At BeginnerGuitarHQ, we make sure you get a detailed and accurate grasp over every element of guitar playing. This includes some of the more complex, dissonant aspects of music theory which will enhance the way you play, write and improvise with your guitar.
In this important guide, we’ll guide you through the use of the tritone interval in all of its forms, as well as the rare ‘tritone scale’.
If you’re interested in bringing some truly unique melody lines and dissonances to your playing, then look no further.
Before we get into the musicality of the tritone, it is important to look at the history behind this interval. Hundreds of years ago, the tritone interval was often referred to as ‘the devil’s interval’ or ‘the devil in music’, thanks to its crushing dissonance. This led to its use being illegal at certain times over the course of history. Eventually, attitudes simmered down and the interval became an integral part of composition. Still, the strong association with evil and the devil has made it one of the most important and effective sounds in music, and as such, one you should know how to use.
What Is A Tritone?
The tritone is typically considered to be one of, if not the, most dissonant intervals in music. In standard Western tuning, it is the interval that sits directly between an octave. For example, if you’re playing a C in one octave, and another C in the octave above, the note in the middle is an F#. This is the tritone interval above a C, as is separated on the C of both sides by exactly six semitones.
Of course, you don’t have to be playing two notes an octave away to create a tritone. You can simply move from one note, up by six semitones, and reach the tritone. With C and F# as our example once more, we can see that movement from C, to Db, to D, to Eb, to E, to F to F# eventually gets us to that tritone interval.
You can also look at this the other way around, because the tritone is a symmetrical interval. Where a minor 3rd is only present in the movement from A to C (the reverse is a minor sixth), the movement from F# to C is still a tritone, just as it would be the other way around.
Interestingly, the tritone also has other names. If you are playing in C major, for example, and you sharpened the F, then this version of the tritone would be known as an ‘Augmented Fourth’. If you were doing the same thing, but you flattened the G, this would be a ‘Diminished Fifth’. Technically, these notes look and sound exactly the same, but the context changes their name.
Tritones often sound very dissonant when played in a chord or exposed in a melody, but in certain situations, they can sound perfectly pleasant in a catchy melody, or give a chord a well-used crunch. We’ll get to those uses in a moment.
F# and Gb as tritones against a C
How Do I Play the Tritone?
While a tritone is very dissonant and is rather difficult to use successfully in theoretical terms, actually playing one is very easy on guitar. As mentioned above, if you’re simply looking to move from one note to the tritone above or below, just move up or down by six semitones and you’ll get there.
If you’re looking for an easier way to play a tritone on guitar, then there is a little cheat. Imagine you’re playing a power chord on C. You have your second finger on the 3rd fret of the 5th string and your fourth finger on the 5th fret of the 4th string. To make this a tritonic interval instead of a perfect fifth (so this would come under the ‘Diminished Fifth’ label), simply move your fourth finger down to the fourth fret of the 4th string. Now play them together, and you have a tritone interval. Add the octave in with your 5th finger on the 3rd string if you want. Of course, you can play these without turning them into a chord if you’re just looking for single notes to create a dramatic interval.
Playing tritones that exist in different octaves from the root note is a little more difficult, and will require you to get a grasp of where your fifths above each note you play are. Once you have that, you can bring them down by a semitone to reach a tritone anywhere on guitar. Eventually, this will all become second nature and you won’t need to think about the placement of a tritone interval.
The Tritone Scale
The tritone scale is a seldom used scale that builds itself around the tritone interval. As you might expect, it creates some extreme dissonance that can be very useful in genres like metal and jazz. While the tritone scale is often overlooked because of things like the Lydian and Mixolydian scale, this one can really add spice to your improvisation and melodies.
It is essentially built on two major triads separated by a tritone. So, take a look above to remind yourself of how to find the tritone above a root note. In this case we’ll use C again. Move six semitones from C to F# (or Gb, depending on how you want to look at it), and then fill in the remaining notes of these two major chords. For the C, this is E and G, and for the F#/Gb, this is A#/Bb and C#/Db.
So these are your notes: C, E, G, F#/Gb, A#/Bb, C#/Db. To make a scale, they are placed into ascending order, and for ease of understanding, we’ll avoid the need for natural signs by mixing and matching with #s and bs. This means that the final product of notes in a tritone scale
C, Db, E, F#, G, Bb, C.
The tritone scale on C
The notes here create a lot of things: firstly, we have the Phrygian element created by that semitone directly after the root. Then we have a major third, making this technically a major scale, despite its dissonance. After that, the F# gives a lifted Lydian feeling before the bluesy movement to the G comes straight after. The Bb is a minor seventh interval that means that scale does not end with a leading note like the harmonic minor would. On the whole, it’s an incredibly interesting scale which can give your playing a huge amount of flair.
Interestingly, it also happens to double up as a particularly interesting chord when played all at once: the C7b9#11.
Also remember that the scale can be transposed however you like, just follow the formula above to work out your two major triads and how to move them up by a tritone, reorder them and make the accidentals as simple to follow as possible.
How To Use A Tritone In Melody
To bring tritones into your melody lines requires a lot of skill and a very well-trained ear.
The first thing to note is that, due to the dissonance of the interval, using it in melody has the very real chance of sounding like a wrong note. If your melody sounds like it needs to go to the fifth, then let it go to the fifth. Chances are that trying to flatten it just to add interest will simply sound strange.
Using It For Dissonance
However, using a tritone for an intentional dissonance could be brilliant. There are a few ways you can do this.
The first, is to ‘prepare’ the dissonance in the classical sense. This involves playing a note that happens to be part of the key/chord you’re in (let’s say D major is the chord, and you’re playing an F# in the melody), and holding it after the chord changes. In this case, if the chord moved down to C major while you held the F# in your melody, you’d create a tritone dissonance above the root of the C major chord. When the F# becomes dissonant, the classical expectation would be that you’d ‘resolve’ the dissonance, by moving to a note which is part of the chord. Of course, this isn’t something you have to do.
A prepared and resolved tritone dissonance
The other, and much more common in popular music, way to use tritonic dissonance is very simple: use it however you want. This could be to create a crunchy sound against a chord in jazz, or in order to create an intentionally jagged melody in a heavy metal song. A combination of guitar distortion and the tritone interval is pretty much what created the entire metal genre.
Using It As A Blue Note
The idea of a ‘blue’ note comes directly from the blues tradition. While pentatonic scales were commonly used in blues and jazz, the use of an occasional dissonance during melodies became something that would define the style. In many cases, a blue note is the flattened (or half-flattened, in certain situations) third. This means you’d move from a b3rd (Eb in C major) up to the major 3rd (e).
This can also be achieved to arguably more success with the tritone. On a scalic run up the C minor pentatonic, try adding a Gb into the mix. This not only creates a nice chromatic run between the F, Gb and G, but also creates the feeling of a ‘blue’ note when the Gb moves up to the G next door.
Using It Modally
The tritone interval also appears in many different modes, most prominently the Lydian and the Locrian. We’ll use the C Lydian and C Locrian for comparison here. This is a particularly interesting use of the tritone, as the presence of what is enharmonically the same note in these two different modes is incredibly contrasting. In fact, the Lydian mode is often considered to be the ‘brightest’ of all major modes, while the Locrian is considered the ‘darkest’.
The C Lydian is made up of the notes C, D, E, F#, G, A and B. This makes it a major scale with a raised fourth, providing a temporary whole-tone feeling on the way up, and a major chord II, diminished chord IV and minor chord VII. It also creates a tritonic clash between the C and F# which wouldn’t normally be there in a major scale. Despite this, the scale is uniquely bright, thanks to the presence of this raised note. As such, while there may well be dissonance found when jumping between C and F# here, the Lydian mode is uniquely positioned to use a tritone for brightness, rather than its usual complexity. The main thing to make sure you’re aware of when using the Lydian mode is the possibility that the presence of this F# could make your melodies feel more like G major than C Lydian.
The contrasting tritone-heavy mode is the Locrian, the darkest of the major modes. In the C Locrian, the tritone is present via a diminished fifth, creating a huge sense of darkness. It is made up of the notes C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb. This means we have the Phrygian sound of that opening semitone, the minor of the flattened third and, of course, the dissonance of the Gb. This mode is particularly interesting, because it is built around unavoidable dissonance: the tonic chord is diminished. If you want to stay firmly in the Locrian, you can’t use a perfect fifth, only the crushing dissonance of a diminished fifth.
The general idea with the use of the tritone in modality is that if you want to write something as light and bright as possible, go with the Lydian. If you’re looking for something heavy and dark, then the Locrian will be right for you.
Using It Well
The final suggestion for using the tritone in melody is much simpler than those above: use it well. There are no magic tricks that’ll guarantee a tritone will work in your melody, as it is all about trial and error, and learning. Eventually, you’ll write a melody or improvise a solo and realise that a jump of a tritone would work perfectly in a certain place. Or you’ll be so well versed in dissonance, that it’ll come naturally to you.
How To Use A Tritone In Harmony
In harmony, the tritone interval is rarely found alone. A chord made up of just C and F# (for example) might sound a little bare, and as such, is often combined with other notes to make various extended chords.
In Chord Seven
Chord vii is the most natural way for a tritone dissonance to appear in music, and also the reason that so many popular songs will find themselves borrowing from the Mixolydian mode. In the standard major scale (as well as the harmonic minor and a variety of modes) the seventh degree is raised. This means that in C major, the final note of the scale is a B. When you craft a triad that starts on the B, you add a D and an F. This, as you can see, creates a tritone interval between the B and F.
Of course, you could just avoid the dissonance by flattening the B or sharpening the F, but if you’re staying diatonic to the C major scale, then the dissonance is there to stay. Due to its clashing notes, the vii chord is arguably the least common in popular music, but there are definitely very interesting ways to employ it.
In A Dominant Seven Chord
The dominant seven chord is very closely connected to the vii above, except it has a G down at the bottom (when in C major). This makes it a G chord, and with the major third (B), perfect fifth (D) and minor seventh (F) it is specifically a dominant seventh. The B and F dissonance is no longer that of a root and diminished fifth, but of a major third and minor seventh. Technically, this ‘sounds’ the same within the chord, but the new context changes it hugely. The perfect way to use a dominant seven chord is as the start of perfect cadence, either to confirm a key, or change to a new key with strength, though of course, they can be used wherever they sound good.
G7 dominant seven tritone dissonance
In A Diminished Seven Chord
The only way to make one of the most dissonant sounds in the world more dissonant is to add extra layers of crunch. Above, I mentioned that the simple pairing of a root note and the tritone above it sounds a little empty; doing it twice at the same time really fixes that problem. Technically, a diminished seventh is a stack of minor third intervals. This means a few things: They are all equally split across an octave and if you kept going up, each octave would look the same. They are therefore made up of two pairs of tritone intervals. There are also only three different diminished seventh chords in existence.
The first (Cdim7) combines C, Eb, Gb and Bbb which is an enharmonic combination of C and Gb, and Eb and A. The second combines Db, Fb, Abb and Bb, which creates clashes between the Db and what is enharmonically a G, as well as the Fb (E) and Bb. The third and final diminished seventh chord is made up of D, F, Ab and Cb. The clashes here are between D and Ab, and F and Cb (B). The reason there are only three organisations of diminished seventh is because no matter which note you put on the bottom, there are only three possible combinations of notes.
The diminished seventh is so dissonant that you’ll rarely find it in popular music. In more expressive areas, however, it is one of the most distressing chords available to you.
Cdim7 diminished seven dissonance
In Other Extended Chords
While diminished sevenths and dominant sevenths are the most common place you’ll see the tritone appear, remember that it can be used in a variety of extended chords that are both common, and completely ‘made up’. This can include chords that build on the general base of the dominant seventh, but can also take more extreme approaches that combine many tritones, or use tritones to create even more crunch intervals, like minor seconds. If you’re making something heavy or jazzy, then the tritone is your friend.
How To Use A Tritone For Effect
To turn your use of the tritone into more of an effects piece, you can give it meaning. This could end up manifesting itself in many ways.
One of the most obvious, is to simply exploit its dissonance to create a sense of fear or anger. This means a huge, heavy metal riff could be constructed using tritonic harmony and/or tritone leaps. With a lot of overdrive on your guitar at the same time, you’ll be able to create a really impactful sound which feels absolutely brutal. This connects to the use of the tritone’s dissonance, but takes it to the next level, where you aren’t exactly trying to make it work, you’re trying to make it sound heavy.
The contrasting approach would be to use the tritone for a more humorous effect. This could include exploiting the fact that tritonic movement makes it very hard for a piece to settle into one key; this would make your listener feel a little unsettled, and although your music (purposely) isn’t going anywhere. At the same time, you could use the dissonance of a tritone in a more playful way. For example, rather than playing with harshness and aggression as above, you can use a dissonant tritone interval in a more bouncy, clean way which will give it an element of humour.
The final use of tritones for effect is a much more involved approach which is likely to speak mostly to guitarists who are writing their own music. If you’re working on a composition that has different characters or moods that you want to represent through your playing, you could effectively ‘assign’ the tritone to them. Maybe a character is particularly evil? Each time you’re depicting them, the tritone could be heard as a leitmotif type device. Or you’re wanting to give a thunderstorm a musical sound? The clattering dissonance of a tritone could be a clap of thunder.
Examples Of Tritones In Use
- Black Sabbath- Black Sabbath. Black Sabbath were the inventors of the heavy metal genre, and they did it using a tritone and a distorted guitar. The first track on their self-titled debut album, Black Sabbath, opened with the rumbling of thunder and pouring of rain, before a mind-bogglingly heavy guitar exploded into a riff made up of three notes: an E, and E one octave higher, and the tritone Bb in the middle. By letting each of these notes ring out, Tony Iommi was able to exploit the dissonance of the tritone interval both melodically and harmonically, while simultaneously creating one of the heaviest songs ever recorded, and an entire genre. The band themselves were fixated by the occult, and the use of a musical interval associated with the devil pushed forward their association with evil and allowed them to go down in history. Much of their later music also gave the tritone a particular importance.
- Primus- South Park Theme. It’s difficult to get to a more contrasting use of the tritone than in Primus’ theme for the TV show South Park. This is where the humorous use of such an interval can be found. The band play jangly, clean power chords that bounce up and down the neck via minor third intervals. As we found out when looking at the diminished seven chord, stacks of minor thirds eventually create tritone intervals. This is what happens in this piece, and it creates the disconcerting sound of unfinished, unresolved music without a key. Despite that, the excellent compositional skill of Primus means that they kept it catchy and memorable, with a great melody above.
- Rush- YYZ. There are quite a few similarities between Rush and Primus, but their use of tritones here are rather contrasting. While the ‘South Park Theme’ is very light-hearted, ‘YYZ’ is a much more serious affair. Rush designed this instrumental to show off the technical skill of each member, and the main riff of the piece (which is in 5/4) is a series of tritone intervals. Rather than using the tritone for comedy or to create a sense of evil, the tritone here is employed for its complexity. Rush aren’t trying to make something that sounds pretty, rather, something that sounds complex.
The tritone is a versatile interval that has found itself historically criticised and underused. More recent music has allowed it to shine, but mostly under the guise of something either non-serious, or overly serious. The beauty of the tritone, when well used, is that it can provide a brilliantly unique flair to a melody that can be interesting and catchy. Similarly, the interval is found in many wonderfully dissonant chords that, when well-placed, can be fantastic.