The Diabolus in Musica

by Larry Solomon, copyright © 2002

Daniel 3: 12 "There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the administration of the province of Babylon, {namely} Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. These men, O king, have disregarded you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up." 13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in rage and anger gave orders to bring Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego; then these men were brought before the king. 14 Nebuchadnezzar responded and said to them, "Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? 15 "Now if you are ready, at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery and bagpipe and all kinds of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, {very well.} But if you do not worship, you will immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?"

Bosch: Earthly Delights, Musician's Hell                                       Bosch: Last Judgment, Vienna

Devils in Music

The Roman Catholic Church maintained a long stranglehold over western Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Its influence was not restricted to religious thought but also determined moral, political, and social conduct. Music and art were not exceptions. Clear distinctions were made between good and bad, godly and ungodly, sacred and vulgar. Even musical time was divided into perfect (holy) and and imperfect (ungodly). Triple meter was perfect because it represented the Trinity. Meters of 2 or 4 were imperfect because they were not the Trinity, and therefore unworthy to praise God. Musical intervals were also divided into the perfect ones and the imperfect ones. Unisons, fourths, fifths and octaves were the only ones perfect (holy) enough to be allowed in the house of the Lord. The others were simply "imperfect" and considered dissonant in sacred music until about the 15th century. They were carefully controlled if they were used at all. One interval was so terrible that it was called the diabolus in musica (the devil in music). It was the tritone, one made of three whole tones, such as F to B. It was avoided in sacred music from at least the time of Guido d'Arrezo (Micrologus, c.1025) through the Renaissance and was associated with Satan. The tritone is still used today in movies and commercial music to invoke sinister connotations, especially when played slowly in a low register.

Gregorian chant, thought by many to have been written by God (the most famous composer of Medieval music), was the only sanctioned music of the Roman Church, and was sung solely by men. Women's voices were considered too sensual, provocative, and thought to have brought sin into the world (Eve); they were not allowed in sacred worship. For hundreds of years God's melodies could not be changed. Only when Roman Church power waned were additions to the Chant permitted.

This chant was also sung a capella, i.e., without instruments. Musical instruments and dance were associated with the persecution of Christians during the Roman games, where they were an integral part of a savage bacchanal. Animals, too, were associated with these persecutions, and were later branded as the emissaries of Satan. Additionally, secular music was associated with drinking parties, wild dancing, sex (as in love songs), gambling, sport, and hedonistic pleasure-seeking in general. Thus, instruments, dance, and animals were considered tools of the Devil, symbolizing evil, sex, persecution, and licentiousness, all considered sinful by Church fathers. Musicians themselves had the lowest social status along with beggars. Music must have been a reluctant concession to religious worship. It was strictly controlled and emotionally restrained. The sacred music of the Middle Ages avoided vivaciousness, sensuality, and lively rhythms. It was on an even keel, moving gingerly in restrained, "heavenly" tones.

So, music, dance, instruments, and animals (beasts) became satanic symbols in Medieval art, and especially in Bosch's work.

Canterbury Cathedral, 1115-25

Here the beasts (devils) play musical instruments, linking devils with music. In the following, a monster gropes a woman while a musician plays him a tune, connecting music and musicians with sex and the devil. Such images of music were common in Medieval art.

St Madeleine, Vézelay, c. 1100

Although the art is soundless, the diabolus in musica (tritone) would have been associated with these scenes as well as in those depicting the devils by Bosch.