspired by a vision that bassist Geezer Butler had of a ghostly “large black figure” filching a book that Ozzy Osbourne had lent him about witchcraft — so yes, of course the song incorporates the devil’s note. The iconic four-note riff has become a sort of template for Spooky Music™, but at the time the use of the tritone was unusual, and it’s an idea that pretty much every band Sabbath inspired has seized upon at some point.
Metallica — “Enter Sandman”
That includes Metallica, who’ve been delighted to dispense the tritone liberally throughout their career. Perhaps the most prominent use is here, where you can hear it in the first two notes of the three-note riff that dominates the song (and also in the acoustic-y intro).
David Bowie — “Station to Station”
A piano hammers away on a (reversed) tritone for the first five minutes or so of this song, creating a suitably discomfiting atmosphere for one of Bowie’s most enduringly weird pieces of music. (Of course, the weirdness is explained by the fact that he was doing so much coke that he can’t remember recording this album, and spent his time out of the studio trying to exorcise his swimming pool.)
Busta Rhymes — “Woo-Ha!! Got You All In Check”
Here it’s the bass sample, which comes from Galt MacDermot’s 1969 track “Space.” The strange, shifting bassline goes some way toward explaining why this song sounds so batshit crazy. The rest, of course, can be explained by Busta himself. All together now: “WHICH motherfucker stole my flow?”
Marilyn Manson — “The Beautiful People”
Hear how the song’s main riff (which kicks in at about 0:35) skips up and down a semitone from its root note? Hear how discordant and creepy the higher note sounds? Yep. Tritone. (Pretty sure the falsetto bits that Marilyn himself drops into the verses also form this interval.)
Jimi Hendrix — “Purple Haze”
Guitar nerds tend to geek out over the “Hendrix chord” that appears throughout this song (it’s an E7#9, if you’re asking), but the bit we’re interested in here is the intro. The reason the simple two-note riff sounds weirdly discordant is that while the guitar and bass are both playing a simple octave pattern, they’re not playing the same notes. The guitar is playing Bb and the bass is playing E, and the interval between those two notes is… a tritone. Huzzah.
Leonard Bernstein — “Maria”
This iconic tune from West Side Story gets cited pretty much every time the tritone interval is discussed. It’s rare to hear the sinister sound of a tritone in a love song, but it dominates the chorus here, surfacing every time Maria’s name is mentioned. But then, of course, this wasn’t a love affair that was going to end well for anyone.
Danny Elfman — “Theme from The Simpsons“
No, really. It’s the very first notes you hear: “The Siiiiiimmmm-” form a tritone, before “-mmpsons” resolves back to a perfect fifth. The bass notes you can hear poking through now and again also follow a pattern that’s based around the Devil’s interval.
Slayer — “Bitter Peace”
Yes, of course Slayer made an entire album that functioned as a tribute to the tritone. The album is called Diabolus in Musica, which as you’ll recall was the name the church gave to our favorite interval back in the Middle Ages, and sure enough, tritones abound throughout. METALLLLLL! \m/ \m/