The Birth of Heavy Metal Music: Diabolus in Musica (with videos)

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Heavy metal music has proven to be one of the most enduring genres of popular music, spawning countless metal bands over its forty year history. But for all its popularity and staying power, it all comes down to one guitarist who stumbled upon “The D

For many children of the 60s, it all began with the opening tones of a song by a rock band that until a few weeks earlier had called themselves Earth.  Just three little tones. But three tones that instilled such a sense of dread and darkness that the minds and imaginations of a generation founded on peace and love suddenly discovered their thoughts turning not to Flower Power and Love-ins, but to the darker side of life. To the realm of “evil.”  The realm of Diabolus in Musica--the Devil in Music.

The introductory album by England’s most bad-ass bar band Black Sabbath, the self-titled, Black Sabbath, hit the streets in the U.S. on June 1, 1970.   But having been released four months earlier in the UK on Friday, February 13, bootleg copies of the album had already made their way to turntables all across America, with a new direction in music already apparent as it wafted in sinister-sounding waves from garages and basements all across the country.  With the Devil’s Triad the first thing jumping out at you--and it actually felt as though it did--this LP circulated among the cool and hip like a welcome venereal disease we’d all catch eventually anyway.

This darker edge of popular music was echoed in Deep Purple’s Deep Purple in Rock, released in late June of that year, and in Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin III released in October.  And that edge has spawned a number of metal subgenres even darker and more foreboding in subsequent years.  Said to have been stumbled upon by Sabbath’s highly innovative guitar wizard, Tony Iommi, the triad known for centuries as inherently evil to listeners, opened a door to a genre of music that took hold of the American imaginations and instilled a love of darkness that seems to have only grown with time.

According to musicological tradition, this “tritone” also known as the Devil’s Chord, is a sound so dissonant and so puissant that it was once believed capable of raising the Lord of Darkness himself.  For this reason, the Roman Catholic Church banned its use in music on threat of excommunication for several centuries, with the name Diabolus in Musica applied to this stirring interval from at least the early 18th century.

Australian composer Johann Joseph Fux (1660--1741) cited the term in his influential 1725 work Gradus ad Parnassum, German composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681--1767) noted in 1733, “’mi against fa,’ which the ancients called ‘Satan in music,’” and German composer and music theorist Johann Matheson (1681--1764) wrote in a 1739 thesis that the “older singers with solmization called this pleasant interval ‘mi contra fa’ or ‘the devil in music.’” Nevertheless, the Devil’s Triad was used quite effectively by several renown composers of the 19th and 20th centuries including Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811–1886) to suggest the sound of hell in his Dante Sonata, and French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835–1921) in Danse Macabre.

Camille Saint-Saens's "Danse Macabre"

Because of the original symbolic association with the Devil, this interval came to be thought of as suggesting evil in all Western music–though it has gone on to influence generations of musicians and listeners.  Even today, this dissonant interval is most often associated with “scary” or “evil” sound, and is frequently utilized in horror film soundtracks.   And while modern metal bands like Metallica, Megadeath, and Anthrax continue to pay homage to the vision of Black Sabbath and guitarist Tony Iommi, more importantly they perpetuate centuries of acknowledging the effect music can have on the human soul.  An effect one need only experience from the opening of “Black Sabbath” to be convinced of.

Listen for yourself . . .


For Related Articles See:

Songs the Beatles Didn't Write

Dark Side of the Moon

The 60's Counterculture

Witch Hunts in America

Music of Janis Joplin

Sounds of Horror

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James R. Coffey
Posted on Oct 20, 2010
Ron Siojo
Posted on Oct 20, 2010