The Flatted Fifth: History, Music & Songs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Music is full of tricks to create certain feelings or emotions. Today, we'll look at one of the most powerful intervals, the flattened fifth, and see how it has been used throughout history.

The Flatted Fifth

Music can make you feel things. You know what I'm talking about. Some chords make you happy and energetic, others bring you down, some make you introspective, and some…some are just spooky. That's where we find the interval known as the flatted fifth. The flatted fifth is the most naturally unharmonious sound in a single octave, which makes it all kinds of fun to play with.

Building the Flatted Fifth

To understand the flattened fifth, we first need to understand something about musical intervals. Within a chord, notes are defined by the relationship to the root, or the note the scale is named after. For example, a C scale would include the notes CDEFGABC. C scales are easy to work with since there are no flats or sharps. One of the most important relationships in any scale is that between the root note and the fifth, in this case C and G. This relationship is the most naturally harmonious, so we actually call it the perfect fifth. The perfect fifth is 7 half steps above the root, or 3.5 whole steps.

C Major scale
C Major scale

The perfect fifth sounds…perfect, so it shouldn't be a surprise that altering this interval creates one of the most dissonant sounds in music. To create a flatted fifth, the fifth is lowered by one half step. We make the note flat, hence the name. In the case of the C Major scale, the flattened fifth would be G flat (Gb). The distance from C to Gb is now 6 half steps, or three whole steps. Since this interval is 3 whole steps, the flatted fifth is very often called the tritone. It is also occassionally called the diminished fifth, or the augmented fourth since it is halfway between the fourth and fifth notes of the scale.

The flattened fifth
The flattened fifth

History and Uses

The tritone, the flatted fifth, sounds spooky because it is halfway between the perfect fifth and the other super harmonious interval called the perfect fourth. The tritone begs to be resolved, moving to resolve the musical tension by arriving at a more harmonious place. The extreme nature of this interval makes it pretty appealing, and it has played an interesting role in Western music.

From what we can tell, the flatted fifth has been around in Western music for about as long as Western music has existed. However, the first time it really gained attention was in the late medieval era, and not in a good way. At the time, nearly all of the arts were focused on religion, specifically Christianity. Monks praised relationships like the perfect fifth and perfect fourth because they were perfectly harmonious, and therefore represented the perfection of God's love and grace. Using this logic, you can guess how they felt about the flatted fifth. This interval, the most discordant possible sound within a single octave, was seen as the opposite of divine perfection. In fact, it was known as the devil's interval, and according to legend was actually outlawed at various points in history.

The Flatted Fifth and Modern Music

As music theory became less religiously centered, the flatted fifth found its way into Classical music, but it still wasn't very popular. That stage didn't come until the development of jazz music. Early Blues tunes made frequent use of the flattened fifth to create that soulful, tension-filled expression of sorrow. In fact, the flattened fifth is one of the chords known as blues chords, due to its prominence in the genre.

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