The Tritone in Opera: The Devil in Music?

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


The tritone is a musical interval with a particularly dark, menacing sound. It’s often been associated with the devil, and it’s no wonder why – the tritone can create a feeling of unease and tension.

In opera, the tritone is often used to represent the devil, or other dark forces. It’s a way to add a touch of menace and suspense to the music. If you’re a fan of opera, then you’ve probably heard the tritone used

What is the tritone?

The tritone is an interval of three whole tones, or six semitones. It is considered an important part of the harmonic series, as it creates tension and instability. The tritone has been associated with the Devil in music since the Middle Ages, when it was known as the diabolus in musica (Latin for “the Devil in music”).

The tritone is found in a variety of musical genres, including classical, jazz, and rock. It is often used to create a sense of unease or tension in music. In opera, the tritone is sometimes used to represent the Devil. This use of the interval can be seen in works such as Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Donna è Mobile” from Rigoletto and Gounod’s “Ave Maria.”

The tritone in opera

In opera, the tritone is often used to indicate the presence of the devil. This is because the tritone is an interval with a very unstable sound, which can create a feeling of unease and suspense. The tritone is also known as the ” Devil’s interval”.

The tritone in “Don Giovanni”

The devil is in the details, they say. But in opera, the devil is often in the music. The tritone, an interval of three whole tones, was long thought to be so distressing to the ear that it was known as “diabolus in musica,” or “the devil in music”. Today, we know that the tritone can be a powerful tool for composers, adding tension and drama to their music.

One of the most famous uses of the tritone is in Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni.” The opera tells the story of a philandering nobleman who is finally brought to justice by the ghosts of his victims. In the final scene, as Don Giovanni stands before hellfire, Mozart unleashes a flurry of tritones in the orchestra, heightening the sense of drama and suspense.

While the tritone has come to be associated with evil and darkness, it can also be used for more lighthearted effect. In Rossini’s comic opera “The Barber of Seville,” Figaro sings a mocking song about his rival Count Almaviva, full of tritones that add to the humor of the situation.

The next time you’re watching or listening to an opera, see if you can spot any tritones! They might just be hiding in plain sight.

The tritone in “Der Freischütz”

The tritone, also known as the “devil in music,” is a musical interval that creates an unsettling, tension-filled sound. It’s no wonder that the tritone has been used extensively in opera to heighten the drama and create an atmosphere of suspense and fear.

One of the most famous uses of the tritone in opera comes from Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischütz.” In the opera, the tritone is used to represent the evil character of Kaspar, who makes a deal with the devil to gain magical power. The use of the tritone in this work helped to solidify its association with darkness and evil in popular culture.

While the tritone has been used for centuries to create a sense of drama and suspense, it’s important to remember that it’s just a musical interval and not actually evil itself!

The tritone and the Devil

The tritone in “Faust”

The “tritone” is a musical interval of three whole tones, or six semitones. It’s also known as an “augmented fourth” or a “diminished fifth”. The tritone was once considered to be the diabolus in musica, or the “Devil in music”. This is because it’s an unstable interval that creates a sense of tension and unease.

The tritone first appears in the opening scene of Gounod’s opera Faust, when the demon Mephistopheles sings the following line:

“Le veau d’or est toujours debout!”

(“The Golden Calf is always standing!”)

This line is sung to a tritone interval, which creates a sense of unease and foreboding. The tritone also appears later in the opera, during the famous ” Walpurgis Night” scene. Here, Mephistopheles conjures up a visions of witches and demons dancing around a bonfire. The music accompanying this scene is full of tritones, which creates a sense of chaos and anarchy.

The use of the tritone in Faust was so effective that it spawned a whole new genre of opera known as “tritone opera”. These operas all feature scenes of demonic activity and usually end in tragedy. Some well-known examples include Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, and Boito’s Mefistofele.

The tritone in “Mefistofele”

Mefistofele is an opera in four acts by Arrigo Boito, based on the Faust legend, and was the last opera composed by Boito. The work was first performed at La Scala in Milan on 5 March 1868.

One of the most striking and innovative features of the score is Boito’s inventive and original use of the tritone, which he uses to represent the character of Mefistofele. The tritone is a musical interval that is characterized by its dissonance and instability, and it has been associated with the Devil in music since the Middle Ages.

In “Mefistofele”, Boito uses the tritone extensively, often in very dissonant passages, to create an atmosphere of tension and unease. This use of the tritone gives the opera a very dark and moody sound, which fits perfectly with its subject matter.

The opening scene of “Mefistofele” is a perfect example of how Boito uses the tritone to create an unsettling atmosphere. In this scene, Mefistofele arrives in Faust’s study and immediately starts playing a game of chess with him. The music that accompanies this scene is full of dissonant tritones, which create a sense of foreboding and menace.

Later on in the opera, there is a scene in which Mefistofele tempts Faust with visions of earthly pleasures. The music here is once again full of tritones, but they are used in a more seductive way, creating a luxurious and sensual feel.

The final scenes of “Mefistofele” are some of the most dramatic and harrowing moments in all of opera. In these scenes, Mefistofele finally succeeds in tempting Faust into signing away his soul, and the music becomes even more dark and dissonant than before. The use of the tritone here reaches its peak, adding to the sense of despair and hopelessness that pervades these scenes.

After hearing “Mefistofele”, it is easy to see why Boito chose to use the tritone so extensively throughout the score. The interval perfectly captures the dark character of Mefisto­fele and creates an atmosphere of tension and unease that is essential to this opera.


The tritone, or “devil in music,” is a musical interval with a very dark and menacing sound. It crops up frequently in opera, often serving as a symbol of evil or darkness. While it may be used for purely musical effect, the tritone often has a deep symbolic meaning in opera.

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