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Philosophy and pop culture

Black Sabbath and the Secret of Scary Music

The Devil's Interval, is evil in the ear of the beholder?

It started when Ozzy Osbourne gave Geezer Butler a cryptic book of black magic. Butler had been dabbling in the occult, and moving away from the Catholicism that was so dear to him. But that night something happened. Butler had a vision of a demonic presence in his room, and when he got up to retrieve the book it was gone. That was enough to scare him straight back to his beloved Catholicism. In response to Butler’s experience Osbourne wrote the lyrics to the song that started it all, “Black Sabbath”: “What is this that stands before me? / Figure in black which points at me …” The rest is heavy metal history. Although Geezer Butler ceased dabbling in the occult, he remained fascinated by it, and as the chief lyricist in Black Sabbath, he depicted Satan in numerous songs including “N.I.B.,” “War Pigs,” and “Lord of this World.”

The music critic Lester Bangs called Black Sabbath “the John Milton of Rock ‘n’ Roll… the first group to completely immerse themselves in the Fall and Redemption, the traditional Christian dualism,” identifying them as “a band with a conscience who have looked around them and taken it upon themselves to reflect the chaos in ways they see as positive.” So, despite their reputation as a Satanic or occult band, Black Sabbath were closer to a Christian band. Most notable is the song “After Forever,” with its overtly Christian lyrics including “God is the only way to love … Open your eyes, just realize that he's the one / The only one who can save you now from all this sin and hate.” In most cases the message was more subtle. Satan is depicted as powerful, fearsome, and ruling the earth, sure. But Satan is never someone to be loved or embraced. In fact the redemptive power of love is a constant theme on the classic Black Sabbath albums, most notably in songs such as “Children of the Grave”— “Show the world that love is still alive / you must be brave”—and “Symptom of the Universe”—“All I have to give you is a love that never dies / The symptom of the universe is written in your eyes.”

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Sabbath fans know all this. But a puzzle still remains: Why does the music sound malevolent? It’s not just because dark, foreboding lyrics are sung to the music. From the opening riffs of the song “Black Sabbath” through most of their classic albums, the music can sound downright evil. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the secret to this sound is something known as the Devil’s Interval or diabolus in musica. The sound is so ominous that this interval was supposedly banned by clerics in the Middle Ages for fear that it would raise the devil himself. Still, what actually makes this musical interval sound evil? The diabolus in musica is also known as a tritone (or diminished fifth). Spanning three tones, the interval violates a musical convention and sounds dissonant, producing an unsettling feeling in the listener.

You might suspect that the boys in Black Sabbath rediscovered this tritone in a dusty old tome and purposely used it to create a sinister sound. But no. The tritone came to them by way of classical music. Geezer Butler was a fan of The Planets, an orchestral suite by the composer Gustav Holst. On the day before Tony Iommi came up with the epoch-making riff for the song “Black Sabbath” Butler played “Mars, the Bringer of War” on his bass. Guess what figures prominently in “Mars”? The tritone. It must have stuck in Iommi’s subconscious because out it came the next day. The tritone became a signature element of Black Sabbath’s music and a mainstay in later heavy metal music.

Heavy metal is much maligned and wrongly stereotyped as simple and stupid. How ironic, then, that it finds its origin in the complex and intelligent realm of classical music. Holst was not alone among classical composers in employing the Devil’s Interval; Wagner too made ample use of it. If you cannot readily call to mind the song “Black Sabbath,” shame on you! But don’t despair. Your mental musical library likely does include examples of the tritone. Do you know the song “Maria” from Leonard Bernstein’s Westside Story? Sing it to yourself, “Ma-ri-a, I just met a girl named Maria …” And notice that it’s not scary, though the tone is a bit odd and menacing, especially given the subject matter. Likewise, you can probably call to mind the tritone in the opening notes of The Simpsons theme, “The-Simp-sons.”

This leads me to wonder, then, can a musical tone be intrinsically scary? Or is it just a social convention to find certain tones scary? I suspect the latter, at least with the tritone. After all, “Maria” employs the Devil’s Interval but it’s not scary or even malevolent. So would someone unfamiliar with the conventions of Western music, hearing “Black Sabbath” for the first time, automatically react to it as scary? I doubt it. After all, Sabbath also makes use of minor chords, which usually sound sad to Western ears, but are actually used to convey happiness in some Indian music.

On the other hand, some tones may be intrinsically scary—like lower bass sounds. Research has suggested that humans evolved to find lower guttural sounds—those akin to the angry growl of a dog or other animal—more threatening. So a lower sound has a natural, rather than a conventional, power to it. This is why sound editors usually insert a deep bass noise in scary movies during the moment in which you are supposed to be scared. You won’t consciously notice it, unless you are listening for it, but you will react to it anyway. It will make you feel scared. That’s why it’s there. And, to help create their sinister sound, Sabbath down-tunes their guitar and bass. Even a non-westerner couldn’t help but be a bit shaken by it.

Sabbath also strategically contrasts slow, doomy parts of songs with quick parts that give a sense of urgency. As Joel McIver describes it in the book Black Sabbath and Philosophy:

“A common trick employed by soundtrack composers is to instruct the players … to execute fast tremolo strokes, bowing the strings back and forth rapidly, rather like a fly rubbing its forelegs together. This unsettling effect introduces tension into the music, never permitting the listener to relax fully: Iommi does this on the Devil’s Interval in ‘Black Sabbath,’ to add the fear factor and to make the chords sound ‘bigger.’”

Again, there is something naturally unsettling about a rapid succession of sounds that put the listener on edge and do not allow him to relax.

The choice of a band name is nothing natural. It’s a convention or a contrivance if anything is. Our tritone heroes took their name from the Boris Karloff movie Black Sabbath, which, as legend has it, was playing in a theater across the street from the band’s rehearsal space. Since their current band name Earth was not only lame but also taken by another local act, a new moniker was in order. Reflecting on the strange fact that people would pay good money to be scared by a movie like Black Sabbath, the band decided to make music that would scare people.

But as we’ve seen, things weren’t quite as simple as the legend would have it. A good bit of luck, coincidence, and maybe even some marijuana were involved in producing the bubbling witches’ cauldron that became Black Sabbath’s music. And in the end, musical convention may have more to do with the sonic effect than anything Satan could claim credit for. So don’t be scared, the sound of evil may only be in your ear.

William Irwin is the editor of Black Sabbath and Philosophy: Mastering Reality (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

William Irwin, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania.

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