The Devil’s Tone

While in Nepal, I bought a singing bowl. In order to choose the bowl, I stood in a store about 200 metres from Patan Square, holding one bowl after another in the palm of my hand, and rotating a wooden stick gently around its edges. Eventually it makes a sound…. it starts off quiet, and then gradually gets louder. You can feel the vibration of the sound. But some of them just don’t sound right. So I tested one after another, and then my friend and I both liked the same one.

In case you don’t know what a singing bowl is, check out this man, he has lots of bowls:

Eventually I wrestled the little bowl away from her, and started the haggling process with the short, burly shopkeeper. But there was little haggling to be done. The shopkeeper convinced me I would be hard-pressed to find handmade singing bowls for this price anywhere else. He demonstrated the difference between the handmade ones, and the perfectly round machine cut ones. It was true. I had been looking at singing bowls for a week, and he had a point.

Mine looks similair to this one, but I'm afraid I'll summon dark spirits if I photograph it :)

So I made a sad face, mumbled under my breath, and pretended to leave the shop. Finally, he finally dropped the price.

Twenty days later, I met a guy in India who also bought a singing bowl. His was bigger than mine. Luckily I don’t have a Napoleon complex. He also had an iphone. Why is that relevant? Well, the iphone has a little app that tells you what frequency / note any sound is making. He demonstrated on his singing bowl, showing me that he had specifically picked it because it was a C. Apparently he annoyed 4 different shopkeepers, testing every single bowl until he found one that rang true at a perfect pitch C.

Patan Square in Nepal

Then, we tested my bowl. Guess what I had picked? Out of all the bowls in that shop… out of all the bowls in Kathmandu and Patan… out of them all, I picked the one that played the devil’s tone. Figures eh? Haha! Welcome to the 21st century where you can discuss ancient meditation devices and iphones in the same paragraph!

The devil’s tone is a name that arose in the Renaissance. There is a particular frequency, a particular dissonance, a tritone in the scale of music that has an ominous, oppressive, scary or evil sound. The tritone is seen as an unstable interval and because of these qualities, came to be called diabolus in musica. The Devil in Music.

Ask Robert Johnson for more information about crossroads, devils, and music.

Apparently when some dude named Guido de Arezzo developed his system of hexachords and introduced the B flat as a diatonic tone, this whole tritone mythology started up. If that last sentence made little sense to you, join the club. I am seriously lacking knowledge in music theory. But the point is, the tritone had such a bad rep, and such a weird sound, that it was banned from being sung by Church choirs for a long time.

Italian Renaissance singers NOT singing the tritone. Don't even imagine it as you view the painting!

Luckily, in the Baroque period, the devil must have become fashionable because the tritone started to be used quite frequently. The composer Liszt used it to signify “the rising of the spirits of the damned” in his Dante Sonata. Oooo… checked it out below:

Then, with the development of jazz, a maneuver known as tritone substitution became common in chord improvisations. The jazz cats were hip to my tritone. Or maybe I’m hip to theirs. Or maybe … anyway, you get the idea.

Charlie and Miles definitely know something I don't know. Well, many things.

So I got a really creepy Tibetan Singing Bowl. Mwahahahaha… Have a got a good ear or what?

Oh, in case you want to play a tritone yourself, pick up a guitar and listen to this Australian dude. It sounds like pig latin to me but he probably has a point.

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