Meet My Friend Mr. Tritone

He's a lonely and misunderstood interval. Not sure how to use him? Find out here!

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Tritone, augmented fourth, diminished fifth, half an octave... whatever you want to call it, it has no doubt been a vastly misunderstood concept throughout most of music. It is most famous for being "diabolus in musica", or "The Devil in music" (loosely), because of its tense and occasionally "evil" feel. In fact, some churches throughout the 16th and 17th centuries banned the interval from being used in hymns, due to its Devilish quality. Perhaps all this hubbub was due to the fact that some people just don't know how to properly use the interval? Read on, kiddies, as I indulge you in an example-full explaination of all the tritone's greatest advantages!

What Is The Tritone?

Known as the augmented fourth and diminished fifth, one can determine that the tritone lies 6 semitones (frets) above the root note. Oddly enough, being exactly half an octave, the tritone is also found 6 semitones below the root note. So, if you're playing an E (let's say 7th fret A string), both tritones (A#/Bb) lie easily in access, either on the 8th fret of the D string or the 6th fret of the E string. There, that's easy, isn't it? Now that you know what it is, let's get on to the good stuff!

Scales With The Tritone

Some scales, though they may not try to eccentricate solely on the tritone, at least contain it. Whether to serve a specific melodic purpose or, in some cases, to just cause pure dissonance, there are a couple essential tritone scales every tritone guitarist should know:
  • Blues Scale Almost -- ALMOST!-- the same as the pentatonic minor in every single way, only with the tritone added. Let's take a look at an example, in G:
    |------------------------3-6-| |--------------------3-6-----| |--------------3-5-6---------| |----------3-5---------------| |----3-4-5-------------------| |3-6-------------------------|
    Notice how without the C#/Db on the A string (4th fret) and G string (6th fret), you would have your basic G pentatonic minor scale. You see, whereas a lot of Europeans for centuries thought that the tritone sounded "evil", Americans adopted the interval to instead sound more "blue", hence the name "blues".
  • Diminished Scale Perhaps one of the best examples of a scale using tritones, the diminished scale is simply formulated but is still an amazing discovery! To play a diminished scale, starting from your root note, go up one whole step (2 frets), 1 half step (1 fret), whole, half, etc. One thing to note, however, is that a diminished scale has two distinct modes. The most common mode is to start the ascent one half step below your actual root note. If you play a C minor chord, you would then back it up with a B diminished scale, which would look like this:
    |----------------------0-1-| |------------------2-3-----| |------------1-3-4---------| |------2-3-5---------------| |2-4-5---------------------| |--------------------------|
    A second but less-commonly-used mode is to start the ascent a full step below the root note. Sticking with the C minor chord again, you would back that up instead with a Bb diminished scale, which would look like this:
    |------------------------0-| |------------------1-2-4---| |------------0-2-3---------| |------1-2-4---------------| |1-3-4---------------------| |--------------------------|
    Okay, now that you know a couple crucial scales, you'll be well-equipped when it comes to soloing, now won't you? But for all you rhythm guitarists out here, I'll slap some chord theory on you now.
  • The Dominant Seventh Chord In chord progressions, the dominant seventh chord is one of the most important in resolving a progression back to its root chord. If you want something to build tension before you hit the root chord again, a dominant seventh chord is probably the most effective way to do such. This is in no small part due to the fact that a dominant seventh chord will always feature -- yeah, you guessed it -- the tritone. For a better visualization, here's an example: You're in the key of C major. Now, let's say for one measure, you play a C chord. The second measure, an A minor. The third, a D minor. Okay, good, good. Now, the D minor does build up some tension, but not really enough to make the resolution with C major satisfying. So, what do we throw in? A dominant seventh chord! But wait... which dominant seventh chord do we use?

    How To Find The Dominant Seventh Chord

    Well, any time you hear the word dominant in music, it's referring to the 5th scale degree; you folks here would recognize this relationship as the trusty power chord. All you have to do to find the root note of your dominant chord would be to look a fifth above your root note, and you've got it. Since we're looking for the dominant of C, then we'd go a perfect fifth above C to a G. So now our progression goes |C|Am|Dm|G7|C|Am|Dm|G7|. See how that resolves nicely? The dominant seventh builds up tension and resolves perfectly... and do you know why? Let's take a look at both the G7 and C chords:
    G7 C |1-------0-------| |0-------1-------| |0-------0-------| |0-------2-------| |2-------3-------| |3---------------|
    The tritone forms between the 3rd and the flatted 7th of the G in the G7 chord (the 3rd of a G is a B, the b7th is an F, and the distance between those two notes forms a tritone). Okay, for the sake of making the resolution easier to hear, just play the top 2 notes of those two chords. What do we hear happening there? Well, the F on the e string wants to go down to an e, while the open B wants to go up to the 1st fret C. Can you hear it? Isn't it excellent voice leading to make a chord resolve in that manner? And I'll show you how you can do it yourself:

    Building Your Own Dominant Seventh Chord

    In order to form a dominant chord, you must use the interval formula for a dominant chord, which is 1 3 5 b7. What does that mean? It means to take the 1, 3, 5, and b7 notes in relation to the root note's major scale. So let's say you're forming a G7 chord. We start out with the G major scale.
    G A B C D E F# G 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
    Now, we take the 1, 3, 5, and b7 tones of the scale. This turns out to be G (1), B (3), D (5), and F natural (b7). We now know the notes of the G7 chord, and it is simply a matter of arranging those tones on the guitar to form the chord. One common way is to arrange them as such:
    e|----- B|----- G|--10- F (b7) D|--9-- B (3) A|--10- G (1) E|--10- D (5)
    Of course, there are plenty of other voicings (arrangements) you could potentially use. Okay, moving on!

    Dissonance

    Dissonance is defined as anything that is unharmonized and unstable. The tritone is traditionally considered dissonance, though it is not as dissonant as the second or seventh. So what's basically meant by dissonance is simply this: noisy. Though it can be used in other ways to serve more melodic purposes and avoid being rendered completely "noisy", in certain situations it's used simply because it's noisy. Take the metal genre, for example. Metal has for a long time been one of the most heavily tritone-laden -- and just generally dissonance-laden -- genres around. Though a lot of metal is just an adaptation of the blues scale, there's no doubt that some bands are trying to sound more dissonant than they are bluesy. I can think of, offhand, WAY too many examples! Let's take the most basic and one of the most famous examples: the opening riff to Black Sabbath's heavy metal masterpiece, "Black Sabbath":
    |--------------------------------| |--------------------------------| |--------------------------------| |--------5------------trill------| |----------------4h5p4h5p4h5p4h5-| |3-------------------------------|
    So simple, yet so effective! The C#/Db (4th fret A string) produces one of the most evil effects ever, and is no doubt only heightened by the two G notes right before it. Now, that's basic tritone metal. That alone is evil-sounding enough, but that's even in its simplest form! Some bands have gone further into the tritone territory (some bands even make the use of the tritone part of their signature sound, a la Slayer or even Metallica), and it can really make for a cool effect. Though not exactly harmonically relevant, it can create an atmosphere of incredible tension that would otherwise be unattainable. And I think the best example of extreme tritone dissonance would be the blistering chorus riff of Judas Priest's "The Ripper": [Caution: Dissonance may melt face off]
    |------------------------------------------------| |---------------------------8--7-----------------| |------------------7--9-----------7--10-9-----8--| |7--9--10-9-----10-------------------------10----| |------------------------------------------------| |------------------------------------------------|
    [Side note: Whenever you get the chance, be sure to pick up a copy of Judas Priest's "Sad Wings Of Destiny" album. I guarantee you won't be disappointed] Okay, now that you've got all that down, you should have all the knowledge you'll need to start tritoning with style! I hope this article made you understand the concept better, and maybe now you'll even have a greater appreciation towards the little misunderstood interval. If used properly, the tritone can become your best friend. Until next time, keep on rockin'! Special thanks to SilentDeftone for the "Building Your Own Dominant Seventh Chord" section, who wrote it himself due to my lack of ability to explain it clearly enough; much better than how I could've written it! This article wouldn't have been complete without ya, man.
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      tommy_razor
      good lesson, but why do you say that the flat 5 is in a dominant 7th chord? a dominant 7 is made up of a root, minor 7, 5, and a major 3, and when u use it on the 5th of the key ur in it becomes the 5th, the 2nd, the 4th, and the flat second, but that doesn't contain a flat 5? could u explain that 2 me please? thanks
      Bones420
      That was a fun read Seth, and really well written, you explained things well.. Nice job!
      Zoso_Jimmy
      Another song that has some cool tritones in it is YYZ by Rush the into is pure tritones just for anybody who wanted to know some songs that have this interval in it
      mpeskett
      jonny and tom wrote: not bad I'm gonna try that, Right now im gonna go get laid tho...
      Thanks for telling us, I bet your self esteem is alot higher now.
      Cal UK
      Very good article I read this after your harmonising articles which were also very good. I need to polish my music theory (Ok start learning music theory) to properly understand though.
      EmancipatedSoul
      You take the root note, for instance E. The fifth means, the 5th note from E. So E, F, G, A, B. B is thew 5th and hence a power chord EBE. So the 4th would be an A, the 3rd a G ect. That may work for 5ths, but that is completely wrong for anything else. What you want to learn in the Major Scale, which from the root is Whole step(2Frets),whole step, half step(1Fret),whole, whole, whole, half(which brings you back to root). Now to figure out the 3rds, 4ths, 5ths and so on. You just count the notes down the major scale starting from the root(Which is the number 1), 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, then back to ?1? and you're back to root. And you use those numbers to figure out the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and so on. So the 3rd of E is actually G# and the 4th is A. I agree with him but other than that i think its a fairly good lesson. Nicely done man
      mpeskett
      You should also mention the Tritone substitution used in Jazz. Because the tritone is exactly in the middle of the major scale, if you invert the interval in the dominant chord (the 3rd to 7th) then you get a new chord which you use. Eg, the G7 chord has the B - F tritone, inverted becomes F - B and this is the 3rd and 7th (respectively) of Db7. More easily remembered, is that Db is a flattened 5th above G, which is why this method is also known as flat 5 substitution.
      cwaldman15
      well i cant say that i fully understand this lesson, but i just started taking music theory so the fact that i can get anything out of it means it was written really well GJ
      Tedward
      RockFreak000 : I dont get it, wich means its really good.
      just what i was thinking the Sad Wings of Destiny vinyl i have is just sitting in my room underneath my turntable lol
      metal_matt
      SethMegadefan wrote: ^Yeah, you'd figure Bach's "Toccata & Fugue in D Minor" pretty much broke every evil barrier the church had ever put up. That piece experiments so much with dissonance and diminished scales... just an awesome piece of music.
      Hell yeah man it is a beast of a piece!!! THat i have covered and use lot should all check out
      RTBM
      Hello Hello ?????
      You see, whereas a lot of Europeans for centuries thought that the tritone sounded "evil", Americans adopted the interval to instead sound more "blue", hence the name "blues".
      I am a european am let me tell you that they did liked the tritonus be used in certain ways. second! It was'nt the americans who adopted the Tritonus BUT the Africans who where stolen from afica to become slave in North America! LEARN your history dude!!!!
      ETHANR26
      im confused as hell... could some1 post a tab on these comments in standard tuning with only the three notes of some tritone in it? that would help alot.
      XxPunkMafiaxX
      Tritones are one of the most over-used things in a single genre of music....yet they still fail to lose their cool-ness and ability to sound awesome and original
      David Fyfield
      Wonderful stuff. Check out "Windmills of your mind". You will find the evil chord - a minor 7th with a flatterned 5th. Also the fantastic -I'm going to a town by Rufus Wreinwright. Its use to set up the line " After soacking the body of Jesus Christ in Blood" is Genious. Use the chord Sparingly for greater impact.
      Forged-Alliance
      I really enjoyed the article. I under the theoretical concepts behind the tri-tone well after reading the article. However I do have a question in reguards to usage of the interval. To show you my problem I'll reuse that section from the Ripper by Judas Preist |-----| |-----8--7-----| |-----7--9-----7--10-9--- - -8--| |7--9--10-9-----10-----10 ----| |-----| |-----| Ok so I see that the tritone used in this riff is the 8th fret played at the end of the measure (or D#) which would be the tritone of the 7th fret (or A) because D# is half an octave higher than A. Now in this instance, of what I could tell with my current knowledge of music theory (fairly limited I might add) the tri-tone in this instance was basically just chromatically added, an accidental I guess. Is that correct? If I'm wrong please tell me what scale he was using! And or what key he was in. P.S. if anyone can direct me to a concise article on the relationship of keys and scales...I'd appreciate it.
      Vman666
      that was awesome...I never actually realised that note was there in a way...like obviously i knew it was there but its a very unused interval...(as its not an official interval)...thanks for this...
      Johnljones7443
      K10P wrote: i dont understand in what context which of the the interval names (augumented 4rth/dim 5th) is used-the article didnt explain this. Is it based on the triads within a certain key eg B diminished in the key of C?..
      C - F# = Augmented fourth. C - Gb = Diminished fifth.
      irishRW
      That was great man, keep em coming. Cheers to ur mate silent deftone to.
      K10P
      i dont understand in what context which of the the interval names (augumented 4rth/dim 5th) is used-the article didnt explain this. Is it based on the triads within a certain key eg B diminished in the key of C?..
      SethMegadefan
      ^Yeah, you'd figure Bach's "Toccata & Fugue in D Minor" pretty much broke every evil barrier the church had ever put up. That piece experiments so much with dissonance and diminished scales... just an awesome piece of music.
      pe_666
      Im looking for a kind of dark, evil like melody for a part of a song where the singer whispers a poem, so would a melody with tritone's be the way to go? Nice aritcle! 10
      smb
      Check out the Karma to Burn song Thirty-Eight. It's got a pretty evil riff based on this that's great to play.
      smb
      I love playing these, but I guess that comes from my love of Sabbath and Sabbath clones
      nunu
      Leonheart wrote: This article seems really good. But one crucial thing I've never understood is how do you figure out what a third of a root note is? Or the fourth, or fifth? I know the fifth is a power chord, but what makes it the fifth?
      You take the root note, for instance E. The fifth means, the 5th note from E. So E, F, G, A, B. B is thew 5th and hence a power chord EBE. So the 4th would be an A, the 3rd a G ect.
      Leonheart
      This article seems really good. But one crucial thing I've never understood is how do you figure out what a third of a root note is? Or the fourth, or fifth? I know the fifth is a power chord, but what makes it the fifth?
      Tombi
      RockFreak000 wrote: I dont get it, wich means its really good.
      you said it