Tag Archive: diabolus in musica


Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath – 2/13/1970

The evil mojo needs to be taken out of Black Sabbath; after doing that, you discover that they didn’t really have any to begin with. They started out the same exact way that countless other bands did. There was no demonic ritual that they used to bless their origin; the four members were not birthed from the mouth of hell. In fact, they weren’t even called Black Sabbath at their genesis.

Tony Iommi was a teenager had dreams of getting out of economically depressed Birmingham, England and starting a band. He recruited several other musicians to play with him, and it’s really that simple. The lynchpin came when they were auditioning lead singers and Ozzy Osbourne showed up with his own PA system, something the band needed. From there, they were off and running, complete with the name Polka Tulk. They must have realized that name was just bloody awful, so they redubbed themselves Earth. They soon discovered that there was another band with the same name, and they had to make a change. They went with Black Sabbath, the name of a famous Boris Karloff horror film from 1963. The name was a suggestion from their bass player, Geezer Butler.

Geezer can lay claim to Black Sabbath’s long association with darkness and Lucifer and all that foolishness; he wrote most of the band’s lyrics throughout most of their career.  He was very Catholic, so he identified with all that gothic, religious iconography, as well as Satan being a powerful, epic being. His conception of Satan was probably a little skewed, as everyone’s is. And like a lot of teenagers who are denied something, he got curious.

In truth, Geezer’s – and consequentially the band’s – early preoccupation with the devil loomed large on their first album, the eponymous Black Sabbath. Their understanding of the Prince of the Power of the Air, however, was childish and immature. This isn’t really a bad thing, ‘cause it worked for them and created groovy music. But I can’t help but give just a little chuckle when they mention Satan because they’re just so earnest about it. They’re like 6-year-olds dressing up in their dad’s clothes with his briefcase and trench coat, saying things like “I’m off to work, dear!” As upset as they would be about me thinking this, it’s just so cute.

Black Sabbath begins on an ominous and doom-heavy note, with just the sound of falling rain. A church bell chimes somewhere off in the distance. And then, heaviness beyond heaviness with the first track, which is also called “Black Sabbath.” The opening strains are tonic, then octave, then diminished fifth. Diabolus in musica. It’s also slow, deep, loud, and accompanied by frenzied drumming.

The lyrics are about a true life experience Geezer had. Ozzy had given him a book about witchcraft as a gift, and one night he awoke from a nightmare to see a dark figure whose face was obscured sitting in the chair across from his bed. The figure vanished soon after, and when he got up the next morning, the book Ozzy gave him was gone from the table in his bedroom where he had left it. Embellishment was multiplied a hundred times, ending with a song.

If you ask me, it was probably something as stupid as another band member stealing the book while Geezer was sleeping and never telling anyone. And after the song was recorded and they had become famous, they simply couldn’t let the myth die.

There is one other song on the album dealing specifically with Satan, “N.I.B.” The origin of the name is kind of silly: Geezer thought drummer Bill Ward’s goatee (now called a soulpatch) resembled a pen nib. He took a song he had already written that didn’t have a title and called it “Nib.” To add some ambiguity to the name (since it had nothing to do with the lyrics), he changed it to “N.I.B.” to make it look like initials. As soon as some dumb kid got his hands on the suggestion that Black Sabbath were into devil worship and anti-Christianity, it was over. That kid suggested that “N.I.B.” might stand for “nativity in black,” and because of the image Black Sabbath had created for themselves, they weren’t in a position to argue. Their fans wouldn’t have listened anyway, since they were so obsessed with the band being “evil.” After they became legends, Black Sabbath’s two tribute albums, contributed to by some big names in heavy metal, were both titled Nativity In Black.

As for the lyrics, they’re a first-person account of Lucifer (called by name) declaring his love for a human. It’s generally thought to be Lucifer using his deceptive, lying ways to seduce a young girl into Satan worship. Geezer tells a different story, and says it’s about Lucifer having genuine love for this girl, casting off his devilish ways, and becoming a “good person.” I think Lucifer (the real Lucifer) might have seduced Geezer into writing this song about him with those intentions. If that’s the case, though, everyone saw right through it; Geezer botched the job.

Friday: did Tony Iommi chop off his first two fingers in a Satanic rite? You be the judge… 😉

Diabolus in Musica

I graduated from college with a BA in English, and knew I was going to be an English major ever since I was 14. Another type of no-brainer was selecting a music minor; it was a no brainer not because it was really easy and I didn’t have to even think about it, but because if I had actually used my brain, I would have said “not on your life.”

Nevertheless, I was technically a music minor for the entirety of my freshman year; I dropped it when I had my fall sophomore conference with my academic advisor. During that freshman year, I took Music Theory I and II. It was stimulating, if you can call taking an electric drill to your own forehead “stimulating.” But despite the mechanizing of something I found to be completely organic, Music Theory taught me a great deal about the craft and science of music. I learned about the diatonic scale, counterpoint, the different modes (Ionian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, etc.), and the I IV V (one, four, five)pattern.

One of the things that stuck in my mind was the interval (the amount of distance between two consecutive notes) called a diminished fifth. Now, the technical definition of that interval involves a lot of math and calculations and other things I don’t find at all interesting (and you probably won’t either).  But like music itself, it has an aspect that transcends the menial, ordinary mathematics of it.

The diminished fifth is a rather infamous interval in the music theory world. Its nickname is diabolus in musica, which is Latin for “the Devil in music.” Different from every other interval, its inherent dissonance strikes the listener as unsettling at best, terror-inducing at worst. It’s reserved for when the composer wants to portray a sense of dread and danger in his music. The Austrian composer Johann Joseph Fux thought it smacked of evil, something that could only come from Satan himself.

The most famous use of diabolus in musica in popular music comes from none other than Satan’s most loyal servants, the pinnacle purveyors of all things evil and malignant, Black Sabbath.

Sense the sarcasm, people.

The name Black Sabbath indicates all sorts of evil, unsettling things in a very cliché, stereotypical way. As a young Christian boy, I was warned about Satan and his wicked influence in the world so vehemently that he turned into a caricature, and I became skeptical that he even existed at all. In particular, I was warned about the rock and roll music I was becoming interesting in. Some even said there was a one-to-one connection between rock and roll and the worship of Satan; one inevitably lead to the other in a short period of time.

Poppycock and foolishness, all of it. Music can’t make you worship Satan any more than watching Bob Newhart on TV can make you go bald. The idea that millions of kids everywhere are falling into the “trap” of rock music is one of the more insulting things I’ve heard – not just to rock musicians, but to kids.

For the record, I do think Satan exists. In my opinion, he’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz; behind the smoke, lights and big scary machine, there’s a small, scared, pitiful person operating that machine. The difference is that while the Wizard of Oz constructed it himself, Satan’s frightening guise is our making. He only has as much power in your individual life as you yourself give him. In truth, you have power over him.

As for rock and roll, Satan finds it to be a rather useful tool; but so does God. Rock music has been used by humans to promote some pretty awful things, both obvious and subtle, but it has also been used to save kids’ lives, lead people to God, and generally uplift humanity. Rock and roll (and all music) is one of the most striking places we can see God.