Posted in History & Literature

The Devil’s Interval

(See below NB for a simple guide to musical notes and tones)

In music, depending on what notes you use in a single chord, you can produce beautiful harmonies as the tones complement each other. The opposite of this is called dissonance and it results in a harsh, unpleasant sound. A famous example of this is a tritone – a chord made from two notes exactly three whole tones apart. In a standard C major diatonic scale (which doesn’t involve any flats or sharps), there is only one tritone per octave: F and B. But on the chromatic scale (all keys), any number of tritones are possible.


Historically, the tritone has been the black sheep of music theory due to its dissonance crashing any harmony of a song and being difficult to sing. It sticks out like a sore thumb among the sea of beautiful harmonies that other tones make. The tritone was hated so much so that it was named diabolus in musica (“the devil in music”) or the devil’s interval since the Middle Ages, even being banned in the production of music prior to the Renaissance. To this day, the tritone is suggested as an “evil”, “scary” sound.

Over time, composers worked around the tritone until they realised that thanks to the connotations, the tritone was a useful way to express “evil” in a musical way. The cultural association was exploited freely in works such as Franz Liszt’s Dante Sonata, where the tritone is used to depict Hell. The association is found in modern music as well to produce an unsettling feeling, such as the opening notes of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. The tritone is a common feature of heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath.

Even though these songs use the devil’s interval, they are not at all inferior to “normal” major scale music. They are still beautiful in their own, interesting way. Perhaps the notion of good and evil have no place in judging whether something is beautiful or not.

NB: Musical tones are noted using the alphabet: C, D, E, F, G, A and B, with a flat(b) to denote a semitone lower, or a sharp(#) to denote a semitone higher. This is easy to visualise on a piano keyboard, where a single tone interval involves a white key, a black key in between and another white key. The interval between a white key and a black key is a semitone.


(Image: Portion of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights depicting musicians’ hell)

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Often in life, we find that other people can be idiots, evil or both. Whether it be the girl working in the cafe that forgot your order, or your girlfriend who says she was late because of traffic, or the bastard that takes the last slice of pizza. But then, when we do that exact same thing that annoyed us so much when someone else did it, we somehow always find an excuse that rationalises our act.

This can be explained by the phenomenon of special pleading. Instead of acknowledging the fact that what you did was incredibly rude or obnoxious, your brain automatically creates an exception to the rule. You forgot that customer’s order because you were having a bad day. You were actually late because of traffic. You took that last slice of pizza because you did not have as much as the others and everyone else looked full. This phenomenon rids us of feeling guilt after an “immoral” act and also enables our hypocrisy.

The best part is that we do not consciously know of our hypocrisy. The brain quickly devises a clever reason to explain why you are the exception to the rule, while everyone else is not. The reason is, as with so many other psychological phenomena, cognitive dissonance. The brain cannot comprehend that you would do something you find so detestable when someone else does it, so it forces itself to believe the reason it pulled out of the air to not feel guilty, as it is the only reason the brain can think of that explains your behaviour. Furthermore, as sometimes the excuses are true, our hypocrisy is reinforced and we continuously disobey the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

Perhaps the more realistic, platinum rule should be: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…UNLESS”. It may not be a good moral system, but it sure explains the human condition of being an ass.


Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Egg Of Columbus

After returning to Spain after his discovery of the New World, Christopher Columbus was dining with some nobles. One noble approached him and said:

“Even if you had not discovered the West Indies, another fine Spaniard would have gone to discover it anyway.”

Columbus did not respond and merely smiled. He then asked for an egg, which he placed on the table and asked:

“I bet that no one can make this egg stand by itself.”

All the nobles tried but were unsuccessful and the egg would continue to fall down. Columbus stepped forward and grabbed the egg, which he tapped on the table so that one end would be cracked and flattened. The egg would now stand on its flattened base.
Although the nobles initially complained that they knew that was the solution, the message was loud and clear: once the feat is done, everyone knows how to do it.

This is known in psychology as the historian’s fallacy – a logical fallacy that can be summarised in the words: “I told you so”. Essentially, people assume that people had the same information in the past or that they would not have made the same mistake if they were placed in such a situation. It is another example of cognitive dissonance where the brain finds conflict between a problem and information that could have prevented said problem (which the other person did not have at the time). Therefore, the brain immediately convinces itself that it would have made the right decision as it already knows the answer. This means that we are almost incapable of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. We label those people as idiots, because they apparently had the same information (they did not) and still could not make the right decision.

People never realise that given the foreknowledge we have now, the Americans would have known about Japan’s plan for attacking Pearl Harbour or that Germany would not have invaded Russia. Although they say “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, we have a tendency to think that people in the past were stupid and we would never make the same mistakes.

Hindsight is 20/20.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Cognitive Dissonance

When two conflicting ideas exist at the same time in the human mind, it causes uneasiness and discomfort. Human beings instinctively tried to reduce the dissonance, most easily achieved by adaptation and blaming. For example, when a person wants something strongly but cannot attain it, they choose to believe that they do not want it any longer, discarding one idea to dissolve the dissonance.

A famous portrayal of this condition is Aesop’s fable The Fox and the Grapes, which goes as following:

A fox sees a grape on a tree and wants to eat it. However, the grape is too high up, so the fox says “That grape is surely sour.” and turns away.

This fable shows the classic pattern of: Wants something -> finds it unattainable
-> criticises it to reduce their want, and ultimately the dissonance caused by it.

This effect is quite powerful and explains many of mankind’s unique behaviours. As stated above, people try to reduce the dissonance by justification, denial and even blaming a third party to ease their mind.
Interestingly, the act of “justification” is brought on by another human feature: arrogance. Most people consider themselves intelligent and always making the right decisions, ergo when they make a mistake it conflicts with their self-image. Instead of accepting that they made a mistake (thus altering their image), they instead believe that they intended that action. This belief is so strong that they do not even know the justification happened subconsciously.

For example, there is a phenomenon called buyer’s remorse, where a buyer finds a flaw or a better product after buying something, feeling remorse (which is due to the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance). Instead of blaming themselves, people will justify their reasons for buying that product, and paradoxically value that item even more. This shows how cognitive dissonance can be seen everywhere in everyday life.

In short, people cannot accept paradoxes, believe they always make the right decisions, and twist reality and make excuses when it does not fit what they desire. People are fascinating.