There are very few things in business and life that have such awesome power that they cause the Catholic Church to attempt to ban them. Music is one exception. Here’s a little light muse on music and its effect on our senses.

Black Sabbath came not from leafy suburbs of Surrey, nor did they study classical music at Oxford or Cambridge. They crawled out from the gutters of the industrial heartland of Birmingham in England, with three degrees in classic rock. Their music reflected a much harsher upbringing. Pioneers of the music genre called heavy metal, their music conjured up images of grime, paranoia and … devil worship, according to some. Let me explain.

Sabbath’s title song from their first album ‘Black Sabbath’ contains a musical riff that uses the musical tritone, or the so-called ‘devil’s interval’ – the sixth note of the musical scale. Unlike the major scale (do re me fa so la ti do for the non musical readers) the tritone was considered so powerful that the Catholic Church attempted to ban composers from using the note in the 16th Century. Music was largely an act of patronage at this time, the monarch and the Church were much more connected, society was much more superstitious and the enlightenment had not happened. Put simply, physics had not happened. Had the Catholic Church followed the work of Maxwell, Hertz, Faraday et al they would have realised that you cannot ‘ban’ electromagnetic radiation! Nevertheless that is what they tried to do through the usual sanctions.

So how did Sabbath get the “Riff” and was there a devilish intervention at work? Guitarist Tony Iommi had an accident in which he lost the tips of two fingers on his right hand and he almost gave up playing the guitar. He capped the missing digits with thimbles made from plastic and covered in leather. He had to use lighter strings and detune them so he could grip them easily with the capped fingers. This combination gave a dark and foreboding sound and Iommi came up with the riff after a comment from Butler as he watched people queue to watch a Boris Karloff film. He said it was “strange people would pay money to be scared” The rest as they say is history with Osborne and Butler adding powerful lyrics.

Black Sabbath’s ‘riff’, when written down in musical notation, sort of makes up the number 666, hence the notion that it would summon up the devil. That’s why you won’t hear Kylie Minogue or Katy Perry using the tritone … pop music is more often composed in the major or minor scales. Whilst popular rumour suggested that Sabbath conducted live sacrifices and so on, they were more into drinking in pubs than drinking blood! Ah well, that’s music marketing for you. Here’s a frivolous little video I made that proves for the first time that the devil’s interval is harmless to animals:

Just to add more to this fascinating story The Rockefeller Foundation conducted research into psychosocial stress to produce “mass hysteria” and found the sound wave that caused this to be A=440/741hz. Which is the same note as the Solfeggio (That’s the Devil’s Interval to you and me) banned by the Catholic Church and by coincidence the riff Iommi came up with for the song Black Sabbath. I’ll be playing some of Black Sabbath’s music when I perform with Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist in 2017 on tour.

It’s interesting that music has such power. Marketers have always known this. Any good marketing campaign needs a hook or a ‘riff’.


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