Black Sabbath – The Power of Music

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.

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, 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. Remember that 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!

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 …  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 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. So was there devilish intervention at work or not?

Nonetheless, it’s interesting that music has such power. I will leave you with another Sabbath Classic, which also contains another ‘evil’ riff, using the flattened fourth, in the middle of the song:

Special thanks to Tom Hughes for co-writing this blog – Tom is a leadership trainer, enthusiasm generator and general music fanatic – Find him on Twitter @Thomas2BHughes

For more Heavy Metal Business articles – check SPINAL TAP on project management, DEEP PURPLE on improvisation, LED ZEPPELIN on strategy

9 responses to “Black Sabbath – The Power of Music

  1. Run to the Hills by Iron Maiden – that uses a rising 6th on the main line following the same theme.

    I watched a great documentary on Ozzy Osbourne the other week where the early days of Sabbath were recalled. One thing over looked on that which shouldn’t be is that Tony Iommi left the band to join Jethro Tull (Sabbath had “nicked” a gig from under Tulls noses somewhere in the midlands when Tull were late to the venue and Ian Anderson had remembered Iommi as a great guitarist and offered him the seat when Mick Abrahams left). You can see him in his one appearance on the Rolling Stones circus spectacular. However he left Tull and returned to Sabbath – given he was a penniless player and Tull was his possibly one and only shot at the big time that shows amazing faith in sticking with the product he believed Sabbath had – there is a whole lesson in there somewhere too.


  2. Yes, it is interesting how beliefs drive powerful action Sonia. Just helping my son revise for his GCSE exams over here and was reading some amazing stuff about how people would identify witches from the most minimal ‘defects’ such as warts and so on. And I thought cosmetic surgery and ‘what to wear’ were ‘modern dis-eases’ of society ! 🙂


  3. Some great comments here and Peter I think we need to revisit G’s comments on Iommi being penniless and leaving a sure thing in Tull to go back to Sabbath. I was aware of it but was not sure it was relevant to this piece. It’s something I think we could explore and expand as a management piece?


  4. Pingback: The Power of the Word – Poetry and Prayer | Thomas Hughes

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